I think understand the use of der/die/das and dass however I don't when to use which.

For example, what is the correct translation of 'the apple I'm eating is tasty:'

  • Das Apfel, dass ich esse, ist lecker.
  • Das Apfel, den ich esse, ist lecker.

Also which do you use when the relative pronoun is missed out in English


4 Answers 4


As Mark Twain states in “Die schreckliche deutsche Sprache” you have to learn the articles of the German substantives by heart.

Jedes Substantiv hat sein grammatisches Geschlecht, und die Verteilung ist ohne Sinn und Methode. Man muss daher bei jedem Substantiv das Geschlecht eigens mitlernen. Eine andere Möglichkeit gibt es nicht. Um das fertig zu bringen, braucht man ein Gedächtnis wie ein Terminkalender. Im Deutschen hat ein Fräulein kein Geschlecht, eine Rübe dagegen schon.

–– Mark Twain: Die schreckliche deutsche Sprache

The correct expression is “der Apfel”. Apart from the arbitrariness of the determination of the articles, there are some mnemonics.

  • maskuline: suffixes -ig, -(i)smus, -ling, -or
  • feminine: suffixes -ei, -heit, -ik, -ion, -(i)tät, -keit, -schaft, -ung
  • neuter: suffixes -chen, -lein, -ma, -ment, -tum, -um

Unfortunately, no translation above of yours is correct. The correct one would be:

Der Apfel, den ich esse, ist lecker.

Independent of a missing relative pronoun or a present one in your English sentence you have to check first the article of your substantive you want to translate. After that you have to decline the article. For more information how to decline articles have a look at German Wiktionary (der)

In the German translation above den is accusative masculine. You ask “which apple is tasty?” (“welcher Apfel ist lecker?”). The answer would be “The apple I'm eating” (“der Apfel, den ich esse”)

Hope this helps,
Jan (native German speaker)


Apart from the 'der Apfel' mistake pointed out by others, there is a fundamental difference between the two on their usage: die/der/das are used for relative clauses and dass is used for nominal clauses. That is, don't focus on the fact that that corresponds to two different words in German, but the fact that what they are.

Crudely, relative clauses act as adjectives and nominal clauses act as nouns. Since, we agree both are fundamentally different, let us proceed to see how they work:

Relative Clause

  1. The man is drinking water.
  2. Water contains salt.
  3. (Combined) The man is drinking water that/which contains salt.
  4. (Modified to serve our example) The man is drinking salty water.

Here, the italicized portion in third sentence is the relative clause. Now that we have seen one in the wild, we'll define it: it is a clause that further qualifies a noun in the other sentence. There should be something in common between the two sentences (here, water) so that we have something to be qualified in the main clause by the relative clause.

I have introduced the 4th sentence to show how the relative clause was possible to be moulded into an actual adjective with no meaning lost. Also, notice that which was equally possible to be used here (who in case of human objects).

Nominal Clause

  1. Water contains salt.
  2. I hate it.
  3. (Combined) I hate that water contains salt.
  4. (Expanded) I hate the fact that water contains salt.
  5. (Equivalent grammatically) I hate apples.

Here, the dass-clause acts as a (complex) noun in the sentence. Think of this clause as a bubble that wraps an idea and then you play with this bubble in the sentence.

There is another usage of 'that' in English that I am not sure corresponds with a nominal clause and is always translated with 'dass', so I am putting it here:

He is so happy/sad/sleepy that he is jumping right now.

So, in short, check if the 'that' in English sentence is a relative pronoun (changeable with which/who). If not, it is dass (which/who are not allowed here).

  • 2
    Perhaps put more simply... if you can use der/die/das, then do so. In your example sentence, you can determine the gender and case of the "that," so you are able to select the proper word, "den." In the situations where it is correct to translate "that=dass," you would not have gender/case information (because "that" isn't replacing a noun), so you wouldn't be able to choose from den/die/das/der. Commented Mar 21, 2013 at 16:41

Easy: dass ist not used for starting a relative clause. In you example The apple I'm eating is tasty contains a shortened relative clause:

The apple which I'm eating is tasty

Thus it needs to be translated as

Der Apfel, den ich esse, ist lecker

Dass may never be used as a relative pronoun, but only starts dependent clauses:

Ich denke, dass es heute regnen wird
Man hat mir gesagt, dass ich hier Antworten finde
Glaubst Du wirklich, dass Bayern München deutscher Meister wird?

Advanced example:

The answers being given here show it's a difficult matter
Die Antworten, die hier gegeben werden zeigen, dass es eine schwierige Angelegenheit ist.


The correct translation would be: Der Apfel, den ich esse, ist lecker.

If the noun is male -> den

If the noun is female -> die (Die Katze, die ich esse.)

If the noun is neutral -> das (Das Ei, das ich esse.)

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