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I am studying german online via youtube, and in a lecture video about basic sentences, there were 2 sentences that baffled me based on my novice german grammar knowledge.

Das sind Unterlagen.

These are documents.

and

Die Unterlagen sind wichtig.

The documents are interesting.

In the first sentence, the article is neutral, whereas in the second sentence, the article is feminine. Is there any rule about sentences in German that changes the gender of an object based on their use in a sentence? If not, then what is the correct gender of the word "Unterlagen"?

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  • Unterlagen is plural, and therefore does not have a gender (the articles for all plural words are similar to the feminine singular, regardless of their grammatical gender in the singular). The corresponding singular would be "Unterlage" which is rarely used (in this context - the word has another meaning where it is commonly used). Unterlage is feminine. In addition, the Das in your first example is not an article at all, just as "these" is different from "the". The Die in the second example is the plural article. – Kevin Keane May 22 at 5:28
  • Interestingly I even think that singular "Unterlagen" has a different meaning: You might sleep on an "Unterlage" but typically not on "Unterlagen" (odd office sleeps excepted). – U. Windl May 22 at 19:12
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The das in the first example is not an article since an article would have to come just before a noun. It's a demonstrative pronoun roughly translatable as "that", although "this/these" is more appropriate much of the time. Coincidentally, it has the same spelling and pronunciation as the article das for neuter nouns, but you should regard it as a different word.

In the second example, die is actually the plural article, not the feminine. It's used for all plurals regardless of gender. Again, it has the same spelling and pronunciation as the feminine article, but you should regard it as a different word.

In both cases Unterlagen is the plural of Unterlage so everything is inflected according to the plural. That's why sind is used both times instead of ist. The word Unterlage itself is feminine, but in most cases inflections only distinguish gender for singular nouns, so you don't really need to know the gender in these examples.

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  • It is not correct that das is not declined. Consider for example Dem ist nicht so where it appears as dative. – RHa May 20 at 6:30
  • @RHa: For some reason I had that in my notes, but it appears my notes aren't entirely correct. I'll make a correction to the answer. Another complication is that, as I understand it, articles can be used as pronouns as well, so Die sind Unterlagen. is grammatically correct, though it has a somewhat different meaning. – RDBury May 20 at 8:44
  • @RHa: PS. I was confused by the fact that you can use das as the subject of sein no matter what the number or gender, but that apparently only applies to sein. Otherwise you use the fully inflected der, die, das, die system which only differs from definite articles in the dative plural and genitive. See deutschplus, especially note 1. Thanks for you help. – RDBury May 20 at 9:33
  • Thank you for your answer it is very helpful. I just wanna make sure that I got this right: we use articles (gender defined) only for a singular noun, and when it comes to plural, we use the word die – Momobear May 20 at 9:40
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    @Momobear In plural we use gender-specific articles as well, but the forms are the same for all genders, i.e. masculine plural = feminine plural = neuter plural: die (nom.) / der (gen.) / den (dat.) / die (acc.). Note: the dative plural article article is different from the dative singular feminine article (which would be der). – amadeusamadeus May 20 at 14:22
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The das in the first sentence is not the article going with Unterlagen, it’s actually the subject, like for example in

Das ist schön.

The Unterlagen shows no article because the indefinite article “disappears” for plural nouns, similar to the English language, it’s a “zero article”.

The grammar structure of Unterlagen is called Gleichsetzungsnominativ or prädikativer Nominativ. It is used with sein and a limited number of other verbs.

If Unterlagen weren’t in plural (or with a determined article), the grammar would be visible immediately, for example:

Das ist eine Katze.
-> Das sind [zero article] Katzen.
Or
Das ist die Katze des Nachbarn.
-> Das sind die Katzen des Nachbarn.

The gender is not affected at all, both die Unterlagen and the cats in my random example are and remain female. Your question misinterpreted the function of the das.

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The difference shows best between

those are documents - das sind Dokumente

those are the documents - das sind die Dokumente

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