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New to German here (via Duolingo, DW and other sources), and I'm confused about when indefinite articles in singular objects can/should be omitted. For instance, on Duolingo, "I have a bicycle" was introduced as "Ich habe Fahrrad", but in the sentence, Meine Tante hat ein Fahrrad, aber sie fährt gern Motorrad, omitting the ein is marked wrong.

I saw someone mention that some verbs (like fahren) omit the indefinite article, but then I came across these:

  • "We're taking a break" => Wir machen Pause
  • "We're having a party" => Wir machen eine Party

What's the rule?

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  • The second sentence is incorrect, it must be Wir machen Hausaufgaben
    – RHa
    Mar 19 at 20:27
  • Thanks @RHa. Guess I can exclude that since it's plural. Edited.
    – shalvah
    Mar 19 at 20:43
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    “Ich habe Fahrrad” is wrong.
    – Carsten S
    Mar 19 at 21:39
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    I have a feeling that this behaves most like the partitive case in Finnish, which is roughly used for "unspecified elements of a larger group". So partitivity can probably be used to talk about the phenomon, although it is not a usual concept in German grammar. Mar 28 at 9:57

3 Answers 3

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When using the indefinite article, you are referring to a specific thing. Without indefinite article, you are referring to the concept of the thing. Example:

  • Wir machen eine Party. (We are having a specific party that we are organizing.)

  • Wir machen Party. (We are partying. There doesn't need to be a specific party, we are just doing things that one would do at a party.)

  • Wir machen eine Pause. (We are take a specifc break, at a specific time.)

  • Wir machen Pause. (We take breaks. We aren't referring to a specific break, we are just stating that we generally take breaks/a break.)

"Meine Tante hat ein Fahrrad, aber sie fährt gern Motorrad" means my aunt owns a (one specific) bicycle, but she like to drive motorbikes in general (without specifying if she actually owns or uses a specific motorcycle).

In this sense "Ich habe Fahrad", could mean "I own something that represents the concept of a bicycle", but without more context that doesn't really make sense.

One example where this was used (although probably leaving out the definite instead of the indefinite article), was the newspaper headline "Wir sind Papst!" ("We are pope.").

One more thing: Just because these sentences are present tense, doesn't mean the described action is happening right now, but just that these are facts that have happened or will happen.

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  • Thanks, that helps.
    – shalvah
    Mar 19 at 23:56
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    What about "Wir machen jetzt gerade Pause"? That seems to be a specific break. (It's an edge-case, for sure.)
    – henning
    Mar 20 at 19:57
  • @henning: Dunno, I'd parse that as referring to the abstract concept of "break time", not to a specific instance that would require an article. Compare with references to meal times in English: "we're having lunch" / "will you join us for lunch?" / "I just had lunch" vs. "that was a delicious lunch" (which does require an article since it's referring to a specific instance). Mar 21 at 15:22
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When you omit an article you can't tell if a definite or an indefinite has been omitted. That is why experts often use the term "null article" if an article (or another determiner) is expected to be there but isn't.


Null article for categories

When the noun does not name a single item (may it be a defined or an undefined single item) but a category, then you don't use an article:

Ich trinke Bier.
I drink beer.

There is no article, because here Bier/beer is not a glass of beer or a bottle of beer, but a category.


Indefinite article for a single item that is not specified

Was machst du gerade? Trinkst du ein Glas Wein? - Nein, ich trinke ein Bier.
What are you doing now? Are you drinking a glass of wine? - No, I'm drinking a beer.

Here you signal, that you are drinking one glass or one bottle of beer. And because the semantic focus is not on the number of drinks, but on the kind of beverage, the word ein/one can't be interpreted as a numeral but as an indefinite article.


Definite article for a single specified item

Ich habe dir ein Glas Wasser und eine Flasche Bier hingestellt. Was davon trinkst du gerade? - Ich trinke das Bier.
I put a glass of water and a bottle of beer in front of you. Which one are you drinking now? - I'm drinking the beer.

Here it is not any beer but the special bottle of beer that is on the table. So you need the definite article here.


correct: Ich mache Pause.

Here the noun Pause names a category, so this is ok.

correct: Ich mache Party.

category again.

correct: Ich fahre Motorrad.

Again, you are not talking about a single motorbike but about the category.

But this is wrong:

wrong: Ich habe Fahrrad.

You can't own a category. You only can own a single bicycle. So, you must use an article here:

correct: Ich habe ein Fahrrad.

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    On the other hand Sie ist Ärztin. You can't say Ärztin is a category; she's only one person. Both English and German follow general rules such as the ones you outlined, but there are many exceptions and special cases which you just have to memorize. As a beginning learner, it best to learn the general rules to start with, then learn the exceptions when you come across the situations where they apply. I don't see how you get Pause as a category; English follows the same rule for the most part but you'd say "I'm taking a break", not "I'm taking break".
    – RDBury
    Mar 19 at 23:08
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    Ärztin is a very typical Gattungsbezeichnung (type designation), i.e. a category. Gattungsbezeichnungen are professions (Ärztin, Schuster), nationalities (Deutscher, Türke), denominations (Muslim, Jude), illnesses (Diabetiker, Alkoholiker) and party affiliations (Sozialdemokrat, Republikaner) and you don't use them with articles in German because they are categories. Mar 20 at 9:29
  • Also Pause is a category name like Urlaub: "Ich mache Pause." "Ich mache Urlaub." That you don't see that Pause is a category doesn't mean that you are right. It just means that you don't see it. Mar 20 at 9:32
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    I'm just saying that your "category"/"item" only make sense if you already speak German -- if it needs an article then it's an item, it not then it's a category. The same distinction exists in English, but German and English can disagree when it comes to edge cases. Professions and certain objects with machen are examples of these edge cases. I see discrepancies between English and German all the time on this issue, even though in theory they follow the same rule. It seems to be more a matter of interpretation than being right or wrong.
    – RDBury
    Mar 20 at 13:29
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    @RDBury: Both sentences "Ich bin Lehrer" and "Ich bin ein Lehrer" translate to "I am a teacher" in English, because in English you can't use a category in such a construction. But in German you can. German is not English! And the two sentences have different meanings: 1. "Ich bin Lehrer" = I belong to a group of people. This group is the group of all teachers. - But: 2. "Ich bin ein Lehrer" = I am one single person who practices the profession of a teacher. - In 1 you are talking about belonging to a group or category. In 2 you are talking about being an individual. Mar 21 at 6:26
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For me, the main question is about the integration of a noun, as RoToRa said, into a superior concept (as a gedankliche Vorstellung), maybe a predicate (Rad fahren, old orthography radfahren), a "Funktionsverbgefüge" (in Gang kommen), or an adverbial expression (zu Fuß, über Nacht, nächste Woche, Mitte April).

There are lots of common verbal phrases without an article:

with haben: jemand hat Fieber / Schnupfen / Grippe / Diabetes / Hunger / Lust (auf) / Angst (vor) / Mut / Besuch / Feierabend / Urlaub / Erfolg / Geburtstag / von etwas Ahnung / ...

with machen: jemandem Platz machen / Essen, Frühstück machen / Feuer machen / Gewinn machen / jemandem Freude machen / jemandem Mühe, Hoffnung, Schande, Stress ... machen / klar Schiff machen / Karriere machen ...

and with many other verbs.

Unfortunately, there is a an equal or even larger number of concepts realised with the definite or indefinite article:

with haben: einen Vogel haben (to be crazy), das Sagen haben (to be the top dog), die Wahl haben (to have the option), eine Stelle haben (to hold a situation) ...

with machen: einer Sache ein Ende machen, ein Gesicht machen, ein Foto machen, eine Aussage machen (to make a declaration), jemandem eine Szene machen ...

and with an uncountable number of other verbs.

I think, as a beginning German learner you have no other choice than learning by heart a certain stock of those expressions before recognizing the underlying principles.

There is a certain tendency in nowadays western colloquial German to create new concepts by dropping any article. They are not standard German:

Hast du Führerschein? | Ich habe morgen Prüfung. | Er hat B1. | Sie trägt nicht gerne Rock. | Brille steht dir nicht. | Sie hat Familie in den USA. | Fahr du mit dem Fahrstuhl, ich laufe Treppe. | Er hat jetzt wieder Arbeit. | Diese Woche hab' ich Frühdienst / bin ich auf Spätschicht. | Der Nico fährt ständig Bleifuß. | Um fünf bin ich noch auf Arbeit. | Habt ihr hier WLAN / Internet / WiFi?

Party machen is one of those relatively new phrases without an article. In my youth in the seventies we didn't say Party but Fete, but I don't remember a verbal phrase Fete machen.

The phenomenon of integrating two or three nouns by 'Artikellosigkeit' into one concept is well known in 'Zwillingsformeln':

Er hatte sein gesamtes Hab und Gut zurücklassen müssen,

sein Hab und Gut being an idiomatic binomial pair meaning his belongings.

Sie wanderte 10 Tage mit Mann und Kind durch den Schwarzwald,

giving the unified idea of the whole family. This is not a lexicalized idiom, you are free to create such phrases ad libitum:

Er hatte Schreibblock und Kugelschreiber (= sein Schreibzeug) / Geld und Kreditkarte (= Zahlungsmittel) dabei. Sie erschien in Jeans und T-Shirt (= unpassend angezogen) zur Beerdigung.

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