I notice that the word Tränen is used both with and without an article, as in English, but the usages often do not correspond. Here are some examples of discrepancies taken from DWDS:

Da versiegen Tränen schnell.

Manchen liefen die Tränen über die Wangen

ich konnte hören, daß sie mit den Tränen kämpfte.

Er war den Tränen nahe.

How is one to know when to use an article with Tränen and when not?

This question is very similar, but the answers do not seem to pertain to this noun at all.


1 Answer 1


First, to clarify the question a bit, all of the examples, except possibly the first one, sound odd to an English speaker because German and English don't agree on whether there should be an article or not. Google translate renders them as:

"The tears quickly dry up."
"Some had tears running down their cheeks."
"I could hear her fighting back tears."
"He was close to tears."

I'm not convinced that the first is actually a correct translation; perhaps more context is needed to tell for sure.

As you can tell from the question linked to above, I've taken an interest in this kind of thing, when exactly do you use a definite article in German? From the answers I received to that question and from my own research I'm coming to the conclusion that there is no entirely satisfactory answer. It's like defining the border between Germany and Switzerland; you know generally where it is, but if you look at the map it's all jagged with lots of crinkly bits and what the hell is going on with Büsingen am Hochrhein? To make matters worse, the are times when a definite article seems optional, so there are gray areas one has to deal with as well. And just to confuse things a bit more, even though using a definite article in English is similar to German, the edges are just as jagged, crinkly and fuzzy for English as for German, and they're not in the same places. So I think the best you can expect is to understand the differences well enough to get the correct usage 90% of the time, maybe 95% with a lot of practice. With all that in mind I'm going to attempt to explain the examples, not that I fully understand what's going on myself.

It seems Tränen versiegen is a popular turn of phrase, a somewhat poetic metaphor meaning to stop crying. I don't know if it qualifies as an idiom, but perhaps it will be someday. Again, I think more context is needed to fully understand Da versiegen Tränen schnell, but I interpret it as something like "(The) crying ends quickly." I found other examples of Tränen versiegen and apparently the die is optional for this phrase.

For the other three examples, I think it's mostly down to German being generally more liberal with its definite articles than English. In the second sentence, they weren't just random tears splashed on someone's cheeks, they were the tears of the person's whose cheeks they were. We know whose tears they are, so they are specific tears, not random tears, and German says use a definite article in this case. English is a bit more cavalier about the whose tears they are, leaving it up to us to decide. In the third sentence, the "the" could easily be added with no change in meaning: "fighting back the tears". If you leave out "back" then "the" would be required: "fighting the tears"; it wouldn't make sense to say "fighting tears". So in this case there is a fixed phrase in English which doesn't exist in German, and that's what is causing the difference in the translation. In the fourth sentence, I think there are fixed phrases involved in both English and German. Again, German says we know whose tears they are, they're specific tears, so definite article. English doesn't care whose tears they are. But neither the German or English is meant to be taken literally, and there's often a certain amount of laxness in grammar when it comes to such figurative expressions.

  • "Tränen versiegen" is uncommon (but still good German!) - on grounds of "versiegen" being uncommon and on the more poetic or elevated side. "Tränen trocknen" would be more common Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 11:08
  • This is exactly the discussion I needed to understand this problem. Thank you for the attention you have given to it.
    – user44591
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 14:44

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