Gender & Plurals

German nouns can be masculine, feminine or neuter. When a noun is given out of context (as in a vocabulary list), these are usually distinguished by including the nominative article: der (masculine), die (feminine) or das (neuter). (We'll get to what "nominative" means in the next section.)

When a noun refers to a person, the gender usually corresponds to the biological gender, but for other nouns there’s rarely much logic to it:

der Vater
the father
die Mutter
the mother
das Pferd
the horse
der Tisch
the table
die Feder
the feather

The plural article is "die" for all three, and for declension purposes you can think of it as a fourth gender. There are six ways that German nouns form the plural, and three of them can also add an umlaut, for a total of nine forms:

singular plural
no ending das Messer (knife) die Messer
(with umlaut) der Mantel (coat) die Mäntel
added E der Schuh (shoe) die Schuhe
(with umlaut) die Wurst (sausage) die Würste
added (E)N die Ampel (traffic light)
der Hase (hare/jackrabbit)
die Ampeln
die Hasen
added ER das Lied (song) die Lieder
(with umlaut) der Wald (forest) die Wälder
added S
(usually foreign words)
das Büro (office)
der Kolibri (hummingbird)
die Büros
die Kolibris
(usually Latin words)
das Datum (calendar date) die Daten

Remember, an umlaut is just a shift in the vowel sound, which can also happen in English plurals (goose / geese, mouse / mice). There are a few other echoes of the above forms in English (e.g. ox->oxen) but for the most part our irregular plurals come from other languages.

If this is your first introduction to German, you may be about ready to give up at this point. So here is something that’s not said often enough: very few foreigners, even those who achieve fluency, are able to memorize the genders and plurals of every noun they learn. Even some native speakers occasionally get them wrong. You’ll remember as much as you can, but the most important thing is not to expect perfection from yourself, and to be willing to just guess if you’re talking in German and can’t remember the gender or plural form of a word. Even if you get it wrong, you will probably still be understood. The wrong article or plural ending may sound silly, but there are very few cases where it actually changes the meaning of a word. Don’t let stress over genders and plurals stop you from communicating.