Forget about "en" and "ett"

en and ett

Thanks to an_vision for sharing their work on Unsplash.
One of the biggest challenges for people learning Swedish is how to know whether to use “en” or “ett” (or, for that matter, “den” or “det”). You could loosely compare it to “a” or “an” in English, although in the English case, there’s a very simple rule for when to use which.

Not so in Swedish. “En” and ”ett” has to do with the gender of the noun (although unlike the Spanish Un/Una, for instance, there is no male or female. “En” and “ett” are arbitrary and cannot be classified as male or female.)

As you probably know, there is no definite article in Swedish, like “the” in English. Instead, you tack it on at the end of the noun, like a suffix. So “the car” is “bilen”, whereas “car” is “bil”. This suffix also corresponds to the gender of the noun. For example:
An apple = ett äpple. Therefore, “the apple” is “äpplet”. A banana = en banan. Therefore, “the banana” is “bananen”.

If you’ve ever studied German, you’ve come across “Der”, “Die” and “Das” and thus visited the seventh circle of grammar hell. Swedish isn’t as complicated as German. There is no inflection of the Swedish article, like there is in German. However, adjectives do have to correspond to the gender of the noun. Therefore, every adjective has two variants, depending on the noun it refers to.
A red table = ett rött bord.
A red ball = en röd boll.
A large table = ett stort bord.
A large ball = en stor boll.

Röd/rött, stor/stort, snabb/snabbt, liten/litet, and so on. Now, there is no way you’re going to learn the article of all nouns from tables or vocabulary lists. You just have to keep hearing the words in context, and also to use them in your own sentences.

Also, remember that you can be 100 percent understood if you mix “en” and “ett” up, as they have no real grammatic function (in that they don’t affect the meaning of what you’re trying to say).

So if you want to nail “en” and “ett” here are three tips:
1) Don’t try to nail them. Perfectionism is the enemy of progress.
2) Expose yourself to spoken Swedish and listen attentively.
3) Don’t learn words. Learn sentences. That will give you a much better sense of what sounds and feels right. Eventually it will stick.

In other words, forget about “en” and “ett”, don’t worry about it. You’ll pick it up as you practice listening and speaking. And if you don’t, no one is going to give you a hard time.

By Jacob Sundberg

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