Swedish Language Blog

The Swedish Definite vs. Indefinite Posted by on May 28, 2012 in Grammar

It’s been quite a while since we discussed definite vs. indefinite nouns so I thought I’d dust it off for any of you new Swedish language learners. If you’d like, feel free to check out our two part series: En or Ett and En or Ett Continued.

Of course, we’re all quite familiar with the idea of definite vs. indefinite nouns. In English, it’s the simple difference between a dog and the dog. No problem at all, right? Right.

In Swedish though, we like to switch things up a little bit. We have two different words to choose from in the indefinite: en or ett. Both are used when trying to describe the indefinite. For example a dog is en hund in Swedish. A table is ett bord in Swedish. Not too bad really. Unfortunately, there is no rule as to when to use en or ett. That being said, the vast majority of nouns in Swedish are en words, so when in doubt (or on your Swedish test), guess en. Below is a very eclectic list of 15 vocabulary words. You’ll notice there is a decent mix of en and ett words below:

ett flygplan                  an airplane
en flygplats                 an airport
ett område                   an area
en bokhylla                  a bookshelf
ett genombrott           a breakthrough
en byggnad                 a building
ett bolag                      a company, a corporation
en dag                         a day
en dröm                       a dream
ett faktum                   a fact
en familj                      a family
en brandkår                 a fire department
ett hjärta                      a heart
ett sjukhus                   a hospital
en timme                     an hour

Now we know how to say a few new words in Swedish, but what if we want to talk about the airplane? It’s not as simple as just adding the at the beginning of the sentence as we would in Swedish. Instead, the definite article gets tagged on at the end of the word. So, the dog, is hundEN. You’ll notice that en hund takes the article and just throws it on at the end. The table? BordET. Similar pattern here, the ett gets tagged on at the end of the word. Just note that with ett words, we drop the final –t. With en words that end in a vowel, we just add –n not –en. Easy enough right? So with the list above, we would do the following to make it definite:

flygplanet                    the airplane
flygplatsen                  the airport
området                       the area
bokhyllan                    the bookshelf
genombrottet               the breakthrough
byggnaden                  the building
bolaget                          the company, the corporation
dagen                          the day
drömmen                     the dream
faktumet                      the fact
familjen                       the family
brandkåren                  the fire department
hjärtat                          the heart
sjukhuset                     the hospital
timmen                        the hour

If you know whether a word is an en­ word or an ­ett word, you’ll be able to flip between the definite and indefinite no problem.

A quick note: en and ett are important. Especially when turning nouns from the singular to the plural, but don’t let the sheer number of nouns discourage you. Make mistakes. It’s ok. The vast majority of Swedes will understand what you mean if you say en flygplan or ett dag.

Good luck!

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About the Author: Marcus Cederström

Marcus Cederström has been writing for the Transparent Swedish Blog since 2009. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Oregon, a Master's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a PhD in Scandinavian Studies and Folklore from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has taught Swedish for several years and still spells things wrong. So, if you see something, say something.


  1. Jennifer Puett:

    Thank you so much for this article. I just had an “ah hah” moment! (en ah hah?) ;-0

  2. Katerina:

    Tack så mycket. Det användbar för oss vi försöker att lära oss svenska : )

  3. Stephen:

    Thanks a lot.I just learned something very important that had been very confusing to me for a while

  4. Marcus Cederström:

    glad it was helpful

  5. jawid:

    it was helpful, it paved me the way ….tack steve.

  6. Matt:

    Hi, I’ve just started looking at Swedish noun declensions and I don’t really understand them. For example, I don’t understand how the indefinite plural of Katt is Katter. Nor do I understand how the indefinite plural of Hund is Hundar. Can you help?

  7. Marcus Cederström:

  8. Alex:


    This makes sense, but I dont understand the rule for words like kaffe, which are “en kaffe” but the coffee is “kaffet”. Also, what is the rule for words that cant be in plural, like for example water (vatten), which is vattnet as a definite – is there a rule?

    Thank you.

    • Marcus Cederström:

      @Alex With word like kaffe the word itself is an ett word. However, when you say you want en kaffe you’re asking for en kopp kaffe. The en belongs to the word kopp, which gets left out of the sentence.

      Unfortunately there isn’t really a rule for en or ett. Even if it is a word that can’t really be in the signular or the plural. Vatten, for example, or tandkött (you wouldn’t really refer to ett tandkött).