German Pronouns – Here’s Everything You Need to Know

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German pronouns come in many flavours: personal, reflexive, possessive, demonstrative and more. But don’t be put off by those boring grammar terms.

German pronouns really aren’t any more complicated than the pronouns we use in English. And in some ways, they’re simpler.

Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns to reduce repetition. Without pronouns, we’d have to say things like: “Joe looked at Joe’s watch and realised that Joe was late for Joe’s appointment.”

No one talks like this. Instead, we use words like he, him and his when it’s clear which “he” we’re referring to.

In German, as in English, there are different types of pronouns which each work in a slightly different way.

Table of contents

  • Grammatical Case in German Pronouns
  • German Personal Pronouns
    • Different Ways to say “You” in German
  • Da- and Dar- Pronouns in German
  • Reflexive Pronouns
  • German Possessive Pronouns
  • German Interrogative Pronouns
  • Indefinite Pronouns
    • The Indefinite Pronoun man in German
  • German Demonstrative Pronouns
  • German Relative Pronouns
  • Learn the German Pronouns

We’ll cover these categories in turn, starting with the concept of case.

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Grammatical Case in German Pronouns

Like in most European languages (except English), every noun in German has a gender: masculine, feminine, or neutral. For example, ein Hund (“a dog”) is a masculine noun.

When you use a noun in a sentence in German, you also need to use the correct case: nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive. The case to use depends on what role the noun plays in the sentence:

  • The nominative case denotes the subject of the sentence: Der Hund ist schwarz – “The dog is black”
  • The accusative case denotes the direct object of the sentence: Ich sehe den Hund – “I see the dog.”
  • The dative case denotes the indirect object of the sentence: Ich gab dem Hund den Ball – “I gave the dog the ball.”
  • The genitive denotes possession: Das ist der Ball des Hundes – “That’s the dog’s ball.”

English used to have a case system like German’s, but it was lost centuries ago, apart from in a few words.

Those words are (drum roll please…) the pronouns! Case is the difference between words like:

  • “I” and “me”
  • “he” and “him”
  • “they” and “them”.

If you understand why the English sentence “I see her” is grammatical, but “me see she” isn’t, you’re on your way to understanding case in German pronouns.

German Personal Pronouns

The most essential pronouns in German are the personal pronouns: words like “I”, “you” and “she”. Each of these pronouns has different forms for the four cases:

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(If you’re not sure how to pronounce these words, make sure to check out the Fluent in 3 Months guide to reading and pronouncing the German alphabet.)

  • Ich bin ein Berliner – “I am a Berliner”. (By the way, when JFK said these words, he was not calling himself a donut.)
  • Du hasst mich – “You hate me.”
  • Gib es mir – “Give it to me”.
  • Wegen meiner – “Because of me”

That last example, wegen meiner, isn’t something you’ll hear very often.

Strictly speaking, wegen should be followed by a genitive. But in practice, genitive personal pronouns are barely used in modern German, especially in informal speech. It’s more common to use the dative, wegen mir, or to reword the sentence so you don’t have to use a genitive construction.

In English, the words “he” and “she” are used for male and female humans (and sometimes for animals), while “it” is used for inanimate objects. German doesn’t work like this: the pronoun always matches the gender of the noun, even for inanimate objects.

So in German, your birthday becomes a “he”, your tie becomes a “she”, and your book (like in English) would be an “it”.

See these examples:

  • Vergiss meinen Geburtstag nicht; er ist morgen.” – “Don’t forget my birthday; it’s tomorrow.”
  • Ich mag das Buch, weil es lustig ist – “I like the book because it’s funny.”
  • Ich kann nicht diese Krawatte tragen – sie hat die falsche Farbe – “I can’t wear this tie – it’s the wrong colour.”

Different Ways to say “You” in German

As you can see in the table above, German has more than one way to say “you”. There’s the informal singular du, the plural ihr, and the formal Sie, which is always capitalised.

In informal situations, use du/dich/dir when speaking to a single person, and ihr/euch/euch when speaking to a group. English doesn’t distinguish between these two situations as clearly as German does.

In English, you can use “you” in both cases, although depending where you’re from, you might also address a group as “y’all”, “you guys,” “yous”, “you lot”, or any of these other alternatives.

In formal situations, use Sie for an individual or a group. This short video should give you an idea of when to say du or Sie:

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Confusingly, the formal Sie is identical to the words for “she” and “they”, apart from the capitalisation.

Capitalised Sie takes the same verb endings as for “they”, but if sie means “she” or “her”, then the verb conjugation is different:

  • Er hat mir gesagt, dass sie Deutsch spricht – “He told me she speaks German.”
  • Er hat mir gesagt, dass sie Deutsch sprechen – “He told me they speak German.”
  • Er hat mir gesagt, dass Sie Deutsch sprechen – “He told me you (formal) speak German.”

The other difference is the dative case, where the singular feminine is ihr but the plural and formal are ihnen/Ihnen.

Da- and Dar- Pronouns in German

When you want to use the pronoun “it” with a preposition – e.g. “for it” or “after it” – simply put the prefix da- in front of the preposition (or dar- if the preposition starts with a vowel.)

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  • Ich habe darüber noch nicht viel gehört. – “I haven’t heard much about it yet.”
  • Wir haben dafür gestimmt, aber sie haben dagegen gestimmt. – “We voted for it, but they voted against it.”

This construction sounds a bit weird to English ears, because we don’t put prepositions at the end of a word like this… or do we?

Dafür reminds me of the English word “therefore” – they don’t mean the same thing, but they clearly share a root. And I can think of some more English words which follow this pattern, although most of them are pretty formal: “thereby”, “thereafter”, “therein”, “thereof”.

Try to think of this category of English words if you find the da- construction a little tricky to wrap your brain around.

Don’t use da(r)- like this when you’re talking about a person; instead use a personal pronoun.

  • für ihn/sie -“for him/her”
  • mit ihm/ihr – “with him/her”

(If you’re wondering why “him/her” is ihn/sie after für but ihm/ihr after mit, see the Fi3M guide to German prepositions.)

Reflexive Pronouns

A reflexive pronoun is a pronoun which refers back to the subject of the sentence. English reflexive pronouns end with “-self” or “-selves”, as in “myself” and “themselves”.

Luckily for you as a German learner, you already know all but one reflexive pronoun in German.

For first person and second person pronouns (ich, wir, du, ihr), you just use the accusative or dative form, following the normal rules for choosing between the accusative and dative.

For example, “myself” can be mich or mir.

  • Ich dusche mich – “I take a shower” (literally: “I shower myself”)
  • Ich habe mir ein neues Auto gekauft – “I’ve bought myself a new car”

For third person pronouns (er, sie, es, sie) and the second person pronoun Sie, it’s even easier. The reflexive pronoun is the same for all of them: sich.

  • Sie hat sich ein neues Auto gekauft – “She’s bought herself a new car”
  • Hitler erschoss sich am 30. April 1945 – “Hitler shot himself on April 30th 1945”

German Possessive Pronouns

German possessive pronouns are words that stand in for a noun while telling you who (or what) the noun belongs to. They’re not the same as German possessive adjectives, although they look similar.

To understand the difference between German possessive pronouns and adjectives, consider the difference between “my” and “mine” in English.

“My” sounds wrong if it’s not followed by something, but “mine” can stand by itself:

  • “That’s my book.” (good)
  • “That’s mine.” (good)
  • “That’s my.” (That’s your what?)

German works in a similar way:

  • Das ist mein Buch. (correct)
  • Das ist meins. (correct)
  • Das ist mein. (wrong)

But here’s where German and English are different: German possessive pronouns must agree in case, gender and number as the noun they replace. For example:

  • Ich habe deinen Stift – “I have his pen” – Ich habe seinen.
  • Er gab seinem Kind eine Süßigkeit – “He gave his child a sweet” – Er gab seinem eine Süßigkeit.
  • Sie ist seine Tasse – “It’s his cup” – Sie ist seine.

Here’s the full chart of German possessive pronouns:

[CHART]

It’s a big chart, but things are simpler than they seem. All you need to do is learn the nine “root”/“stem” forms (mein-, dein-, etc.), then stick the right ending on for the case and gender/number.

Look at the chart and you’ll see the endings are the same on every row. For example, the masculine accusative pronouns always end in -en.

Some of the pronouns in the above chart are written with brackets to show that certain letters are optional. For example, ihres and ihrs are both valid ways to say “hers”.

German Interrogative Pronouns

“Interrogative pronouns” are question words like “what?” or “who?”

Was means “what”:

  • Was ist das? – “What’s that?”

The word for who has four forms – wer, wen, wem, and wessen. As you might have guessed, these are the pronouns for each of the four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive.

  • Wer kommt mit mir? – “Who’s coming with me?”
  • Wen traf er? – “Whom did he meet?”
  • Wem hast du es gegeben? – “Whom did you give it to?”
  • Wessen Auto ist das? – “Whose car is that?”

Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns are used to refer to indeterminate people or things without saying exactly who or what.

Etwas (“something”) and nichts (“nothing”) are a rare example of pronouns which only have one form: they don’t change based on gender, case, or number:

  • Ich möchte etwas essen. – “I want something to eat.”
  • Es gibt hier nichts – “There’s nothing here.”

Jemand, jemanden, and jemandem are the nominative, accusative, and dative forms of the word for “someone”. It’s not used in the genitive.

  • Jemand hat mir gesagt – “Someone told me.”
  • Ich sehe jemanden – “I see someone.”
  • Er war mit jemandem – “He was with someone.”

The Indefinite Pronoun man in German

In English we often use the word “you” or “they” to make general statements that aren’t about anyone in particular. For example, we say “smoking is bad for you” or “they say absence makes the heart grow fonder”.

One can also use the pronoun “one”, like I just did in this sentence. People don’t use “one” in English very much anymore, but you’ll hear the German equivalent all the time in everyday speech.

The German word for “one” (or the general “you” or “they”) is man. It follows the same form as the other third person singular pronouns er/sie/es.

  • Kann man hier rauchen? – “Can you smoke here?”
  • Man isst in Japan viel Sushi – “They eat a lot of sushi in Japan.”

Man is nominative. For the accusative, use einen, and for the dative, use einem:

  • Schönes Wetter macht einen fröhlich. – “Nice weather makes you/one happy.”
  • Nachrichten machen einem Angst – “News makes you/one scared.”

German Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns are words like “that”, “this”, “these” and “those”.

You can often use the definite articles der, die, and das as demonstrative pronouns:

  • Wer ist die Frau dort? Ich weiß nicht; die kenne ich nicht. – “Who’s the woman over there? I don’t know; I don’t know her.”
  • Wie findest du den neuen Lehrer? Den finde ich ein bisschen furchterregend – “What do you think of the new teacher? I find him a bit scary.”

The next-most common demonstrative is dieser.

In English we use “this/these” for objects which are near the person speaking, and “that/those” for objects which are farther away. But it’s not so clear-cut in German. Dieser usually means “this”, but it can also be translated as “that”.

Dieser is used as follows:

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Dieser can either come before a noun (where it’s called a demonstrative adjective), or as a standalone pronoun.

  • Dieses Buch ist sehr langweilig – “This book is very boring.”
  • Welche Handschuhe sind deine? Diese – “Which gloves are yours?” “These.”

Note that the nominative and accusative neuter dieses is often shortened to simply dies.

Jener is a demonstrative pronoun that refers to something further away in time or distance than dieser. However, jener is pretty literary and formal, kind of like the English “yonder”.

Most of the time you should use dieser, unless you really want to emphasise that the thing you’re talking about is further away.

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German Relative Pronouns

A relative pronoun in German is a pronoun which connects a noun to a relative clause, a clause that provides additional information about the noun:

  • Der Hund, den ich gestern gekauft habe, hat meine Hand gebissen – “The dog that I bought yesterday bit my hand.”
  • Sie ist die Frau, die ich gestern getroffen habe. – “She’s the woman that I met yesterday.”
  • Dieses Kleid, das du trägst, ist sehr schön – “That dress that you’re wearing is very nice.”

In English, we often leave the relative pronoun out. For example, the word “that” could be dropped from the English sentence in all three of the above examples.

This isn’t possible in German – you must leave the relative pronoun in every time.

German relative pronouns look a lot like German articles, although there are a few differences.

Can you spot them?

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Remember: the relative pronoun must have the same gender as the noun it refers to, but the relative pronoun’s case comes from the pronoun’s function in the relative clause.

I know that sounds a bit complex, so let’s take a look at an example to help.

Consider this sentence:

  • Der mann, dem die Frau geholfen hatte, hat ihr gedankt – “The man that the woman had helped thanked her.” (Or more naturally: “The man thanked the woman who had helped him”)

The relative pronoun in this sentence is dem. The gender is masculine, because the relative clause is telling us more information about der Mann. But the case is dative, because in this clause the man is the object of the verb helfen, which takes a dative object.

If you’re not sure, try rearranging the relative clause into a standalone sentence, replacing the relative pronoun with the original noun. What case do you have to use?

  • Die Frau hatte dem Mann geholfen.

Relative clauses in German always have a comma before them. You don’t have to “say” the comma – that is, you don’t have to pause when saying the sentence out loud – but, strictly speaking, the rules of German grammar dictate that a comma must be written.

Instead of the der/die/das relative pronouns given above, you can use welcher, but this is more formal and not used so much:

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When modifying a relative pronoun with a preposition, don’t use one of the da- constructions from earlier. Instead, just put the preposition before the relative pronoun:

  • Das Haus, in dem ich wohne, ist sehr groß – “The house in which I live is very big.”

When the relative clause modifies alles, etwas or nichts (“everything”, “something”, “nothing”), use was as your relative pronoun.

  • Nichts, was ich gefunden habe, wird helfen – “Nothing that I’ve found will help.”

Also use was when the relative pronoun refers to an entire clause:

  • Er wusste es nicht, was mich nicht überrascht – “He didn’t know, which doesn’t surprise me.”

If you want to modify was with a preposition, you use a construction starting with wo- or wor-, similar to the da- constructions from earlier:

  • Du hast nichts wofür du sich entschuldigen sollte – “You have nothing to apologise for” (literally: “you have nothing for which to apologise”)
  • Sie hat mich geküsst, worüber ich sehr glücklich bin – “She kissed me, which I’m very happy about” (literally: “She kissed me, about which I’m very happy”)

Learn the German Pronouns

As you can see, there’s a lot to take in!

But don’t be discouraged. Practically all the German pronouns share big similarities with English.

And it might look like there are a lot of different forms to learn for all the genders and cases, but if you look closely you’ll see lots of consistent patterns across the different pronouns. This massively reduces the amount you need to learn.

My advice is not to try to learn all of this at once.

Instead, take small bites, like first brushing up on German cases if you need to, then focusing on just one kind of pronoun. Once you’ve mastered one kind, the rest will be much easier, since the rules are mostly the same.

And if you need some more help… Here’s the list of my favourite resources to learn German. That’s where you can find more resources for your German learning journey!

The post German Pronouns – Here’s Everything You Need to Know appeared first on Fluent in 3 months – Language Hacking and Travel Tips.


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