When you reach the part of your language learning journey where just knowing vocabulary and a few key phrases is no longer enough, things can start to seem intimidating. It becomes time to delve into the dreaded world of grammar. Learning a language’s grammar is not always intuitive to a native speaker of another language. This doesn’t need to be a scary process though, as long as you break it down into manageable parts. In this post I’m going to walk you through an important part of German grammar: German pronouns!
(Photo by Patrick Perkins)
First things first, let’s crack into the basics of what a pronoun is and how it functions before worrying about how German pronouns are used.
Merriam-Webster defines pronouns as follows:
The pronouns you’re probably most familiar with in English are words like She, I, You, His, We, and Them. These are personal pronouns, or pronouns used to refer to or substitute the name of the individual speaking or those they are speaking about. These are the kinds of pronouns we will be examining in German in this post. However, there are other types which include words such as the “self” words like Myself, the indefinite pronouns such as Everybody, and more. If you are interested in exploring all types of German pronouns, not just personal pronouns, check out this grammar guide.
Personal pronouns work the same way in German as they do in English. They replace the name, noun, or noun phrase of its referent in a sentence. For example:
- “Mike is going to the store” becomes “He is going to the store”
- “The man is going to the store” also becomes “He is going to the store”
- “The guy I saw yesterday is going to the store” becomes “He is going to the store” as well.
Of course, you never have to replace a noun with a pronoun, but doing so makes the sentence more efficient and natural-sounding (as opposed to being forced to say the noun all the time i.e: “Mike went to the store. Mike bought some juice. Mike drove home.” You can say “Mike went to the store. He bought some juice. He drove home.”). Once you’ve established it’s Mike you’re talking about, you can use pronouns to refer to him in following sentences. German pronouns work the same way!
While English and German pronouns function in the same way, there are a few major differences. One of which being that German has more personal pronouns than English. This is because German has unfamiliar cases and formal versions of pronouns. No need to be overwhelmed, though, I’m going to do my best to break it down into digestible chunks.
Since the variety of cases are likely the most challenging part about learning personal pronouns in German let’s do a refresher on the three relevant cases and how they operate in respect to pronouns!
In basic terms, when a pronoun is in the nominative, it is the subject that is performing an action. In the sentence “Mike is going to the store”, Mike is nominative. Therefore, when we replace Mike with the pronoun He in this sentence “He is going to the store”, He is also nominative.
When a pronoun is in the accusative, it is the direct object of a transitive verb. In the sentence “Mike is going to the store”, the store is accusative and going is the verb that it’s the direct object of. When the store is substituted for the pronoun it in the sentence “Mike is going to it”, it is accusative as well.
When a pronoun is in the dative case it is the recipient of an action, or the “whom” that an action is done for. In other words, it is the indirect object. In the sentence “The cashier handed Mike the groceries”, Mike is dative, so when we replace Mike with him like so: “The cashier handed him the groceries”, him is once again dative. There are also dative prepositions that make any noun that follows dative, these apply to pronouns as well!
If you are familiar with the additional German cases, you may be wondering where the genetive case is in this list. It is missing because the genetive case is only applied to dependent possessive pronouns, not personal pronouns.
So, what are all the German personal pronouns you can use?
Let’s start with what’s probably the easiest: first-person pronouns. Chances are that if you’re reading this you already have a grasp on first-person pronouns in German, but you may not have thought too deeply about the mechanics of these pronouns. Here’s a chart that breaks down first-person German pronouns into the different cases and singular versus plural versions.
These pronouns are equivalent to I/me and we/us in English just with the additional dative form. Notably, in German, you do not capitalize ich (unless it’s at the beginning of a sentence) like you would “I” in English. The only German pronouns you capitalize are the formal pronouns.
Examples of First-Person German Pronouns in Use:
- Sing. + Nom. – Ich gehe einkaufen. (I am going shopping.)
- Sing. + Acc. – Der Ladenbesitzer stellt mich ein. (The shop owner hires me.)
- Sing. + Dat. – Der Man gibt mir fünf Euro für die Erdbeeren. (The man gives me five Euros for the strawberries.)
- Pl. + Nom. – Wir fahren nachhause. (We are driving home.)
- Pl. + Acc. – Unsere Katze liebt uns. (Our cat loves us.)
- Pl. + Dat. – Jakob kocht uns Abendessen. (Jakob is cooking us dinner.)
Now as we enter the realm of second-person pronouns things get a touch more complicated because we add formal forms to our chart. Formal pronouns are used with people of authority like your boss or a teacher, or elders, or anyone you want to extend extra respect to.
Also, German has a plural “you”, which can be confusing coming from a language like English that doesn’t have 2nd person plural forms of pronouns. Second person plural works like saying “You all” or “You guys” in English. They are pronouns to refer to a group of people you are speaking to as opposed to just one person like You.
Every single one of these German pronouns in the chart above translates to “you” in English. Luckily, both the plural and singular formal pronouns are the same for each case making them easy to remember! Sie/Sie/Ihnen!
Example Sentences with Second-Person German Pronouns:
- Sing. + Nom. + Informal – Du trinkst gerne Kaffee. (You like to drink coffee.)
- Sing. + Acc. + Informal – Der Barista hört dich. (The barista hears you.)
- Sing. + Dat. + Informal – Ich mache dir eine Tasse Tee. (I make you a cup of tea.)
- Sing. + Nom. + Formal – Sie trinken gerne Kaffee. (You like to drink coffee.)
- Sing. + Acc. + Formal – Der Barista hört Sie. (The barista hears you.)
- Sing. + Dat. + Formal – Ich mache Ihnen eine Tasse Tee. (I make you a cup of tea.)
- Pl. + Nom. + Informal – Ihr fahrt zusammen Fahrrad. (You are riding bikes together.)
- Pl. + Acc. + Informal – Ein Hund folgt euch. (A dog follows you.)
- Pl. + Dat. + Informal – Wir zeigen euch die schönen Naturwege. (We’re showing you the nice nature paths.)
- Pl. + Nom. + Formal – Sie fahren zusammen Fahrrad. (You are riding bikes together.)
- Pl. + Acc. + Formal – Ein Hund folgt Ihnen. (A dog follows you.)
- Pl. + Dat. + Formal – Wir zeigen Ihnen die schönen Naturwege. (We’re showing you the beautiful forest paths.)
Third-person pronouns no longer have formal and informal versions, but the third-person singular pronouns do have gender. Gender in German is easy to manage when it comes to people, but there are people that you would sometimes use neuter pronouns for like if you are speaking about a child whose gender you do not know you would use the pronoun es (it). Make sure you know the gender of the noun you’re replacing with a pronoun otherwise your sentences will get confusing!
Note on Dative Neuter: Although I’m not going to claim that it never happens it’s very rare for dative to refer to a thing. The neuter ihm will often refer to a neuter person noun like a child, or an animal instead.For third-person pronouns sie/sie/ihnen returns once again, but this time as a third-person plural form. It’s uncapitalized because it’s not formal.
Examples of Third-Person German Pronouns in Use:
- Sing. + Nom. + Masculine – Er isst gerne Kuchen. (He enjoys eating cake.)
- Sing. + Acc. + Masculine – Sein Freund ist neidisch auf ihn. (His friend is jealous of him.)
- Sing. + Dat. + Masculine – Der Bäcker gibt ihm ein Stück Aprikosenkuchen. (The baker gives him a slice of apricot cake.)
- Sing. + Nom. + Feminine – Sie will auch Aprikosenkuchen essen. (She also wants to eat apricot cake.)
- Sing. + Acc. + Feminine – Der Bäcker mag sie nicht. (The baker doesn’t like her.)
- Sing. + Dat. + Feminine – Er gibt ihr keinen Kuchen. (He doesn’t give her cake.)
- Sing. + Nom. + Neuter – Es ist ein teueres Stück Kuchen. (It is an expensive piece of cake.)
- Sing. + Acc. + Neuter – Der Junge hat es gegessen. (The boy ate it.)
- Sing. + Dat. + Neuter – Der Jungt gibt ihm die Leine. (The boy gives it [a dog or other animal] the leash.)
- Pl. + Nom. – Sie kaufen brot. (They buy bread.)
- Pl. + Acc. – Das Geschäft hat keinen Brot fur sie. (The store has no bread for them.)
- Pl. + Dat. – Ich kaufe ihnen Brot. (I buy them bread.)
Now that we’ve seen all the personal pronouns German has to offer, we need to figure out a reliable system of using them. What is everything we now know about German pronouns?
- They replace a noun or noun phrase in a sentence
- They vary based on person and case
- And occasionally by gender and formality
So with that in mind the easiest way to manage German personal pronouns is to make yourself a mental (or physical if you need reference while your writing) checklist.
- What is the noun you are replacing?
- Is it going to be 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person?
- Is it singular or plural?
- What is its case?
- Does it need extra modification like gender or formality?
Once you’ve answered these you should know which pronoun you should be using, as long as you have them memorized — which I grant isn’t the easiest task either. If you want to memorize all the German pronouns, I recommend going one chart at a time and quizzing yourself regularly, which Clozemaster can help you with!
It also helps to familiarize yourself with the cases because being able to identify the case of a pronoun on the fly is a massive help. And remember, even if you get it wrong more often than not people will be able to figure out what you mean, so don’t let that keep you from practicing!