The Ultimate Guide to German Pronouns
This guide will teach you the most important German pronouns and how to use them. Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns and refer to persons, things or ideas such as you, we, they, something, everybody, etc.
The most important ones are the personal pronouns:
Some of these are pretty straight forward but others, not so much. Let’s focus for a moment on these five pronouns that are especially confusing:
The first problem to tackle is how to address people. German is one of the languages that distinguish between:
- Quantity: addressing a single person or a group of people
- Level of respect: addressing someone you need to show respect to or someone you know well
You may want to address a single person in which case you will use du (you).
Or you might want to address a group of people in which case you will use ihr (you guys).
Now, if you don’t know the person or group that well, then you can’t say any of these! You say Sie instead. (Yes, with a capital S because we are showing some reSpect here.)
You will also use Sie with:
- people that are older than you except if you know them well
- people over you hierarchically (boss, professor, housekeeper,…)
- people you have a formal relationship with (the cashier you see every day)
Since Sie is used both for a single person and a group we need context to know how many people are being addressed whenever we see or hear the formal pronoun Sie.
Talking about people
Everything changes if you want to talk ABOUT people not talk TO them.
Here the respectful Sie doesn’t apply because that only matters when addressing them.
- If you want to talk about a group of people you say sie (they). (Remeber no capital S here)
- If you want to talk about a single person that happens to be female you use sie (she).
Oh boy! Two sie?
Yes, the lowercase personal pronoun sie can mean both she and they.
So if sie can mean she and they and considering that the Sie with the capital S cannot be recognized when speaking or if at the beginning of a sentence this leaves us with an essential question:
How to tell sie, sie & Sie apart?
sie, sie & Sie
We can tell them apart by the conjugation of the verb that is being used:
|Sie hat einen Hund. She has a dog. |
Sie haben einen Hund. They have a dog. / You have a dog. (formal)
But as you can see, this doesn’t apply to they and formal you.
In that case, the only thing that can help us is context:
|Haben Sie einen Hund? |
• Do they have a dog? → If you were previously talking about the neighbors then most probably sie means they.
• Do you have a dog? (formal) → If you were talking about dogs to your housekeeper then sie probably means you.
Use of personal pronouns
In many situations, we use a pronoun to replace a noun. For example, when we don’t want to repeat the noun:
| Masculine noun |
Der Mann ist nett.
The man is nice.
| Substituted by pronoun |
Er ist nett.
He is nice.
But not only people can be substituted by pronouns: also, objects and any other noun.
In German, the pronoun must have the same gender as the noun it replaces.
| All masculine nouns will use the masculine pronoun → er |
All feminine nouns will use the feminine pronoun → sie
All neuter nouns will use the neuter pronoun → es
All plural nouns will use the plural pronoun → sie
This can lead to very unintuitive results for English speakers:
|noun||pronoun||sentence with noun||sentence with pronoun|
| der Mantel |
| er |
| Der Mantel ist schön.|
The coat is pretty.
| Er ist schön. |
He is pretty.
This way an inanimate object like a coat (der Mantel) is referred to as “he” in German, a library (die Bücherei) would be a “she” and a girl (das Mädchen) would be “it”.
Man is another third-person singular pronoun in German. This pronoun is used where English uses one, you, people or they when referring to people in a general sense.
Man darf in der Bibliothek nicht essen. You are not allowed to eat in the library.
Hier spricht man nur Deutsch. One only speaks German here.
Man sagt, dass Paris romantisch ist. They say that Paris is romantic.
In Belgien fährt man oft mit dem Fahrrad. People often use a bike in Belgium.
There are two important indefinite pronouns that refer to people. They are jemand (somebody, someone) and niemand (nobody, no one). Just like in English, we use them for when we don’t know or don’t want to mention the identity of a person.
Da ist jemand an der Tür. There is someone on the door.
Niemand kann mir helfen. No one can help me.
Note that the English word anybody doesn’t exist in German.
There are also two important indefinite pronouns that refer to things and ideas only. These are alles (everything), etwas (something) and nichts (nothing).
Note that the English word anything doesn’t exist in German.
Willst du nichts? Don’t you want anything?
Willst du etwas? Do you want anything?