Pronouns are the backbone of every language. They’re the most important ingredient in fluent speech and they save you unbelievable amounts of time. If it weren’t for pronouns, you’d be repeating the same names over and over again in every sentence. The boy is tall. The boy is smart. The boy is wasting time referring to himself as “the boy” instead of using a pronoun. You’ll agree that “he” is a lot easier on the ear than hearing “the boy” all the time.
Pronouns also serve by concentrating ideas into a more elegant and punchy structure. Can you imagine if Descarte said “Descarte thinks; therefore Descarte is” instead of “I think; therefore I am”? Not only does the first example sound a lot less elegant, but it also feels wrong and incomplete.
An interesting fact is that the word “pro.noun” literally means “instead of a noun”. As you could see in the above example, “he” replaced the noun “boy” (and its companion the article). Vice versa you could say that any pro.noun can be replaced by a noun. As we are talking: the word “noun” simply means “name”. “Tisch” is a noun as it is the name for anything that you identify as a table.
So let’s go over the various pronouns in German that are used to make talking more efficient.
Classification of Pronouns in German
Just like English, German also has an inventory of pronouns that are categorized for different purposes. You’ll notice that pronouns in German get more elaborate and specialized for every use. So let’s take a quick look into these classifications and how they differ from English before diving deeper into each category:
- Personal pronouns simply refer to a person or thing that has been mentioned before. E.g. Der Tisch ist neu. Ich habe ihn gestern bei IKEA gekauft. The table is new. I bought it yesterday at IKEA.
- Demonstrative pronouns are used to refer to something already defined. Welchen Pullover magst du am meisten? Diesen. Which sweater do you like the most? This one.
- Relative pronouns connect sentences that have one element in common respectively relate to each other, hence the name “relative clauses/pronoun”. E.g. Ich habe ein Handy gekauft, das im Angebot war. I’ve purchased a mobile phone that was reduced.
- Reflexive pronouns show that the subject is also one of the objects. You got these in many languages other than English. E.g. Ich rasiere mich. I shave (myself).
- Interrogative pronouns are used to ask questions. You know them as “Wer?”, “Was?” etc.
- Indefinite pronouns The word in.definite means that something is not (yet) defined. If you have “a” car, that means that that car is not yet specified. If you said “The car (of my brother)” you’d be talking about a very specific, i.e. defined, i.e. definite car. An indefinite pronoun can look like an article at times but there is a clear difference between the two which I’ll talk about below.
- Possessive pronouns are used when you want to say that something is owned by someone. E.g. Wem gehört das Auto dort? Das ist meins. To whom does that car there belong? That’s mine.
Don’t worry if things are not fully clear yet. When you work with my online German courses, such things will be introduced to you bit by bit and everything will become clear as you go.
How pronouns in German are different from those in English:
- English has two sets of personal pronouns. One set is used when the noun being referred to is the subject (like in “He is from Germany”) and the other set is used when the noun is not the subject (like “I like him”). In German, we have four sets instead of two: one set for each of the four grammatical cases (nominative – ich, accusative – mich, dative – mir, genitive – meiner)
- German has four words for the English ‘you’.
There’s the informal version ‘you’ (du) and the formal one (Sie). and their plural versions (ihr, Sie).
Take a look at these examples:
A. Du siehst gut aus. You are looking good. ← addressing a single person that one is acquainted with
B. Sie sehen gut aus. You, Sir/Madam are looking good. ← addressing a single person that one is not acquaintant with.
C. Er sieht, dass sie gut aussehen. He sees that they look good. ← addressing at least 2 people indirectly that are not involved in the discussion, independently of whether one is acquaintant with them or not.
D. Sie sehen gut aus. You, Sirs/Madams, look good. ← addressing at least 2 people directly that one is not acquaintant with.
- German has one pronoun that can mean three things.
The German sie / Sie (formal) can mean she, they, or you (formal).
- German has three different pronouns for ‘it’.
There’s a masculine ‘it’, a feminine ‘it’, and a neutral ‘it’ to use with masculine, feminine or neuter objects. This is why it’s so important to learn the German nouns and their genders.
- The German pronouns must always have the same gender and same number as the noun they refer to.
Now that you got an overview, let’s take a deeper look.
Personal pronouns are the most basic type of pronouns. They’re used to refer to people and objects. In German, there are different versions of every pronoun that are used depending on the case as we mentioned earlier.
If you wonder what a case is or have heard of them already but are still struggling with making sense of them, check out my Live Class about the German cases here. It’ll make your day.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
- Nominative personal pronoun:
Ich koche für Michael.
I am cooking for Michael.
- Accusative personal pronoun:
Michael kocht für mich.
Michael is cooking for me.
- Dative personal pronoun:
Du gibst mir das Rezept.
You’re handing me the recipe.
- Genitive personal pronoun (used extremely rarely and can be ignored until C1 level).
Herr, bitte erbarme dich meiner.
Lord, please have mercy on me.
Now that you have a basic understanding of what pronouns in different cases look like, take a look at all the different personal pronouns in a quick overview:
Now that we got the hefty personal pronouns out of the way, we can look at the simpler ones that the German language has to offer. Demonstrative pronouns function pretty much like this and that in English.
They’re the secret ingredient to sounding incredibly well-spoken, especially in writing. They replace previously mentioned nouns and take their case, gender and number. Take a look at the following table:
NEVER EVER learn any (!!!) table by heart. Tables are just tools to grant learners an overview over a more complex matter. At NO POINT IN TIME – and I can’t stress this enough – should you learn a table by heart. It would be a waste of your time and slow you down as it will take you a lot longer to recall relevant information if you have to retrieve it from a memorized table.
The table above looks almost identical to the one containing all the German articles. The endings are exactly the same, so if you already know when to use den or dem, you already know when to use diesen and diesem.
If you’re trying to take your German fluency to the next level, relative pronouns are the way to go. They’re used in short sentences to refer to a related person or thing that was mentioned previously.They take the same gender and number as the noun they refer to, but their grammatical case depends on their function in the sentence they are found in.
This article only provides a rough overview over the reflexive pronouns. The full topic of reflexive verbs and a very easy way to memorize and use them you’ll find in my A2 German online course here.
Reflexive pronouns are used when someone has done something to themselves. Such as you showering or shaving yourself. As in English this concept doesn’t really exist – one doesn’t shower oneself as that’s very likely simply implied – English speaking German learners sometimes struggle with the reflexive verbs. But that’s a topic that’s being taken care of by my online German courses which you should check out here.
Reflexive pronouns are easier to memorize since they can only be used in the dative and accusative cases.
That’s pretty logical as they are always used as objects and there are no nominative objects. And regarding the Genitiv, I couldn’t find nor think of any example which means even if that exists, it is highly irrelevant.
Just two examples:
Du rasierst dich.
You’re shaving yourself.
Du rasierst dir den Kopf.
You’re shaving yourself the head.
Did you notice how simple this is compared to the normal personal pronouns above? Instead of wondering whether to use ihn, es, sie or ihm, ihr you justhave to use “sich”.
Interrogative Pronouns | Fragepronomen
Despite the scary name, interrogative pronouns are really just a few words we use to build questions. The words used for asking questions depend on whether we ask about a person or a thing about. These words are:
- Was? what?
While was can be translated as “what” it’s only used when asking about things in nominative and accusative in German.
Was ist das? What are you eating?
If you asked about a person you’d have to use “Wer”
Was siehst du? What are you seeing?
If you were seeing a person you’d ideally have to use “wen” siehst du. But at times we don’t know yet whether what we see is a person or the Yeti and therefore “was” is used in case of doubt.
- Wer? who?
Wer is used to ask about the subject which is always in the nominative case.
Wer hat angerufen? Peter hat angerufen.
Who called? Peter (=subject) called.
- Wen? who(m)?
Wen is used to ask about the so called object in the accusative case.
Wen hast du angerufen?
Who(m) did you call?
As you might notice, the EN translation is rather confusing and therefore doesn’t help much grasping this. But don’t worry, in the SmarterGerman online courses you’ll be introduced to the cases and how to use them step by step. Check them out here.
- Wem? (to) whom?
Wem is used to ask about someone or something in the dative case.
Wem hast du dein Fahrrad gegeben?
To whom did you give your bike?
The dative is mainly used for persons and therefore there’s not really a “was” for it.
- Wessen? Whose?
Wessen is used to ask about something in the genitive case.
- Wessen Fahrrad hast du?
Whose bike do you have?
There are quite a few indefinite pronouns in German. Unlike all the other types of pronouns, indefinite pronouns are used when you don’t want to be precise in your sentence. You can use these pronouns when you don’t want to specify the object or the subject of your sentence. Here some examples of common indefinite pronouns:
- Etwas (something) / nichts (nothing):
Ich möchte etwas essen, aber ich habe nichts zu essen.
(I want to eat something, but I don’t have anything.)
- Jemand (someone)
Jemand hat mir geholfen.
Someone helped me.
Ich muss jemand(en) finden, der mir hilft.
I have to find someone who helps me.
Ich gehe mit jemand(em) ins Kino.
I’m going to the cinema with someone.
Jede Frau ist jemandes Tochter.
Every woman is someone’s daughter
- Jeder (everyone/anyone) has a different spelling depending on the gender and case of the noun it refers to. These endings are the same as for the definite articles (der/das/die etc.):
There’s no plural for jeder as like in EN it is always referring to a singular: jeder Mann
never: jede Männer (every men)
- Man (one/impersonal you) is used to speak generally and not refer to anyone in particular. It also changes according to the case:
Man macht den Kuchen mit Quark.
One makes the cake with quark.
Das Wetter macht einen fröhlich.
The weather makes one happy.
Schon der Trailer macht einem Angst
The trailer alone made one scared.
There’s no genitive of “man”
Other indefinite pronouns are: all-, alles, welch-, einige, manche, ein-, kein- and niemand.
Don’t bother learning this list by heart please. You’ll learn these as you go and they usually don’t cause much trouble.
Possessive pronouns are used to refer to something that’s owned by someone. Very much like mine and yours in English. For example:
Wem gehört das Auto da vorne? Das ist meins!
To whom does the car over there? That’s mine!
It’s important to differentiate between possessive pronouns and possessive articles. I’ll talk about the general difference between articles and pronouns at the end of this article.
Some teachers use the term possessive adjectives which is a term that doesn’t make any sense at all in my experience. What they mean by that is simply the possessive articles like meine, deinen, ihrem etc.
Possessive pronouns can be intimidating at first simply because of their number, but keep in mind the fact that they are basically behaving the same way as “ein” would. And “ein” should have been already introduced to you nicely by your German teacher.
A few examples:
Ich liebe meinen Hund. I love my dog. POSS. ARTICLE
Ich liebe meinen auch. I also love mine. POSS. PRONOUN
Ich gehe mit meinem Hund Gassi. I walk my dog. POSS. ARTICLE
Ich gehe mit meinem auch Gassi. I also walk mine. POSS. PRONOUN
Ich liebe mein Auto. I love my car.
Ich liebe meins* auch. I love mine too.
* “meins” get’s the ending of “das” here.
The difference between pronouns in German and articles
One important distinction in German grammar is that between pronouns and articles. Luckily it’s very logical.
pro.nouns = instead of a noun mean that they are never followed by a noun.
articles are companions of nouns and therefore are always found in front of a noun.
Ich liebe meinen Hund. I love my dog. Hund is a noun, hence “meinen” is an article.
Ich liebe deinen aber mehr. but I love yours more. Here there’s no noun after “deinen” and therefore it can’t be an article but must be a pro.noun. You could in your head add “Hund” after deinen” but in the following example that wouldn’t work as easily:
Ich trinke erst mein Bier. I’ll drink my beer first.
Dann trinke ich deins. Then I’ll drink yours. ← Notice how dein.s and your.s have the -s ending in common. Here you could not easily add “Bier” after “deins”
Dann trinke ich deins
(Bier) doesn’t work. You’d have to say:
Dann trinke ich dein Bier.
That’s all. And it doesn’t really matter much in your case but it can help you get a deeper comprehension of how the German language works and who knows, maybe also how your mother language works.
I understand that this has been a lot to take in. So, If you made it this far, I congratulate you on your perseverance and love for learning German. I hope this article helped you get an idea about the basics of pronouns in German and about how they are used.
If you want to master the German pronouns, I can only recommend that you take a look at my German online courses which you can test here. No risk, just fun.