Pronouns in German: A No-Nonsense Beginner’s Guide
There is no sugarcoating it, German grammar is difficult to learn, especially for English speakers who aren’t used to gender-specific nouns, complicated verb conjugations, and complex grammatical cases. Pronouns in German are particularly challenging for beginners, as there are so many different types of them, and each type is further divided into various forms depending on person, number, and case.
Thankfully, there are ways to make learning German pronouns easier, even if you’re still in the beginning phases of your language-learning journey. This guide will give you a straightforward overview of the most common types of pronouns used in the German language and provide simple examples to help you get a handle on how they’re used in everyday contexts.
So, next time you visit a German-speaking country, you’ll have a better idea of how to use those small but significant words in conversation.
What are pronouns in German?
How much you already know about pronouns depends on where you are in your German-learning process. Perhaps, you’ve learnt some essential German expressions but still find yourself struggling to follow, let alone initiate, conversations in German. Or you’ve got some experience with speaking the language but haven’t quite grasped the nuances of correct pronoun usage. So, let’s start with the basics.
Pronouns are words that can take the place of a noun to avoid repetition. Common types of pronouns found in German, like English, include personal (I/me), possessive (mine/yours) and demonstrative (these/that).
To choose the right pronoun, you need to pay careful attention to its person (1st /2nd /3rd), gender (he/she/it), number (singular/plural), and grammatical function in a sentence (e.g., subject, direct or indirect object). Knowing these essential grammar concepts will make it easier to select the correct form when speaking or writing in German.
Pronouns and the 4 German grammatical cases
Since German nouns and pronouns change depending on their function in a sentence, the first step in choosing the correct pronoun is to get familiar with the four German cases.
Here’s a brief overview:
Case 1: Nominative
This is the subject of a sentence which answers the question, ‘who or what performed the action?’.
For example: Die Frau lächelt. (The woman smiles.) If you replace this subject with a nominative personal pronoun, the German sentence reads: Sie lächelt. (She smiles.)
Case 2: Genitive
This case answers the question, ‘whose?’.
For example: Die Jacke der Frau. (The woman’s jacket.) Here, the possessive pronoun in German is ‘ihre’. So, if you replace this noun with a genitive personal pronoun, it looks like this: Ihre Jacke. (Her jacket.)
Case 3: Dative
This case denotes indirect objects and answers the question ‘for whom or to whom?’.
For example: Ich gab dem Mann das Buch. (I gave the man the book.) The indirect object (the man) is replaced by a dative personal pronoun: Ich gab ihm das Buch. (I gave him the book.)
Case 4: Accusative
This case indicates direct objects and answers the question, ‘whom or what?’.
For example: Ich sehe den Mann. (I see the man.) Here, the accusative personal pronoun to use is ‘ihn‘ – Ich sehe ihn. (I see him.)
As you can see, there is no difference between the English direct and indirect object pronouns for “the man” (him), making it harder for English native speakers to distinguish between the two cases.
6 types of German pronouns with examples
The following tables break down the different types of pronouns used in the German language, categorized according to person, number, and case. To keep things as simple as possible, we’ve added one example featuring a specific use case for each pronoun type.
1. Personal pronouns
A personal pronoun takes the place of a noun to refer to people and things.
|1st singular||ich||meines / meiner||mir||mich|
|2nd singular||du||deines / deiner||dir||dich|
|3rd singular||er, sie, es||seines / seiner, ihres / ihrer, seines / seiner||ihm, ihr, es||ihn, sie, es|
|1st plural||wir||unseres / unserer||uns||uns|
|2nd plural||ihr||eureres / euerer||euch||euch|
|3rd plural||sie||ihres / ihrer||ihnen||sie|
Meine Eltern sprechen deutsch. (My parents speak German.) – Sie sprechen deutsch. (They speak German).
2. Possessive pronouns
Possessive pronouns are used in place of possessive adjectives when referring to a person or object. These pronouns indicate possession or ownership.
|1st singular||mein / meine||meinen / meine||meinem / meiner / meinen||meines / meiner|
|2nd singular||dein / deine||deinen / deine||deinem / deiner / deinen||deines / deiner|
|3rd singular||sein / seine, ihr / ihre, sein / seine||seinen /seine / sein, ihren / ihre / ihr, seinen / seine / sein||seinem / seiner / seinen, ihrem / ihrer / ihren, seinem / seiner / seinen||seines / seiner, ihres / ihrer, seines / seiner|
|1st plural||unser / unsere||unseren / unsere||unserem / unserer / unseren||unseres / unserer|
|2nd plural||eurer / euere||euren / euere||eurem / euerer / eueren||eureres / euerer|
|3rd plural||ihr / ihre||ihren / ihre||ihrem / ihrer / ihren||ihres / ihrer|
Das Auto gehört mir. (The car belongs to me.) – Das ist mein Auto (This is my car).
Note that German possessive pronouns change not only according to the subject of a sentence (here, 1st person singular ich) but also according to the object (here, masculine singular and masculine plural).
3. Reflexive pronouns
Reflexive pronouns are used when the subject and object in a sentence are the same – they always refer back to the subject that it replaces.
Er wäscht seine Hände. (He washes his hands.) – Er wäscht sich. (He washes himself).
4. Demonstrative pronouns
Demonstrative pronouns are used to point out a specific person or object. There are definite pronouns like “dieser and diese” (this/these) and indefinite pronouns like jener and jene (that/those).
Dieser Pullover steht der Frau gut. (This sweater looks good on the woman.) – Dieser Pullover steht ihr gut. (This sweater looks good on her.)
Note that you can also use diese hier (these here) and diese da (those there) to distinguish between definite and indefinite pronouns in German.
5. Relative pronouns
Relative pronouns link two related statements about the same thing or person into one sentence and usually include words such as ‘that’, ‘who’ and ‘which’.
|Singular||der/welcher, die/welche, das/welches||den/welchen, die/welche, das/welches||dem/welchem, der/welcher, dem/welchem||dessen/deren|
|Plural||die, welche||die, welche||denen/welchen||deren|
Ich habe das Buch gelesen. Es war interessant. (I read the book. It was interesting.) – Das Buch, das ich gelesen habe, war interessant. (The book that I read was interesting)
6. Interrogative pronouns
Interrogative pronouns are used when asking questions about people or objects.
|Singular / plural||wer||wen||wem||wessen|
Jemand hat die Tür offen gelassen. (Someone left the door open.) – Wer hat die Tür offen gelassen? (Who left the door open?)
Other important question words include wann (when), wie (how), and warum (why).
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Summary and next steps
German pronouns are words that take the place of a noun to avoid repetition. The six types of pronouns in German are personal, possessive, reflexive, demonstrative, relative, and interrogative. To speak German correctly, you need to know the pronoun types and how they change according to person, number, and case.
Need a more in-depth look at German grammar? Check out our online courses, and take your German learning to the next level. At Cactus, we offer experienced, native-speaking tutors who use the communicative approach, live and interactive lessons, and tailored learning plans to help you grasp the complexities of the German language fast and effectively.
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About the Author
Dr. Anneke Schmidt is the founder of Skill & Care Content Solutions. She is an experienced content writer, editor, and educator with a demonstrated history of working in the research industry. Her main specialisms are Social Sciences and Education, with a particular focus on e-learning and professional development.