If you’re learning German, you may have already discovered that its personal pronouns can get tricky.
Not only do they change form according to the case they’re in — so whether they’re the subject or object of a sentence, say — but the possessive pronouns have cases all of their own.
To help you out, I’ve put together this simple beginner’s guide to how German personal pronouns work.
What are pronouns?
Pronouns are any word that can replace a noun.
They come in several flavors, from demonstrative pronouns like this or that, or interrogative pronouns like who? or where?
Personal pronouns replace nouns for people or things.
For example, instead of saying “John is a doctor” we say ”he is a doctor.”
Possessive pronouns — which are distinct from personal ones, though I’ve lumped together for the sake of this article — replace something that’s owned by somebody.
For example, instead of saying “that’s John’s bag,” we say “that’s his.”
I’ll go into more detail on how all that works in a bit, but let’s first take a look at what personal pronouns look like in German.
German personal pronouns
Like in English, German has three persons in the singular (ich, du, er) and the plural (wir, ihr, sie).
As in English, the third person singular is broken up into three depending on the gender of the person or thing you’re talking to.
Masculine nouns get er, feminine ones get sie and the neuter gets es.
Note that these are the nominative forms! Each pronoun can break down according to case, which gives you a table like below.
This looks pretty daunting, I know, but it’s simpler than it looks.
However, before I show you how pronouns are used, let’s go over some sticky points.
The first is that the German second person plural (ihr) is different from the singular (du): in English these are practically the same.
Another point is that sie can either mean “she” or “they.”
The difference between these two you need to figure out by looking at the verb that follows as that will change depending on whether it’s plural or singular.
So it’s sie gibt for “she gives” or sie geben for “they give.”
We talk about this at length in our piece on German verbs.
Sie as the formal “you”
Adding to the confusion is that sie is also used as the formal second person, both singular and plural.
We don’t have it in English, but in German-speaking countries it’s important to use it with anybody in an official capacity or anybody older than you — it’s a lot stricter than the Dutch formal.
To make the German formal even weirder, it follows the same pattern as the third person plural regardless of whether you’re talking to one person or two.
Wollen Sie noch einen Kaffee?
You have no idea whether it’s one or two people being addressed, and it seems the Germans like it that way.
As you may have noticed, the formal sie is written with a capital letter (so Sie) to avoid confusion.
Please note that this applies to all cases, like so:
Kann ich Ihnen helfen?
How German pronouns change form
Just like in English, German personal pronouns change form depending on how they’re used in a sentence.
Er sieht ihn
Even knowing nothing else about the situation, just looking at the form of the pronouns you can see it’s about two different people.
Er is the subject and thus takes the nominative form, while ihn is the object and thus is in the accusative.
If you need a bit of help on how cases work, check out our full guide to German cases.
Let’s check out another simple example.
Sie hatte euch gesehen
This one is a little tricky: “euch” is the plural you, which in English looks exactly the same as the singular.
In German, however, “she” and “they” are homonyms, so you need to look at the form of the corresponding verb to figure out it’s just one woman rather than the third person plural.
So far, though, German pronouns are quite simple, but there’s one case we don’t really use in English that can throw a spanner in the works: the dative.
Personal pronouns and the dative
As we go over in detail in our article on mastering the dative, it’s a tricky case to use because we don’t have its equivalent in English.
When it comes to pronouns, though, it’s not much harder than with regular nouns, except that some forms look a lot like each other.
Sie gibt mir den Schlüssel
As the key is being given, it gets the accusative (as you can see by the article den) and since I’m receiving it, I get the dative, which is mir.
It can get a little trickier when you replace words, though.
Die Frau gibt dem Mann den Schlüssel
When we replace all the nouns with pronouns, though, we get a slightly messy sentence:
Sie gibt ihm ihn
In English, you can sort of get away with this kind of sentence still, especially in writing. In German, though, I’d recommend against it.
Ihm and ihn are just too close together in sound to make for clear communication, so I’d keep one and replace the other.
Sie gibt ihm den Schlüssel
Of course, if you use a preposition and pronoun together, the pronoun will act as much as the noun would.
Bleib bei mir
Since bei goes with the dative, so does ich which in this case changes to mir.
It’s all relatively straightforward, though the genitive has a few quirks you should probably know about.
At first glance, saying something belongs to somebody is pretty easy in German:
Mein Auto ist schnell
Technically, you’ve used a genitive form of ich — mein — to say that car belongs to you.
However, possessives like that are still subject to declension, they can change case.
In the above case, mein Auto is the subject, so there’s no change.
However, in the accusative there is.
Er gibt mir meinen Schlüssel
Mein changed to meinen because Schlüssel is masculine.
In the dative much the same happens.
Ich gebe meinem Mann einen Kuss
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed something, though, which makes this a lot easier: mein, dein and sein (my, yours, his) follow the same pattern as the indefinite article ein, which saves you some memorization.
Here’s that table just in case you need it.
|Nominative||ein Mann||eine Frau||ein Auto||keine Steine|
|Genitive||eines Mannes||einer Frau||eines Autos||keiner Steine|
|Dative||einem Mann||einer Frau||einem Auto||keinen Steine|
|Accusative||einen Mann||eine Frau||ein Auto||keine Steine|
The other pronouns also go according to this pattern, more or less, though you need to “cut” the first bit off, it ends up looking like this:
Ich gehe mit ihrem Mann
The odd duck here is euer which drops the “e” before the “r” when declined.
Euer Haus ist schön
In the accusative, though, it becomes:
Ich streiche eure Mauer
That “e” needs to go or you’d make some very weird up-and-down sounds, we figure.
Possessive pronouns and the genitive
Interestingly enough, you can also place possessives in the gentive, getting a kind of doubled-up effect.
It sounds natural enough, but it is a bit weird when you think about it.
Das Zimmer ihres Sohnes
Can German possessive pronouns stand alone?
As we mentioned earlier, one of the great things about pronouns is that they can replace a noun in a sentence.
Possessive pronouns do so, too: in English we can say something along the lines of “I have my key, do you have yours?”
German is no different, and the nice thing is that it works very simply, you just “erase” the noun and you’re done.
Let’s take a look:
Ich habe meinen Schlüssel, hast du deinen?
In each sentence, Schlüssel is the object, so it gets the accusative.
As we can understand from context that we’re talking about your key, we can simply leave that word out.
It works across genders and across cases, too.
Gehen wir mit meinem Auto?
Nein, mit ihrem
Because the preposition mit always changes its corresponding noun into a dative, we add -em to the pronoun. Other than that, your work is done.
German personal pronouns are relatively easy to master, especially if you already have a grasp on how cases work.
Hopefully this article, like our others, has helped make German easy to learn.
Good luck with practicing pronouns, and let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.