Me, Myself, and I
Pronouns are words that help make language more efficient by providing a shortcut for referring back to nouns that your audience is already familiar with. Generally, after you refer to a person, place, or thing once, you start to use a pronoun in its (pronoun alert!) place.
Are German pronouns different from English ones?
German uses pronouns that are similar to English pronouns. For example, there are personal pronouns like “I” or “me,” possessive pronouns like “mine” or “yours,” and demonstrative pronouns like “these” or “this.” To get started, we’ll take a look at the most commonly used pronouns in German.
Types of German pronouns include:
- Personal pronouns (Personalpronomen)
- Reflexive Pronouns (Reflexivpronomen)
- Possessive Pronouns (Possessivpronomen)
- Interrogative Pronouns (Interrogativpronomen)
- Demonstrative Pronouns (Demonstrativpronomen)
Note: Indefinite pronouns like “nothing” and relative pronouns like “which” and “whose” are fun, but we don’t want to overwhelm you all at once!
Like English, these pronouns need to change to show what type of noun they’re replacing, such as which person (“him” or “her”) and whether it’s singular or plural (“it” or “they”).
However, German pronouns come in several more flavors than English, depending on the case (nominative, accusative, etc.), which means there will be a few charts to memorize. The upside of having cases is that it allows word order to be more flexible, since it’s clear what role each word plays from its case!
Luckily, the examples below will help you to recognize when to use the different pronouns more clearly. After that, memorizing the forms becomes easy with the help of technology built especially for that purpose, like Lingvist’s German course. Don’t worry – if you need grammar tips or reminders, there are built-in grammar-based challenges in the app as well!
Is this really necessary?
Warning: There are charts in your future, many charts. Because German pronouns change depending on the gender of the noun and case, there are many different versions of each type of pronoun. The case system in German is one of the most difficult things for English speakers to get comfortable with, because we don’t normally use special forms of the word depending on the part it plays in a given sentence. So, maybe you’re thinking, “I can do without pronouns! They’re technically optional anyway!”
It’s true – you may be able to get away with avoiding German pronouns for a while by just repeating the whole noun phrase (“the bird,” “my father,” etc.). But there will come a certain point when you realize that saying “den Mann, den ich gestern getroffen habe, von dem ich dir erzählt habe” (“the man who I met yesterday that I told you about”) more than once in one conversation is definitely more work than taking a look at the helpful charts below and learning how to use German pronouns.
1. Personal Pronouns
Personal pronouns refer to a person (big surprise). With personal pronouns you can talk about other people and about yourself. These are the words you generally think of when you hear “pronouns.” We know that German personal pronouns come in a variety of cases, but English also differentiates the case in this area, making it a great place to start to ease into pronoun cases.
English personal pronouns come in two cases: nominative (for the subject of the sentence) and accusative (for the direct object of the sentence).
Nominative: Remember that the subject of the sentence is the person/thing doing the action.
Er aß den Apfel. (He [nominative personal pronoun] ate the apple.)
Accusative: The direct object is the person/thing that the action is directed toward or is receiving the action.
Mein Hund mag ihn. (My dog likes him [accusative personal pronoun].)
Dative: The dative case is most commonly used for indirect objects. This is the noun which is indirectly affected by the action or receives some action from the direct object, rather than the subject. To help you remember what an indirect object is, just think of the verb “give,” which always requires not only something that is being given (direct object), but someone who is receiving that item (indirect object).
Sie [subject/nominative pronoun] gibt ihm [dative / indirect object pronoun] ein Buch [accusative / direct object pronoun].
(She gives him a book.)
Genitive: In modern German, the genitive forms of personal pronouns are very rarely used, even in formal language.
Wir erinnern uns ihrer. (We remember her.)
Genitive: In modern German, the genitive forms of personal pronouns are very rarely used, even in formal language, so you don’t need to spend time learning them. You can use genitive possessive pronouns when you need to replace a noun that’s “owned” with a pronoun.
|2nd person sing.||du||you||dich||you||dir||you|
|3rd person masc./sing.||er||he||ihn||him||ihm||him|
|3rd person fem./sing.||sie||she||sie||her||ihr||her|
|3rd person neut./sing.||es||it||es||it||ihm||it|
|2nd person plural||ihr||you||euch||you all||euch||you all|
|3rd person plural||sie||they||sie||them||ihnen||them|
|3rd person formal voice sing./plural||Sie||you||Sie||you||Ihnen||you|
2. Reflexive Pronouns
Reflexive pronouns reflect back to the subject of the sentence.
Reflective pronouns are used with reflexive verbs in the dative and accusative cases. They are used when the action or event is “reflected back” on oneself, such as washing, showering, or shaving. In all of these cases you can imagine using the same verb non-reflexively (someone performing this action on someone else rather than themselves), so you can see how the reflexive pronoun is important to specify. The pronoun used here is the word “oneself.” Luckily, German only uses accusative and dative cases for reflexive pronouns.
In the simple case, “yourself” is the direct object that’s receiving the action of shaving, so you use the accusative.
Du rasierst dich [accusative]. (You’re shaving yourself.)
If you include the “object” that’s being shaved (receiving the action of the verb), you should use the dative, since in this case “you” are the subject, “yourself” is the entity receiving the action, and “the head” is the direct object being shaved.
Du rasierst dir [dative] den Kopf. (You’re shaving yourself the head.)
If that’s tricky to get your (shaved?) head around, compare it with the “give” example with the dative earlier:
She [subject / nominative pronoun] gives him [dative / indirect object pronoun] a book [accusative / direct object pronoun].
You [subject / nominative pronoun] shave yourself [dative / indirect object pronoun] the head [accusative / direct object pronoun].
|you (sing.) (yourself)||dich||dir|
|he (himself), she (herself), it (itself)||sich||sich|
|you (pl.) (yourselves)||euch||euch|
|you (formal) (yourself)||sich||sich|
3. Possessive Pronouns
More than just indicating the owner of an object (like “It’s my dog”), these pronouns completely replace the noun in question (“It’s mine”).
Hast du meinen Hund gesehen? (Have you seen my dog?)
In this example, the noun being replaced is Hund.
Ist das deiner? (Is that yours?)
Ja, das ist meiner. (Yes, that is mine.)
Remember that when the noun is still present, we use a possessive adjective (“my”), while when replacing the noun we use the possessive pronoun (“mine”).
Hast du mein Bier gesehen? (Have you seen my beer?)
Das ist deins [Bier=accusative/direct object singular neuter noun]. (That one is yours.)
Notice that the actual pronoun for “yours” is dein, but an -s ending is required because Bier is a neutral noun.
Because nouns in German can have a certain gender, you have to be sure that you’re replacing a noun with a pronoun that makes a clear reference back, so that your audience doesn’t get confused. For this reason, the charts are separated by case, so you can clearly see the appropriate pronoun for each gender category. Note that the feminine pronouns are the same as plural pronouns of any gender for possessive pronouns.
You’ll notice that the formal “you” is always the same form as the plural “they” but capitalized.
Das ist nicht mein Koffer, das ist deiner. [nominative, masc., sing.] (That isn’t my suitcase, that is yours.)
|Person||English Possessive Pronoun||Masc. Noun||Neut. Noun||Fem./Plural Noun|
|you (sing.) (du)||yours||deiner||dein(e)s||deine|
|you (pl.) (ihr)||yours||eurer||euers||eure|
|you (formal) (Sie)||yours||Ihrer||Ihr(e)s||Ihre|
Wenn du ein Auto brauchst, kann ich dir mein(e)s ausleihen. [accusative, neut., sing.] (If you need a car, I can lend you mine.)
|Person||English Possessive Pronoun||Masc.||Neuter||Fem./Plural|
|you (sing.) (du)||yours||deinen||dein(e)s||deine|
|you (pl.) (ihr)||yours||euren||euers||eure|
|you (formal) (Sie)||yours||Ihren||Ihr(e)s||Ihre|
Ich fahre in deinem Wagen. In seinem habe ich immer Angst. [dative, masc., sing.] (I’ll go in your car. I am always frightened in his.)
|Person||English Possessive Pronoun||Masc./Neut.||Fem.||Plural|
|you (sing.) (du)||yours||deinem||deiner||deinen|
|you (pl.) (ihr)||yours||eurem||eurer||euren|
|you (formal) (Sie)||yours||Ihrem||Ihrer||Ihren|
Ich lese in meinem Buch. Du liest deines. [genitive, neut., sing.] (I read in my book. You read yours.)
|Person||English Possessive Pronoun||Masc./Neut.||Fem./Plural|
|you (sing.) (du)||yours||deines||deiner|
|you (pl.) (ihr)||yours||eures||eurer|
|you (formal) (Sie)||yours||Ihres||Ihrer|
4. Interrogative Pronouns
To put it simply, interrogative pronouns are the words we use to ask a question about a noun. Like English, German uses specific interrogative pronouns to help make it clear what information you expect.
Who [nominative] called? Expected answer: the subject of the sentence, the “doer” of the action
Who [accusative] did you call? Expected answer: direct object, the person to whom the call was directed
To whom [dative] did you give a hug / Who did you give a hug to? Expected answer: indirect object, the person who received the direct object (a hug)
Whose [genitive] party is it? Expected answer: the owner of the party
Though we don’t think of the English counterparts as having a case, they are similar to German in that each type of word anticipates a noun that played a certain role in the event in response. For this reason, apart from the most general pronoun “what,” each interrogative pronoun in German is tied to a specific case.
If you ever have trouble figuring out what role a noun is playing in a sentence, and therefore which case it has, try to formulate a question (in English if need be) to ask about that particular noun. This can help you get straight whether it’s the subject, direct object, indirect object, or possessor.
|To whom? / Who…to?||Wem?||Dative|
Was hat sie gesagt? (What did she say?)
Wer [nominative] hat angerufen? (Who called?)
Wen [accusative] haben Sie angerufen? (Who did you call?)
Wem [dative] hast du eine Umarmung gegeben? (To whom did you give a hug?)
Wessen [genitive] Partei ist das? (Whose party is it?)
5. Demonstrative Pronouns
Demonstrative pronouns are used to point something out in your current visual context, or to “demonstrate” which person/thing you mean to refer to. In English, the pronouns given below are equivalent to “this” and “these.” These pronouns can be your best friend when you’re in a German-speaking country and haven’t memorized all of the relevant nouns yet, as they allow you to simply point to the item you’d like or to the food on the menu and say:
Ich möchte diese bitte. (I want these, please.)
Declension of dieser, diese, dieses:
German demonstrative adjectives are often used as pronouns (simply by dropping the noun), so you may see der, die, and das also used, but you can start simple by just using the chart above.
Here are a few other demonstrative-type words that can be used as Pronouns with the same endings to indicate gender, number and case.
dies- (this) jen- (that) jeglich- (any) jed- (every) manch- (some) solch- (such) welch- (which) alle(-) (all) beide(-) (both)
Even though they may be a lot to memorize, pronouns are very powerful tools for making conversation more efficient. Take a look at how much effort you save by using them:
John sagte, dass er das Geschenk dem Mädchen gegeben hat, das Sie auf meiner Geburtstagsfeier getroffen haben. (John said that he gave the gift to the girl that you met at my birthday party.)
Er sagte, dass er es ihr gegeben hat. (He said that he gave it to her.)
All those milliseconds you save add up over time! Comparing the sentences above should leave you feeling empowered to start saving yourself lots of time and effort. Also, since the pronouns are very similar, native speakers will probably know what you mean if you don’t select the perfect one while you’re practicing, so don’t be afraid to try!
Sign up for Lingvist’s German course today to start practicing all of these basic pronoun varieties.