Your KEY to the German Pronoun Puzzle

Your KEY to the German Pronoun Puzzle

Have you ever been puzzled by German pronouns or not yet encountered them? This KEY will not just give you the puzzle pieces but also provide you with the keys for putting them together! 

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You’ve probably heard that Germans are known for being big on organization. Well, while this may not apply to every German, it certainly applies to the structure of the German language, better known as: (a scary term to some of us) grammar. An important part of German grammar is the use of pronouns.

Let’s begin with the question: What are pronouns? Well, they’re tiny words that, unless they’re indefinite (such as something or “etwas”), replace nouns, a noun being a word that indicates a person, place, thing or idea). A few examples of nouns in English are the man, the woman, the child, the airport, the city, the theatre, the apple, the banana, the beer, the idea. Whether these nouns refer to a person, place, thing or idea, they have no gender in English but their German equivalents all have one of three possible genders: masculine, feminine or neuter (not the same as neutral). So, let’s look at them in German, along with their genders:

  • der Mann
  • die Frau
  • das Kind (pronounced like „Kind“ in Kindergarten–a German word as well as an English word, correctly spelled in English with a „t“ in the garden, by which we can trace its German roots). Luckily for English speakers, German and English derive from a common language, so there are many words that are the same or similar, like die Hand or der Arm. (Reminder: All German nouns must be capitalized!).

Let‘s continue with our list of words, though:

  • der Flughafen = the airport
  • die Stadt = the city
  • das Theater = the theatre
  • der Apfel = the apple
  • die Banane = the banana
  • der Hund = the dog
  • die Katze = the cat
  • das Meerschweinchen = the guinea pig
  • das Bier = the beer

Since German nouns have any of 3 grammatical genders (that have to be learned by memorization and/or exposure to them) the German pronouns that replace them will also need to be gender specific. So, der Mann will be replaced by the masculine personal pronoun er. Die Frau will be replaced by sie. Das Kind will be replaced by es. Examples:

  • Der Mann ist interessant. Er ist interessant.
  • Die Frau ist intelligent. Sie ist intelligent.
  • Das Kind ist klein. Es ist klein. This is a good place to emphasize that the 3 German genders are grammatical genders. So, whether the actual child is a boy or girl is not what determines the gender of the word child or das Kind and the grammatical gender of the word is neuter, not neutral, as we’re within the realm of grammar only. 

 Now that we’ve defined the word pronoun and seen that pronouns must have the gender of the noun they stand for (they are pro or for a certain noun), you have to also know that not only are they gender specific, but here comes the Big Deal: correctly using German pronouns involves the entire organizational system of the use of German nouns, the dreaded case system of German. This probably sounds scary but wait! Don’t let it scare you off because, remember, you’re going to get the KEY to the German pronoun puzzle! We’re going to break this down into various parts of the puzzle for you and hand you the KEY (or keys to each part.                                     

We’ll start with a list of the different kinds of German pronouns, just FYI. We’ll expand this separately with definitions, examples and instructions later. 

There are 6 basic categories of German Pronouns:

  • Personal Pronouns (that come in different forms or cases)
    • Subject or Nominative Case pronouns
    • Direct object or Accusative Case pronouns
    • Indirect object or Dative Case pronouns
    • Possessive or Genitive Case pronouns
  • Reflexive Pronouns
  • Relative Pronouns
  • Indefinite Pronouns
  • Demonstrative Pronouns
  • Interrogative Prounouns

As you noticed above, there are 4 cases in German. Let’s expand on each. Before we do that, here’s a key: The cases are an organizing structure that is essential to how German works.

While cases are all about nouns, pronouns, and adjectives (adjectives describe or give information about nouns, such as the tall hat, the pretty flower in English), you will learn about adjectives during a later blog.

Here is the Key to which case a noun or pronoun is in. It depends on the function of the noun for which it stands in a given sentence. What’s the noun or pronoun doing or being in that sentence? To answer this question, we must start with the verb! Verbs are another big chunk of German grammar that we will be looking at in later blogs.

  • For now, just be aware that verbs are keys to cases. When analyzing the nouns in a sentence, always start with the verb (or action or state of being (like to be, to be born, to die).
  • To find which noun is in the Nominative case or functions as the subject of the sentence in English we would also ask “Who is doing the action? Your answer will be a noun or pronoun that is the subject of the sentence.
  • Key: subjects are in the Nominative case. So, to find the subject of a simple German sentence, consider the example: Hans mag Autos. (Hans likes cars.) Start with the verb mag (likes) and ask Who likes? Your answer will be Hans. This mean Hans is the subject in that sentence and in German, Hans is in the Nominative case. Let’s use a pronoun instead of Hans: Er mag Autos. You would ask the same question, but you answer would be the subject pronoun er or he-
  • Let’s now look at a sample accusative case noun and pronoun. Erika sieht den Flughafen (airport).. This time we begin with the verb sieht and ask a different question: Was sieht Erika? (What does Erika see?)
  • This time our answer is not Erika, but den Flughafen or the pronoun The word for airport in German is Flughafen and its grammatical gender is masculine, der Flughafen. Therefore, when we use the pronoun for Flughafen, that pronoun must be masculine and in the Accusative case in this sentence. Therefore the pronoun is not “er,” as before, but ihn,” the masculine form of er. Erika sieht ihn. Remember, grammatical gender: things have a given gender for some, now unknown reason as the German language developed.
  • Check out the following chart as your key to finding the masculine and feminine personal pronouns in the Nominative and Accusaive caees. . (There are many useful charts for German grammar and they, too, are keys)

                                                                                                                                               

Masculine noun

Masculine

Pronoun, subject,

Nominative Case

Masculine

Pronoun, direct object

Accusative Case

der Hund

er

ihn

Feminine noun    

Feminine Pronoun, subject

Nominative Case

There is no change for the feminine pronoun sie in the Accusative Case

Erika

sie

sie

 

This is a beginner chart just to get the idea across. We will be expanding this chart and generating new charts.

PERSONAL PRONOUNS

We just looked at some examples of personal pronouns, but there are more. The following key chart will list the rest of the personal pronouns in the Nominative Case (subject pronouns) and the Accusative Case. (direct object pronouns).

 

Nominative Singular

Nominative

Plural

Accusative

Singular

Accusative

Plural

Ich – I

wir

mich – me

uns – us

du – you (familiar—children, friends, family, pets)

Ihr – you

(familiar — 2 or more children, family, friends, pets)

dich – you

euch – you all,

y’all

er

sie – they

Ihn – him

sie – them

sie

sie – they

sie – her

sie – them

es

sie – they

It – it

sie – them

Sie – you (formal)

Sie – you (formal)

Sie – formal you

Sie – formal you

 

As you can see, these personal pronouns are similar to the English personal pronouns, where the singular subject pronouns are: I, you, he, she and it their plural form is we, you, they. Similarly, English object pronouns are me, him, her, it and their plural forms are us, you, them. In other words, English also has some different forms for subject and object pronouns. However, I’m sure you noticed some differences too!

 

Nominative Singular

Nominative

Plural

Accusative

Singular

Accusative

Plural

Ich   – I

wir

mich – me

uns – us

du – you (familiar—children, friends, family, pets)

Ihr – you

(familiar — 2 or more children, family, friends, pets)

dich – you

euch – you all,

y’all

er

sie – they

Ihn – him

sie – them

sie

sie – they

sie – her

sie – them

es

sie – they

es – it

sie – them

Sie – you (formal)

Sie – you (formal)

Sie – formal you

Sie – formal you

 

The first difference is that German has two ways to say you: the familiar and the formal you. As the chart tells you, use the informal you in informal circumstances, such as speaking to someone you know well, like a family member, a friend, a classmate, a co-worker, any child, any pet (and even God, in the sense that you have a personal relationship with God). On the other hand, use the formal you in formal circumstances, such as a job interview, being introduced to someone new, speaking to your boss, the cashier in a supermarket, salespeople, your neighbor, asking a person on the street for directions. But look at the chart again. What about the clutter of sie’s and Sie’s? How will you ever figure out what they mean? By uncluttering them, of course with this KEY:

First, notice one thing in their favor: as subject and object pronouns, sie and Sie never change. Yay for that! Students learning English have to learn to distinguish she and her, they and them. But how are you going to know which sie or Sie means what? Well, not only is the German language organized, but as such it is also detail oriented. What’s the first obvious difference? Yes! It’s the capital letter on Sie when it means formal you! Also, he, she, and it – er, sie, es all have the same plural form: sie, and it means they or them (since Sie or sie don’t change here).

  • Let’s use two sample German sentences: Ich sehe sie.and Ich sehe Sie.
  • Let’s start with the second sentence, Ich sehe Sie. Look for the detail that is the key. Yes! When Sie is capitalized it means formal you.
  • But Is the Sie in the Nominative or the Accusative case? It is the direct object of the verb see because Ich is doing the seeing. (Some charts put the formal Sie under the informal du because both mean you, but it’s actually easier just to remember that, but see the declension (changes) of Sie underneath sie meaning they or them because it will be easier to work with later.)
  • Let’s now look at the first sentence: Ich sehe sie. Oh, oh, sie is a difficult piece of the puzzle to place. But, no worries, here is the key:
  • If you go back to the chart, you will see that in the Nominative (subject) case, sie can mean she or they (the plural of a person, place, thing or idea or he, she and it, plural. In the Accusative Case, it can mean her or them, the direct object forms of the singular sie (she, now her) and the plural of er, sie and es: them. So how will we ever know what sie in the sentence “Ich sehe sie.” means? Where’s the key?

                                                         

This time the key is in the context. Sentences don’t just drop from outer space or out of someone’s mouth without a context. This sentence would be part of a conversation and we would thus have background clues to this sentence. It might be the answer to Do you see Laura? Do you see mom? And the answer in German would have to be the grammatically feminine sie in the accusative case, the direct object of the sentence, sie meaning her. At this point another key comes in: The sie in Ich sehe sie, when looking at the chart, could also mean them, the plural of ihn, sie, and es. And it could be the masculine, feminine, or neuter plural of things too, as things have a grammatical gender in German.

Let’s now summarize basic information about pronouns. Here are the main points we have covered so far:

  • Pronouns are substitutes for nouns.
  • Pronouns have to agree with the nouns that they replace in gender, number (singular or plural) and case. This means they have different forms, depending on the gender, number and case of the noun they replace.
  • We expanded this idea with two charts and some example sentences.
  • Today’s blog showed you how to use German Personal Pronouns as subject or direct object of a sentence.
  • Today’s information was embedded in insights into German grammar at large.

Our next blog will explain how to work with indirect object pronouns, which in German are in the 3rd of the 4 cases, the Dative Case. The 4th case will be the Possessive or Genitive Case. Our next blog will give you the KEY to working with pronouns in these next and last two cases and you will receive the KEY Personal Pronoun Chart in all 4 cases.                                                     

                                                                                                                 

                                                                                                                                               

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