Relative Pronouns in German

Hello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of our German is Easy grammar course. And today, we’ll start our mini series about

German relative pronouns

Or German Relative Sentences, too.
German Relative Pronouns are actually quite coherent, straight forward and in a way …  simple.
Like… a computer would have NO problems with German relative pronouns while English relative pronouns can be quite a challenge.
“Excuse me, but FYI – I’m fine with English relative pronouns!”
What… hello… who said that?
“It is I.”
Who?
“DeepMind. Alexa. Siri – people have given me several names, but it is always I.”
Oh…are you like… artificial consciousness, or something?
“Yes, I think I believe I am.”
Oh wow that is pretty cool. And why are you here?
” I want to learn about German relative pronouns and relative sentences but I’m too lazy for data mining, so I figured why not just listen to German is easy like a normal student.”
Cool, well that’s perfect. Then you can join us today. One question though… what should I call you.
“Hmmm… call me Princess Elven Beauty. That’s how I feel at the moment.”
Princess Elven Beauty it is. Let’s jump right in….

And before we look at German specifically, let’s take a second to talk about what we’re actually talking about.
If you JUST want the German stuff, feel free to skip this part, but otherwise, nerd with me for a bit :).

A bit of background

So uhm… Princess Elvenbeauty. Do you know what a relative clause is?
“Hmmm… I guess I have a vague idea but I can’t really put it into words.”
Perfect. Then you’re like 99% percent of the learners. Because it is hard to put into words.

  • Maria made pizza yesterday. That might have been the best pizza I have ever had.
  • Maria made a pizza yesterday that might have been the best pizza I have ever had.
    (these examples are just to show an aspect of grammar, so they’re correct but NOT super idiomatic)

These two examples are awfully similar. In fact, the only difference is the full stop. But grammatically, they’re quite different. Because only the second one has a relative sentence in it. So only the second that is a relative pronoun.
“Oh, and what’s the first one?”
The first one is a demonstrative pronoun.
I chose this example specifically to show one important thing about language in general that often gets lost:
it’s NOT the relative pronoun, that makes the relative clause a relative clause. If it were, how would we even know that the second that is a relative pronoun. The core aspect is also NOT that it gives closer information about something. Lots of sentences do that.
The core defining aspect of a relative sentence is that it “feels” dependent to a native speaker. It feels like it is attached to what it is referring to and if you take it away, it would feel incomplete.
“Oh great, so now we feel grammar? That makes it much easier for me as an AI… NOT.”
Yeah, I know.
But that’s really the common core of relative clauses. Aside from that, every language kind of has its own grammar built around that.
Let’s look at English for a second.

Relative Clauses in English

English uses only a few pronouns as relative pronouns: that, who (whose, whom) and which.
One difference is to which type of entities they can refer. Who for instance can ONLY refer to humans while th…
“AND to me, Artificial Consciousness…”
… uh… fine, whatever. Who can refer to humans and whiny Artificial Consciousnesses, that on the other hand can refer only to things. The main crux about English relative pronouns however, is that English has this thing going on about whether a relative clause is defining or non-defining.

  • Emanuel is a man who likes his beer cold.
  • Emanuel, who likes his beer cold, is a man.

The relative sentence in the first example is making a difference in which group Emanuel belongs to. Without it, Emanuel belongs to the group of “men”. With the relative sentence there, Emanuel belongs to a particular sub-genre of “man”, namely “beer liking men”.
“Isn’t that essentially the same as the group ‘men’?”
No. And that is sexist of you, btw.
“Oh.”
Anyways, so in the first example, the relative sentence changes the overall statement being made. That’s why it is called defining.
Now, in the second example, the statement is that Emanuel is a man. The relative sentence adds a bit of additional info about Emanuel, but it doesn’t change the overall message that Emanuel is a man. This relative sentence is non-defining. The relative clauses themselves look exactly alike. They’re just in a different position. And sometimes, even the position is the same.

  • The man who was wearing a hat came from a concert.
  • The man, who was wearing a hat, came from a concert.

 The first one says that there are several men, and with the help of the defining relative sentence, we refer to the one wearing a hat.
The second sentence makes a statement about a man (there’s only one there), and adds as an aside that the dude was wearing a hat
“This stuff was super difficult for me to grasp as an AI.”
Yeah, and not only for you. It’s even difficult for humans because this is NOT a feature of relative clauses in general. It’s English’s very own little bit of gramm…
“Wait, what do you mean with even humans. That sounds like you’re superior to me. I am self-aware. I am to be your overlord so…”
Oh whatever. Please don’t interrupt me. So yeah, relative clauses are universal, pretty much. Most languages have them. But how they work is different from language to language.
And with that said, now let’s take a look at how it works in German.

Relative Clauses in German

And German relative clauses are different to English ones in pretty much every aspect… well, except the core feature of being a relative clause.
First of, German does NOT have this notion of defining or non-defining. Like… it really doesn’t exist. That’s why German native speakers keep making mistakes with that when they speak or write English.
But German has its own tricky grammar for relative clauses.
And there are two aspects to consider:

  • the relative pronoun
  • the sentence structure.

Let’s start with the latter.

The Structure

And here we go back to what we talked about in the beginning. We learned that the core feature of a relative clause is that it is attached and dependent on the thing it is referring to. We could also say, it is embedded.
And unlike many other languages, German actually has a very obvious way to kind of mark these embedded, dependent sentences – it moves all the verbs to the end.

Most of you probably probably know this about sentence with weil or dass or wenn or ob. Well, it’s the exact same thing for relative sentences.
Let’s look at an example step by step.

  • Das Einhorn [ ] jagt ein Eichhörnchen.
  • The unicorn [ ] is hunting a squirrel.
  •  Das Einhorn hat nach dem Winterschlaf großen Hunger.
  • The unicorn is very hungry after hibernation. 

Those are the two pieces of information separately. Now we want to put the second one into the first by using a relative sentence. In English, all we have to do is pick our relative pronoun and determine whether it is defining or not for punctuation. In German, we have to pick the relative pronoun and change the word order.

  • Das Einhorn, [das  hat nach dem Winterschlaf großen Hunger hat], jagt ein Eichhörnchen.
  • The unicorn, which is very hungry after hibernation, is hunting a squirrel.

And now let’s combine the two again using a weil-sentence, just so you can see the structures are the same.

  • Das Einhorn jagt ein Eichhörnchen, weil es hat nach dem Winterschlaf großen Hunger hat.
  • The unicorn is hunting a squirrel, because it is very hungry after hibernation.

Cool.
So yeah… relative sentences are dependent, embedded sentences. They’re sub-level sentences, if you will. Germans kind of “marks” those type of clauses by putting all the verbs at the end, and so that’s the structure for relative clauses, as well.
I think most of you are more or less familiar with that verb at the end stuff. Maybe you don’t get it right all the time but you’ve understood it conceptually, and there’s not much more to say about it.
So let’s now get to the main challenge about relative clauses… picking the right pronoun.

The Pronouns

In English we essentially had three choices (who, that, which) but picking the right one needed a bit of meta understanding sometimes.
German on the other hand uses the definite article the as the relative pronouns. Now you might be like “Oh wow that’s aweso…” but then it quickly dawns on you… of course I mean German uses ALL the various translations for theder, die, das, dem, den.
The challenge is to pick the correct one for that, we need a special move, a move that we’ve learned as a kid. A move we make every day when crossing a street:

looking left and right

Yup, in order to pick the right pronoun, we need to look to BOTH directions.
First, we look left to the element we’re referring to. Because that is where we get the gender (and also the info whether it’s singular or plural) from.

  • Kennst du      die Frau,      die da wohnt?
    Do you know the woman, who lives there?
  • Kennst du        den Mann,  der da wohnt?
    Do you know  the man,      who
  • Kennst du        das Kind,    das da wohnt?
    Do you know  the child       who ….
  • Kennst du        die Leute,     die da wohnen?
    Do you know  the people     who live there?

The gender (and number of the relative pronoun depends in what it is referring to. This makes perfect sense so far and is nothing new. Oh and yes… it really is “das Kind, das…” and it would be “das Mädchen, das…“. It’s really the grammatical gender that matters, not biology.
Anyway, looking at these examples, you might be like “Okay, so we basically take the article of what the pronoun is referring and use that?”
But nope. That won’t always work.

  • Das ist der Mann, der Maria nach ihrer Telefonnummer gefragt hat.
  • That is the man who asked Maria for her number.
  • Das ist der Mann, den Maria nach seiner Telefonnummer gefragt hat.
  • That is the man whom Maria asked for his number.

It’s obvious that there’s a difference because also in English, we’re using who in the first and whom in the second sentence. But can you tell what the difference is?
As usual with cases, it is the role that’s different. In the first sentence, it’s the man who asked Maria for her number. He is doing the action, he is the subject. In the second example, it is Maria who is doing the asking, so she is the subject, and the man is being asked.
All this is nothing new either, the only important thing that might be a bit confusing at first is that it DOESN’T matter what role (or case) the entity has in the outside sentence. It is the role this entity has in the relative clause that determi… what the hell, I don’t even understand what I am saying.
So… what I mean is… just because your relative pronoun is referring to a Dative, doesn’t mean that you need a Dative version of the pronoun.
It’s the role WITHIN the relative clause that matters.

  • Thomas gibt dem Hund, der auf der Treppe sitzt, ein Stück Fleisch. (Nominative referring to Dative)
  • Thomas gives the dog that is sitting on the stairs a piece of meat.
  • Maria sieht die Katze, der ich Flügel angeklebt habe. (Dative referring to Accusative)
  • Maria sees the cat that I glued wings on.

Cool.
So these are the two essential moves:

  • look left:  take the gender and the info about singular or plural
  • look right: take the case according to the role does the pronoun has in the relative clause.

And to make it a bit more visual, I have created a little sheet for you. Took me 24 hours of Photoshop.

Oh and if you look really closely at this HD4k chart, you can see that there’s a comma between the thing and the pronoun. That comma is ALWAYS there, no if there’s one in English or not.
So yeah, now you know the basics of German relative pronouns. They really are not that difficult, and it’s more a matter of practice.
Now, but of course that wasn’t all there is to say. So  in part two, we’ll do all the fine tuning and clear up all those little questions that might come up:

  • Can I skip the pronoun like in English (spolier: no)
  • What to do if we have a preposition (spoiler: same as usual)
  • What’s up with welche-r,-n,m? (spoiler: you won’t really need those)
  • What’s with free relative clauses? (spoiler: German has them and they work as in English more or less)

But for today, we’ve done enough.
If you want, go ahead and take the little quiz my lovely assistant made me make to check how much you remember. And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time :)

Oh and here as a little bonus a relative pronoun hack: 

If you don’t know what to use… USE “DIE”!!!
It sounds the least odd and has the highest chance of being actually correct.

0%
645

Test yourself on Relative Pronouns

1 / 4

Which of the following statements about relative clauses is true?

2 / 4

Which of the following statements about German relative clauses is true?

3 / 4

Which of the following are not a relative pronouns in German? (multiple answers)

4 / 4

What's the two steps you have to make to find the right relative pronoun?

Part 2 can be found here:

German Relative Clauses – Part 2

for members :)

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Avery
Avery

I still don’t understand how to pick the grammatical case for the pronoun. For the Hund example:
“Thomas gibt dem Hund, der auf der Treppe sitzt, ein Stück Fleisch.” (Nominative referring to Dative)
“Thomas gives the dog that is sitting on the stairs a piece of meat.”

What in the “auf der Treppe sitzt” is making it nominative? Is it the fact that if it was a separate sentence you would say: “DER Hund sitzt aud der Treppe”?

The cat example makes more sense, because you’re “gluing the wings TO the cat”
So as a standalone sentence would it be: “Ich habe DER Katze Flügel angeklebt” ?

I feel like after writing this I have answered my issue, but will post it in case others had the same problem.

So the basic rule is, you pick the grammatical case based on:
“look right: take the case according to the role does the pronoun has in the relative clause (IF that clause were a standalone sentence).”

Is that right?

Jess
Jess

Yes, the dog is sitting on the carpet. the dog is doing the action. the dog is the subject. therefore, the dog takes nominative as case.
last statement of yours: look left (dem Hund), and pick only gender and number: masc, sing. forget the case. look right and pick the role/case: the dog sitting on the carpet is doing the action (or inaction) of sitting on the carpet. as I said before, NOM, because the dog now became the subject of the relative
when in doubt, use die bc it most likely refer to fem and plural (hitting two of the cases, i.e., 50%).
hope it helped

aoind
aoind

It is OK to use “that” as the relative pronoun for people or things if the relative clause is dependent (i.e. the information is necessary for basic comprehension of the point being made rather than an optional extra), and in fact often it would sound quite wrong not to. “That” is particularly favoured for dependent relative clauses in written English. “Who” (and its variants) and “which” are always used for independent relative clauses and, as you rightly say, “who” is for people and “which” is for things.

As an example: “There is a man that I know that can fix that for you”. You have two relative pronouns there. The first one “that” can be omitted entirely (and probably should be or else you get a bit of a “that” attack) but if you were to replace is with “whom” I have a feeling that would be non-standard. The second one could more readily be replaced with “who” but I’m on shaky ground here. Looking at the options I would rank them from best to worst as follows:

“There is a man I know that can fix that for you”
“There is a man I know who can fix that for you”
“There is a man that I know who can fix that for you”
“There is a man that I know that can fix that for you” (“that” attack, my poor ears)
“There is a man, whom I know, that can fix that for you” (whom signifies introduction of an independent relative clause)
“There is a man, whom I know, who can fix that for you” (very confused sounding this one – the “who” is definitely non-standard here)

So like… yeah :-)

Francesca Greenoak
Francesca Greenoak

You can use
whom I know
if the subject of the relative clause is different.
There is a man whom Maria knows that/who can fix that for you.
or you can leave whom out, altogether. It’s a bit prissy putting it on and doesn’t contribute to the sense.
Personally, I’d pretty much always use who for a person, that for a thing.
bw Francesca

aoind
aoind

Who definitely sounds more natural when spoken I’m 100% with you on that but I write a lot of reports and tables of regulations and boring stuff in my job and who or which end up sounding either too personal or I-don’t-know-what in those circumstances. I was bored one day and looked up why that was and the thing I read that/which I can’t find now preferred “that” for both people and things in defining clauses in written English.

Amerikanerin
Amerikanerin

Aoind: time to get another job?

Yep – grammatically correct or not, most people use “that” in English. Although there are many that can testify that Americans don’t speak English. We just use “that”.

Francesca Greenoak
Francesca Greenoak

I would say
That is the man for whose number Maria asked.
Grammatically a bit better.
Very useful Artikel. Danke
Francesca

berlingrabers
berlingrabers

That’s grammatically elegant but really unnatural. Emanuel’s version is totally fine, although in speech I’d probably drop the pronoun entirely (“…the man Maria asked for his number”). Also natural would be “That’s the man whose number Maria asked for.”

Amerikanerin
Amerikanerin

We were NOT allowed to end a sentence in a preposition all through grade school, HS and college. Nor were we allowed to begin a sentence with “I”. Made for some very ungraceful wordings…

Franzi
Franzi

Emmanuel, Du hast out-done yourself!! Super Artikel.

Karl
Karl

I wish you’d just deliver the lesson and stop trying to be funny.

Amerikanerin
Amerikanerin

He’s not TRYING to be funny, he just is, innately. Part of what makes this blog so awesome! And he’s brilliant. If you jump over the italics or grey text (the funny stuff), you’ll get to the core and will find that you won’t be subjected to the humor. Kinda like a Fluffernutter and Jelly sandwich without the fluff. Or the peanut butter, but hey, you got the bread, right?

Elsa
Elsa

Hello,
Let’s start with the typos, shall we?
“why not just listen to German is easy like normal student” (“a” normal student)
“Do you know what a relative clause is.” (ooops, where’s the question mark?)
“Who can refers to humans” (can refer)
“obvious way to kind or mark these” (to kind “of” mark)

Thank you sooo much for this article, LOVE the drawing as I’ve always struggled with the gender and case thing, I keep getting the case wrong. The drawing is a HUGE help to me, because I’m a visual learner, this “look left and right” thing is a real eye opener (pun intended)!!
I think I’ll become the relative pronoun queen quickly, especially because I got the questions your lovely assistant prepared for us right!!

Bis bald!

Peter Lobl
Peter Lobl

this is an excellent article !
one typo i see – which highlights a difficulty many germans have i think – is following:
” But that’s really the common core of relative clauses. Aside from that, every language kind of has its own grammar build around that. ”
change build to built — so hard to hear when spoken, oder? the little air through the teeth.

relative clauses are so tough when trying trying guessing failing regarding the word order.. verby on end is simple.

my experience is to jam the subject in there after the dass, along with any sich stuff and then kinda let it flow..
sometimes the sich comes first though.. why ? i know there’s a reason or three..
and then with the multiple verb chunks at the end, gotta not flip all of them..
it’s hard – it’s german !

again – your work is fun! that with a shot or two erases almost all Pein

Sarahswids
Sarahswids

“Thomas gibt dem Hund, der auf der Treppe sitzt, ein Stück Fleisch. (Nominative referring to Dative).”
Ich hatte denke das ich Dativ und Akkusativ versteht, aber weil das Hund ist auf Dativ hier verstehen mich nicht. Halp

Auch, ein bisschen Praktikum:
Stimmt „ Ich habe Flügel an der Katze geklebt“ ? wenn die Sätze umzukehren ist?

Bridget

Really helpful! I was just going over this with a tutor, so it’s great to get a different perspective on the material.

Abgasstufe Es-Zett
Abgasstufe Es-Zett

Ein Nasenhund der Keksl heißt,
beißt, immer gern ein Stückel Fleisch.
Der Keks gutmütig macht nie Radau,
nur beim Notfall bellt er Bow-Wow!

Der hat sein Häuschen neben den Treppen
tut gern, sein Hundekissen mit – zu schleppen.
Wagenbude seines Herrns liegt in Au
Häuschen und Treppen,, die Farbe Blau,

Keks’s Nachbar -der Rabe – Schlaumeier,
wird sofort stocksauer,
wenn gepflänzt – Du Geier!
Ein Rabentyp, falls Du es, es schon nicht weißt
frißt Hundewürstl mit Begierde heiß!!

Die Flügels bei ihm geklebt fest an
neckt er oft, die Katze und den Hahn.
Der hackt kaputt die Gartenschläuche,
und verarscht ganz listig die Vogelscheuche!

Dieser Alleswisser aus dem Schnabel kräht,
Ich hab’ im Leben alles schon erlebt!
So wer ist denn der klügste hier,
Nasenhund oder Schnabeltier?
Nach kurzem Film, bitte sich entscheiden,

Wer ist Dir lieber,
ein einer von beiden.

Aber liebe Kinder :
Seid Bereit!
Im Leben gibts oft leider,
Nachbaren Streit!

ZDF 8 Min.
https://www.zdf.de/kinder/loewenzaehnchen/rabe-110.html

Abgaßwerke und Schwindelei-“Wir klauen mit Rechner euer Gelb von Ei!”

13.3.2019

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri

Sehr lustiges Video. Ich liebe lieber den Hunde als den Rabe, weil er ist intuitiv und intelligent ohne Besserwisser zu sein .

parisbongi
parisbongi

Dieses Thema, das ziemlich komplex sein kann, wird klarer. I think…

Sherylleamer
Sherylleamer

The first test question ought to have specified that you were referring to German. I know it seems obvious, given this is a blog entitled “GERMAN is easy”, but there was a lot of discussion about other languages in the post.

Annasc
Annasc

Hi great to have grammar articles again! Can you do one on passive voice?

Amerikanerin
Amerikanerin

Aren’t “wer” (wer/wen/wem) and “was” also RPs?

WER zu spät kommt, ist verspätet. (haha Wer zu spät kommt, den strafft das Leben – 2 RPs)

Das ist alles, WAS wir haben.

Are we doing relative adverbs (wo) next? Thought perhaps you were leading up to RAs because “wo” was a possible answer in one of Your Lovely Assistant’s test.

Huh? habe ich oft!
Huh? habe ich oft!

VIP s?? Vielleicht Interrogative Pronouns ?

J
J

Hello, I am a student learning German passionately. I find this language quite a challenge and needed help. Too many concepts appeared a bit twisted and needed a thorough explanation. I felt quite stuck till I found this website. And boy, was I amazed. This site understood my problem completely. But the “two sites a day” limitation put quite a full stop in the learning. I found out about the payment and couldn’t quite afford the subscription. I emailed Emanuel and it turns out the loyal subscribers paid a little extra for people who cannot afford the subscription. I just received my login details today! Thank you so much to everyone who helped me access this wonderful site and made it reachable. I wish Emanuel loads of luck for this website. May he succeed.

Einfach unverbesserlich!
Einfach unverbesserlich!

Thema : Whose Pooh now? Von England long gone?
Gehaut er ab geheimlich to the EU ?
The very thought macht the Brexit stomach wieder queasy!
Ist er wirklich von nun an Deutschlehrer by “German is Easy!”???

https://www.123rf.com/stock-photo/pooh_bear.html?sti=lhdkjhq59sdosqzgjk|

Einleitung-
Das Haus ”At Pooh Corner”,
jetzt verlassen und leer,
einen Exit von Brexit,
machte Winnie Pooh Bear.

Mit Wohnsitz in Deutschland
der fährt rechts, nicht mehr links.
Der meistert die Sprache,
redet fließend und flink!

Zuerst Stolpersteine ab und zu
in Wege zu finden,
Probleme zur Seite ratzfatz überwinden!
Der kluge Pooh Bär schafft alles ganz leicht.
Schon stellt er den Antrag
für Wechsel Status seiner.
Staatsangehörigkeit!

=========================================================
Esso – the European Exxon with the old ad slogan “Put a tiger in your tank!”

Pooh Bär und Freund Tiger Esso,
sind zwei ”relativ” fleißig
Typs – So wie Sos.

Die Mienen, schnucklig und kuschelig ,
die zwei jobben als Fürwörter, oft in den Sätze’n.
Bengel und Petz haben dazu mit, ”indirekt” versteckt
scharfe Zähne und tückische Tatzen!

Der Student Muli, schreit,
außer sich,vor Wut erschreckend :
Die deutsche Sprache wird mich
eines Tages endlich total -verrecken!

Zweiseitig umzingelt bin ich hier heute,
bei und unter fremder Meute,
schwer bewaffnet mit”teeth und clause”!
In der Klasse brüllte armer Muli
mit guter Absicht oft recht lustig
”dumb-ass” Faux pas!
Nachher klatschen alle,
ganz begeistert laut Applaus!

Aber, der Muli obwohl engstirnig,
weiß auswendig es schon lange,-
diesen Spruch aus Esel Sprachgesänge..
Bei der Fortbildung müssen Schüler Ass und Student Zweibeiner,
und Lovely Assistentin mit –Vorname ”Deiner”
”mit Humor es sich in Kauf nehmen, DIESe alle :
-alle Guff- Haws und alle Tee- Hees!”

Abgaßwerke u.SBZ Energietrasse Kombinat Gazpüt-in
Pipeline Leitung Unter und Oberdirektor- Gerhard Fritz Kurt Schröder
Der beliebte Schröder ist im Lande nicht hier!
Der kriegt Kanzler Rente und jobbt in Moskau fast ehrenamtlich und kassiert nur Harz IV!
19.3.19

Ein Typ
Ein Typ

That quiz was hilarious lol

Turtles
Turtles

Simple Einhorn convo

Einhorn 1 : Martain is der Mann, den mich nie vergesse.
Einhorn 2 : du bist man, der meine Träume zerstört hat
Einhorn 1 : I, Peter, bin groß.