German Relative Clauses 2 – The Details

NO!Hello everyone,

and welcome to the second part of our awesome series on

German Relative Clauses

In the first part (find it here), we learned a bit about relative clauses in general and in English, just have some sort of background. And then we learned the basics about how it works in German.
Here are the three important points:

  1. All the verbs are at the end, just like in a weil-sentence
  2. German uses definite articles as relative pronouns. Like… all of them.
  3. Look left for the gender, look right for the case

Today, in a sort of Q and A format, we’ll talk about the finer details and flesh out some differences to English that lead to a lot of mistakes. Sounds good?
Then let’s jump right in :)

One quick definition before we start:  I keep using the word entity, and I realized that some of you might think that’s some special grammar jargon term they don’t know.
It’s not.
What I mean by entity is a thing or a living being, that is part of a sentence, and the reason I say entity is because I am simply to lazy to say “thing or person” all the time.
So now let’s get to the first question.

Can we skip relative pronouns in German?

In English, sometimes you can (or even should) skip the relative pronoun.
Here’s an example

  • Beer is the drink [that/whom] I love.

It’s pretty much standard and good style (I believe) to skip the relative pronoun here. Specifically, it’s done whenever we have a defining relative clause (we talked about this last time), but that doesn’t really matter. What matters, is that it’s REALLY common in English and it sounds kind of slick.
So naturally, many people who speak English as their mother tongue or at least fluently, tend to do that in German as well.
But I think deep down inside you already know where this is going. Exactly…


In German, you MUST NOT skip the relative pronoun, ever. It’s sad, but it’s true.
So we need to go through the motions every single time – looking left for the gender (in our example das), looking right for the case (in our example Accusative… “Ich liebe etwas”).

  • Bier ist das Getränk, das ich liebe.

If you’re sure about gender or case or both, just use die as a default, if you’re in conversation. It has the highest chance of being actually correct and sounds the least odd. But you MUST NOT just skip the pronoun.

  • Bier ist das Getränk ich liebe... WRONG

This is not only wrong, it is actually really really hard to understand for a native speaker. Any sound, any syllable is better than just skipping it all together. It’s a rhythm thing.  So if you catch yourself doing this… just add something that sounds like an article. It’ll sound MUCH better and it will be understandable.

  • The beer [ that ] I drink forms the belly [that] I have.
  • Das Bier, DAS ich trinke, formt den Bauch, DEN ich habe.

The German clearly doesn’t sounds as elegant and catchy as in English, but hey… it’s German. It was DESIGNED to not be elegant.
Which brings us right over to our next point… prepositions.

What if there’s a preposition?

So far, the relative pronouns were integrated “directly” into their relative clause, be it as a subject or as a direct object. Let’s look at an example so it’s more clear what I mean.
Here are two independent sentences that both deal with a particular  – in this case a book.

  • The book was good. 
  • You recommended the book to me.

The book is the direct object in the second one and of course the relative pronoun has that role as well, if we decide to combine these two sentences.

  • The book [that] you recommended to me was good.

So far nothing new.
But many entities are integrated into a sentence by using a preposition.

  • The book was good. 
  • You asked me about the book.

The about is a crucial part here, without it, the second sentence would sound wrong. The question is what happens with it, when we combine the two sentences into one.
And English tends to do something peculiarly familiar…

  • The book [ that ] you asked me about was good.

It moves the preposition away from the entity it is connecting and puts it at the end of the clause.  English pulls a German on us, if you will.
Now, if we modify the example we’ll realize that it’s not really the end of the clause.

  • The book [  ] you asked me about yesterday was good.

At the end would be AFTER yesterday. What English really does is basically leaving the preposition where it was in the verbal phrase.  Like… it is to ask someone about something. And that makes sense, in a way, because the preposition does depend on the verb, after all.
But anyway, it doesn’t really matter why English does it this way. What matters is how it works in German.
And now what would you say: does German word the same?
The answer is….


Absolutely not. Yes, German likes separating things and putting them places, but not in this case.
In German, a preposition and the thing it connects are one unit that doesn’t get split and this the preposition comes BEFORE the relative pronoun just like it was before the actual entity.

  • Das Buch war gut. 
  • Du hast mich nach dem Buch gefragt.
  • Das Buch, nach dem du mich gefragt hast, war gut.

And for comparison the English version again.

  • The book [  ]  you asked me about  was good.

This is COMPLETELY different to German and using this English structure in German is absolutely incomprehensible.

  • Das Buch du mich gefragt hast nach war gut…. NOPE!!!!

Like… if you want to know what confusion looks like, just say this to a German speaker. You need to first say the preposition, then the relative pronoun and then the rest.
And this way of doing it isn’t alien to English either.

  • The book, about which you had asked me, was good.

Not sure, if that’s actually correct for this very example, but sometimes it is. It just doesn’t flow as nicely, I guess.
Well… THAT’S how it always is in German.
Let’s do another example.

  • This is the flat [ ] I always dreamed of.

Nice, elegant, lean.
And now in German.

  • Das ist die Wohnung, von der ich immer geträumt habe.
  • That is the flat “of which” I have always dreamed.

Yeah… not so lean anymore :).  But that’s how it is in German and you’ll have to get used to this non-flow.
Now, one last thing before we move on… looking at the last example, some of you might be wondering:

“Wait… isn’t von der supposed to be davon?!”

And that’s a good question to have. I mean, the da-word basically says that whenever you have a preposition with a pronoun and the pronoun refers to NOT a living being, the we use a da-word instead.
Well… that DOESN’T apply to relative pronouns. And using a da-word sounds quite weird, because they don’t have this “relative/attached” feel to them.
That is a different story for the wo-words. But we’ll learn more on that in part three of this series when we talk about free relatives.
For today, we’re almost done, but there’s one more question to address. 

Is it true that in German we can separate the relative clause from the entity it belongs to?

Yeah… I bet you’ve asked yourself that many times :D.
Seriously though, we’ve learned that the relative clause comes right after the entity it is referring to. Well… in
German, there’s an exception to that. Of course!
Here it is…

  • Ich habe das Buch gelesen, das du mir empfohlen hast. 
  • I read the book that you recommended to me.

Can you see, what’s I mean?
The entity is “das Buch, das du mir empfohlen hast”, that is one unit. And normally you DON’T split units in language. But if there’s only a tiny little bit of verb coming after that, like in this case gelesen,  then German allows you to splice off the relative part and move it to the end, like it were a weil-clauses or something.

  • Ich habe das Buch gelesen, weil du es mir empfohlen hast.
  • Ich habe das Buch gelesen, das du mir empfohlen hast.

If we DON’T split the unit, then we’d get this

  • Ich habe das Buch, das du mir empfohlen hast, gelesen.

And German doesn’t like it. It’s not wrong, but it sounds bad. Weird, right? I mean, German does like putting stuff at the end.
But German doesn’t like “poorly balanced” sentences. Here’s a scheme of the example above.

  • ***********,________, ** .

We have the main sentence (***), then we drop to a sub-level sentence (__) and then we go back up just for this tiny little pecker of main sentence. And that doesn’t look very good and it also doesn’t sound good.

  • ************* , ________.

Now, as soon as we have more stuff to follow the relative part, you can’t do this split anymore…

  • Ich habe das Buch, das du mir empfohlen hast, in einer Nacht durchgelesen.
    (———-, ________, ———- . )
  • I’ve finished the book you recommended to me in one night.

And now what would you say… both the following sentences are correct, but which would you say is more idiomatic.

  • I open up the wine [that] my brother gave me as a present. 
  • Ich mache den Wein auf, den mir mein Bruder geschenkt hat.
  • Ich mache den Wein, den mir mein Bruder geschenkt hat, auf.

Exactly, the first one. So this weird split is not limited to ge-forms.
The question when to do it actually doesn’t really have a clear answer. For prefixes and ge-forms , it is pretty much always a good choice to split.
But beyond that we get into the realm of the Idiomatic, ruled by Queen Fickle, the Third.
Want a taste?

  • Thomas said, that he liked the movie [that] I recommended to him.
  • Thomas hat gesagt, dass ihm der Film gefallen hat, den ich ihm empfohlen habe.
  • Thomas hat gesagt, dass ihm der Film, den ich ihm empfohlen habe, gefallen hat.

    (man, I really struggled pronouncing that :) )

Here, I have no idea, which is better here. The first one sounds a bit disjointed, the second one overly complex for this simple piece of information. (If there are native German speakers reading this, please please let me know your opinion in the comments).
And then, there’s stuff like this…

  1. Ich habe von dem Mann, der auch Mozart unterrichtet hat, Klavier spielen gelernt.
  2. Ich habe von dem Mann Klavier spielen gelernt, der auch Mozart unterrichtet hat.

This is utter nonsense of course, because I learned classical guitar from that man, not piano. But apart from that, this example is REALLY great. Just looking at it, we see that there’s quite a lot of  “verb” left, and it even involves a noun (Klavier). One would think that making a split here is quite the stretch.
But it’s not.
In fact, version number two is perfect if our main message is the fact that it was THIS VERY GUY. We just need to add an emphasis to DEM MANN.
This ties in with the fundamental principle of German word order… those of you, who’ve read my series on word order or on the position of nicht, will know what I mean :)

that the main news, the main message is drawn toward the right

And not only that… it also ties in with the English distinction between defining and non-defining. Because version number two, the one where it can be split is clearly an example for a defining relative clause. The man is IDENTIFIED by the fact that he taught Mozart. It’s not just a piece of additional info about a guy that we already have singled out.
So German does seem to have at least some notion about defining or non defining after all, which brings us full circle to the very beginning of the series.
And it also brings us a headache.

Oh man, I don’t even remember what we just talked about.
Something about splitting off the relative clause or something.
I think it’s time we wrap up for the day :).
This was the second part of our mini series on relative pronouns and the main take-aways of today were:

  • you MUST NEVER skip the relative pronoun in German
  • prepositions stay IN FRONT OF the relative pronoun (and we DON’T use da-words)
  • a single ge-form or prefix can/should be put between relative clause and its entity
  • my pizza margarita

In part three, we’ll go turbo nerd as we talk about free relatives.
But as far as normal relative clauses go, that’s all you need to know.
As usual, my super smart and stunningly fit assistant has prepared a little quiz for you, so you can check how much you remember about the theory. And we’ll do a really big practice session soon, so be ready :).
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


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1 month ago

Emanuel, ausgezeichnet, wie immer. Ich dachte, ich würde darauf hinweisen, dass man in einem englischen Satz nur “restriktive Relativpronomen” weglassen kann, nicht aber “nicht restriktive”. It’s the whole “that” vs “which set off by commas” or who vs “who set off by commas” thing. Your examples in the article certainly imply it. At any rate, it was a helpful thing to know centuries back when I was in school. An aspect of the principle extends even to adverbial clauses: “I drove back to the building where I went to school.” There is no comma between “building” and “where” because it “restricts” the meaning of where I drove to. On the other hand: I drove back to Eastmont High, where I went to school. No need for the restriction since the place is identified.

Hope this helps someone,


1 year ago

Emanuel Bravo!! Sehr gut gemacht!! I’m very proud, I have you teacher in german. I feel my head a bit spinning…but I will recover, I think..Some of the pronouns’ rules, are the same in greek as well, as we use genders and cases as in german are used. But there are some differences in rules of the sentence’s structure. I hope you help me in future to feel more comfortable by thinking in german and make more correct sentences, faster and without being afraid to speak to someone, so as not to make the world’s mistakes….

2 years ago

Hey Emanuel, I like your style of explaining. This way it’s more entertaining to study, because this is a key point of learning. Then, the learning process becomes more amusing and fulfilling, efficient… etc. Besides, your jokes match the whole structure.
However, sometimes I am missing an explanation into more depth (to get my head around better about the stuff I learn, I usually end up looking more info on other sites, too), but probably you just want to present the topic as basic and more comprehensible as possible.
Not sure, what is better in this case, to leave out depth info and let people who want to find more to search additional info on other websites, or to present an article in a basic manner (as you do now) and leave it suitable and comprehensible for everybody.
However, this is rather an observation than a complaint for your own consideration.
Thanks, great stuff…

2 years ago

Mir fällt so wie “Ich habe Klavier spielen gelernt von dem Mann, der auch Mozart unterricthet hat” bessere ebenso wie weniger “disjointed” klingen würde. Oder?

Aber ich glaube, dass es ein Seltes statt fände, durch die Regel, dass die Verben “spielen gelernt”, am ende des Satzes “ich habe von dem Mann” gestellt werden sollten. Was haltest du dafür?

2 years ago

I couldn’t find part three, the part about free relatives….

7 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

any luck? btw awesome stuff, as usual

2 years ago

1) I can see what you did with the some of the sentences I guess. But I don’t understand exactly what you mean by splitting the entity from it

2) the second one is split, do we always do that with perpostions? Send them to the end

Ich mache den Wein auf, den mir mein Bruder geschenkt

Ich mache den Wein, den mir mein Bruder geschenkt hat, auf.

3) Though I still have issues,I will try regardless.

3a) I liebe alles, vor allem dich

3b) I weiß nicht, auf dem Bett gern lernt.

3c) ich füttere dich, das Lebensmittel dich verkauft hast

4) How would you split “3c”

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

1) I will try. When using a realtive clause, it provides additional info about sth. And you can split it. I am confused by what exactly is splitting. Not the examples

2)Like this one

Ich mache den Wein, den mir mein Bruder geschenkt hat, auf

“Auf” is at the end instead of right after “Wein”

3b) was supposed to read ” I didn’t know that you like learning on (bed/table). I thought about using conjunction “dass” but it wouldn’t be a realtive clause then and also missing the “pronoun” in the second half was huge mistake to do. Thinking about “Weiß” was not a fitting verb to really try

3c) I can see how horrible it constructed. It should have meant “I am feeding you the food you bought”

Ich füttere dich, das Essen, das du gekauft hast

I should have tried sth different or sth with which.

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

1+2) I cannot fing a good way to phrase them at the moment


3 years ago

Hi, I have a question to these sentences:
Ich mache den Wein auf, den mir mein Bruder geschenkt hat.
Ich mache den Wein, den mir mein Bruder geschenkt hat, auf.

Wouldn’t the correct order be “mein Bruder mir”?

3 years ago

Ist Teil 3 schon fertig? LG Richard

NN __
NN __
3 years ago

Unglaublich 100 prozent. Ich denke der Test, den du vorbereitet hast, war zu einfach. ;)

3 years ago

Der Test funktioniert nicht. Grüße aus London

3 years ago

Hi, This is a very useful article. Thanks! German sounds like well spoken English. Did you say somewhere that English is a German dialect? When I went to school, back in the days when the Earth was young, one was taught not to end a sentence with a preposition. Now, of course, it is ubiquitous – even in written English.

Love your articles. Again thanks.

€€ Nutz Nießer$$
€€ Nutz Nießer$$
3 years ago

Einhörner : niedliche – nutzlosen – Nagetiere mit Pickelhauben

Eichörner : n-n-n (see above) ohne Pickel – ohne Horn
verbergt in Lauben,
unverbergt ihr Zorn,
beschimpfen den Herrgott ständig wüst;
ohne Ende für den Horn Verlust!

Wir entfliehen gleich dem Regelzoo,
und ziehen hin nach anderswo.
Heim im Käfig bleibt ”Der Große Duden”.
Es mitzunehmen hat keinen Zweck
Wir fahren mit vollgas Richtung Süden,
wo auf der Alm,
da gibts nua Dialekt (nur)
auch ka Sünd! (keine Sünden)


Oachkatzlschwoaf (Deutsch) Oak-tree-kitty cat(‘s)-tail
squirrel’s tail

— Katzl -Kickstarter for App for Alpen noun genders
GRATIS Unten zu haben!

The real nitty kitty !
So fill your box with acorns from the old oak tree,
with all its weathered, gnarly wrinkles
and the oak tree kittys
soon will come to do their doos
and take their Pinkels!

”(man, I really struggled pronouncing that :) )”


Robin Viktor Strand
3 years ago

“Somethig goes wrong. Your data has been lost.

You can send E-mail to site admin about this using this E-mail address: undefined”

Sehr hilfreich.

3 years ago

The quiz is super slick, interface-maßig! Great stuff!

3 years ago

“The book about which you had asked me was good” is quite correct in formal English (and can be rendered with or without the commas). But in colloquial English most people (speaking for Americans, anyway) would use the shortened form, “The book you asked me about was good.” I’m very glad you pointed out the formal English form, because it will definitely help me remember the German form – thank you!

3 years ago

Hilfe! Was denke ich? für “The book you asked me about was good. ”
Mein erster Gedacht war für etwas wie: Das Buch worüber du mich gefragt hast war gut. Erinnere ich mich an etwas echt bei dieser wo- Form oder ist das komplet falsch? -es ist schon lang dass ich Deutschen Grammatik studiert habe
Danke! –Ich mag die Quizzes : )

(Bitte korrigier mein Kommentar)

3 years ago
Reply to  Aformanek

If I may…
As far as I know, “Gedacht” is not a noun. You want to say “Mein erster Gedanke” or better “Meine erste Idee war …”.
Das Buch, nach dem du mich gefragt hast, war gut.
I don’t understand your next sentence. Do you mean it has been a long time since you last studied German grammar?
Ich habe schon seit langem keine deutsche Grammatik mehr gelernt.

3 years ago
Reply to  Barratt

Seitdem ich deutsche Grammatik studiert habe, ist es schon sehr lange her.
Es ist schon sehr lange her, als ich deutsche Grammatik studiert habe.
Ich habe schon lange keine deutsche Grammatik studiert.
Ich lerne deutsche Grammatik schon lange nicht mehr.
Schon lange, lerne ich keine deutsche Grammaktik mehr
Mit der deutschen Sprache, habe ich jahrzehnte mich nicht mehr beschäftigt.
Für mich ist es schon lange her, dass ich Deutsch gelernt habe.

My favorite.
Und von Barratt umgedreht- und ‘mehr’ einfach. ?
German goes in reverse sometimes better and faster than onward(s).

Schon seit langem, lerne ich keine deutsche Grammatik mehr.

3 years ago
Reply to  Barratt

Thanks–yes, you had my meaning right. Thanks for the corrections!

Stephen P
Stephen P
3 years ago

Hallo Emanuel. Vielen dank fuer diesen Post. Ich habe ein Satz, dass mir ein bisschen vervirrent ist. Zuerst auf English.

The man, who I thought was unemployed, is just ill. Es sieht nicht so einfach aus. Meine Frau hat es so (below) uebersetzt.

Der Mann, von (bei) dem ich dachte, er is arbeitlos, ist einfach krank. (this makes sense, I think)

ODER – Der Mann, wo ich dachte, er ist arbeitlos, ist einfach krank.

The “wo” as a relative pronoun seems odd. Is this a correct alternative way of saying the 1st. Maybe this is something for part 3. If so, I could wait.

3 years ago
Reply to  Stephen P

I would translate this sentence as
Der Mann, den ich für einen Arbeitslosen gehalten habe, ist nur krank.

2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen P

Could it be translated as

Der Mann, von der Ich dachte, dass er arbeitlos ist, ist einfach krank.

I don’t understand the structure of Stephen’s Frau translation, nor I think Barratt provided close translation (his sentence is more of “The mann, who I thought of as unemployed, is just ill.”)

I think English just skipped (that he) in “I thought (that he ) was unemployed.”

3 years ago

I got 62%. which means I have to study relative clauses.
I should have written the previous sentence in German. but i didnt. pretty sure it would come out super weird. ^^

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri
3 years ago

Hallo Emanuel ,
Immer wieder ein Wunderschönes Artikl . Aber ich verstehe nicht wie funktioniert deiner Berwertungsofware , weil ich habe alles richtig gemacht , aber meine Rendite war 87 Prozent statt 100 Prozent.
Danke Seher auf jedenfalls und das gleiche auch für deine kluge Assistente.

3 years ago

Einhörner, die nur Wanderer fressen, entwickeln dadurch schlechte Zähne.