A complete guide on how to use German relative pronouns
Published on December 15, 2022 / Updated on January 3, 2024
Pronouns are an essential part of any language: They not only make it more interesting and readable but also allow you to add more information on the topic, thing or person you are talking about. The German relative pronouns, or Relativpronomen, do exactly this: providing you with a way to refer back to a noun you have used earlier in a sentence.
Sounds like a lot of theory? Don’t worry, we have collected a comprehensive guide to the German relative pronouns, including different examples of how to use them. This way, you will speak German like a pro in no time!
Pronouns, generally speaking, can take the place of any noun in your sentence. In fact, the word is very close to its Latin roots: pro means “for” and “noun” is derived from nomen, meaning name. Get it? It’s a word you use for a noun. Pronouns make language a lot nicer to listen to, as we would otherwise need to repeat the original noun over and over again.
Relative pronouns specifically refer to objects or people mentioned earlier in the sentence. When used in a sentence, relative pronouns usually introduce a relative clause in which we are provided with more information about the subject. In English, the relative pronouns are who, whom, whose and that.
The coffee that I’m drinking is hot.
The man whose coffee I’m preparing is nice.
The man who has ordered the coffee is nice.
The man whom I’m talking to is drinking coffee.
German is infamous for its complex grammar, particularly when it comes to articles and pronouns. Unlike English, the German language differentiates between different grammatical genders and four different grammatical cases, all of which are declined differently. Here you can see all German relative pronouns in a useful chart:
At first sight, that list may look a bit overwhelming, but don’t worry, we will dive into the details of when to use which pronoun!
As we have seen in the table above, the use of the correct relative pronoun in German depends on both the grammatical gender of the noun you want to refer to and the grammatical case. While you will need to learn grammatical gender along with each noun (think of the German articles der, die, das), the grammatical cases follow strict rules. Note that, unlike English, German requires you to always use a comma when forming a relative clause with a relative pronoun.
In the nominative case, the relative pronoun translates to either that or who:
Die Jacke, die ich heute trage, ist grün.
The jacket that I’m wearing today is green.
The gender of die Jacke is feminine, which is why we use die.
The accusative case is used when translating that or whom:
Der Mann, den ich heute treffe, ist groß.
The man whom I’m meeting today is tall.
Because der Mann has a masculine gender, we use den.
The dative case is used when translating that or whom in combination with a preposition:
Das Mädchen, mit dem ich tanze, ist hübsch.
The girl with whom I’m dancing is pretty.
We use dem because the grammatical gender of das Mädchen is neutral.
Finally, the genitive case is used to express ownership and translates to that or whose:
Die Menschen, deren Haus ich miete, sind nett.
The people whose house I’m renting are nice.
Die Menschen is plural, which means we have to use deren.
German grammar has made a name for itself for its complexity, but as we have seen, there are only two questions to ask yourself when using a relative pronoun: which gender the subject of the sentence has and which grammatical case you are using? Don’t worry if you still make some mistakes in the beginning. The more you practice the German language, the sooner you’ll get to speaking confidence and fluency!