The Difference Between Du, Ihr & Sie
Hallo, Deutschlerner. Welcome to Lesson #4 in my new Beginner German series. Today I’m going to introduce you to the three versions of “you” in German: du, ihr and Sie. I’ll explain when to use each one and show you a bit about conjugating verbs in German. Don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel so you never miss a video.
You can also get the extra materials for this lesson about the difference between du, ihr and Sie in German including a worksheet with answer key and mp3 files along with the text guide to help you practice your pronunciation by clicking here.
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Formal vs Informal “you” in German
You may have noticed in the last two lessons that I mentioned the difference between formal and informal greetings and farewells. This concept isn’t just limited to these. It also shows up in the second person pronouns. Second person just means “you” in English or it’s the person or group of persons you are talking to and not about. It doesn’t matter to whom you are talking exactly. In English “you” is always “you”. In German, however, there are three basic forms of “you”.
Sie – Formal “you” with Singular or Plural
The one that you need to know first is “Sie”. This is the formal version. It can be used in the singular form (addressing one person) or in the plural form (addressing more than one person). While I call this the “formal version”, it isn’t necessarily overly formal. What I mean by this is you don’t have to use “Sie” just with suits and ties.
It is actually much more simple than that. For the most part, this form is used with people you don’t know, but more specifically, it is used with people you don’t know well. For instance: You would definitely use “Sie” with the police officer who just pulled you over, but what about the cashier at the local grocery store? You go in there two or three times per week and you always go through their line. You know them, sort of, but you would still address them as “Sie”. This form is used for your doctor, any cashier, waiter or waitress, public servant, or even a stranger on the street. Here a few examples of when you would use “Sie”.
You are asking your teacher a question after class. “Entschuldigen Sie. Können Sie mir helfen?”
You are asking for directions on the street. “Können Sie mir sagen, wo der Hauptbahnhof ist?”
You are at the checkout counter at Aldi and the cashier asks, “Brauchen Sie heute eine Einkaufstasche?”
Your waiter comes to your table to get your order. “Bringen Sie mir den Rinderbraten, bitte.”
German Verb Conjugation with “Sie”
Since you are likely either just visiting Germany, most of the people you meet should be addressed with “Sie”. This is because you aren’t familiar enough with any of those people to use the other forms. This form is also easier for beginners to conjugate (that means your subject and your verb match forms). The present tense verb form is almost always the same as the infinitive (the version you will see when you look up a verb in the dictionary).
du & ihr – The Informal “yous”
It might be easier to understand when to use “Sie”, if you understand how to use “du” and “ihr”. Both of these versions of “you” are informal. This is used with friends of yours and family members. It is also used with pets, children up to about the age of 15, students, fellow blue collar workers, and members of certain clubs.
The rule of thumb that I use for this is “Do I address this person as Mr. or Mrs. Whoevertheyare or do I use their first name?” or in short If in doubt use Sie. If I use their first name, I probably use “du” with them. This isn’t always true, however, as most waiters and waitresses will introduce themselves with their first name, but you will use “Sie” with them.
While “Sie” can be used to address one or more people, “du” can only be used to address one person at a time. If you are saying “you all”, “y’all” or “you guys”, you use “ihr”.
du & ihr Examples
Talking to your brother or your sister. Was machst du heute?
Talking to your brother and your sister. Was macht ihr heute?
Talking to your dog. Du bist ein braver Hund.
Talking to your cats. Ihr dürft nicht auf das Sofa.
Talking to your neighbor’s four year old boy. Hast du ein neues Fahrrad?
That child responds to you. Ich habe dieses Fahrrad seit Mai. Haben Sie es noch nicht gesehen?
Talking to your neighbor’s children. Habt ihr einen Hund zu Hause?
The children answer your question with: Ja. Wollen Sie ihn treffen?
The only time that you have this uneven “du” and “Sie” conversation is when an adult is speaking with a child. The child uses the “Sie” form with the adult and the adult uses the “du” form when speaking to the child. In any other situation, the form of address will be the same for both speakers.
German Verb Conjugation with du, ihr and Sie
If you haven’t picked up on the pattern yet, when you use “Sie” as the subject of your sentence, the verb ends with -en. “Ihr” requires -t and “du” requires -st. Getting the subject and verb to match or agree is called conjugation. Let me show you a few examples side-by-side with each of the forms, so you can see this more clearly.
Gehst du nach Hause?
Geht ihr nach Hause?
Gehen Sie nach Hause?
Was kaufst du online?
Was kauft ihr online?
Was kaufen Sie online?
Du kennst mich nicht.
Ihr kennt mich nicht.
Sie kennen mich nicht.
Transitioning from Sie to du
Ok. Now you have a bit of an idea of when to use each of these pronouns, but what happens when you or the other person wants to transition from “Sie” to “du”? As a non-native speaker, I would recommend waiting for the German to offer the “du” form to you rather than offering in the opposite direction. It is best to remain in the “Sie” form. Offering the “du” form to someone is always done from the older person or person of higher rank and not the other way around. This rule of thumb will help you avoid the awkward “Danke aber ich würde gerne beim Sie bleiben.”
In order to offer the “du” form to someone, Germans use a variety of different phrases. The most common ones would include:
Sie können gerne “du” zu mir sagen.
Sie können mich ruhig duzen.
Wir sagen “du” hier.
Wollen wir uns nicht duzen?
You’ll notice that even when offering the “du” form to someone, Germans will remain with the “Sie” form, as the person being offered the “du” form hasn’t accepted yet. It is also common to avoid using “du” or “Sie” when offering the “du” form, as was shown in the last example.
So, I hope this helped clear up the problem of the German second person forms. If you have any questions about this, please leave a comment below and I will try to clear up any confusion.
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If you want a copy of today’s video script, a worksheet and an MP3 version of the video, I have made that available to my Patreon supporters and also as a part of my e-book “Beginner German with Herr Antrim”. If you want to continue learning German with me, click that subscribe button. That’s the end of our lesson for today. In the next video I’ll teach you how to deal with not knowing enough German to carry on a conversation. Bis zum nächsten Mal. Tschüss.