Relative Pronouns & Clauses

What would you think if you came across this sentence in German? 

Wenn die, die reinwollen, die, die rauswollen, nicht rauslassen, dann können die, die rauswollen, die, die reinwollen, nicht reinlassen. 

If you just want to see what this sentence means, but don’t need the full explanation of relative pronouns and clauses, click here.

If you don’t understand how that sentence works or how you are supposed to figure it out, this lesson will lay it all out straight for you. Today we are taking a deep dive into relative pronouns and relative clauses in German. 

If you are really wanting to put your German learning on track, consider joining Herr Antrim’s Deutschlerner Club! For just $9.99 per month you will get access to his full A1 and A2 courses plus new materials as he creates them. You will go from knowing zero German to being able to have a short conversation in a short few weeks. Before you know it, you will be conversational in German on a variety of important topics, all while mastering German grammar.

What are relative pronouns in German?

Relative pronouns are pronouns (words used to replace nouns) that are used at the beginning of a type of dependent clause called a relative clause. This causes the word order to get all wonky. If you are familiar with my lesson about subordinating conjunctions, you will already be aware of these word order rules. If not, I’ll remind you of the parts that affect the relative clauses, but also, you should totally go check out that other lesson when you get done with this one. 

Normally when people think about pronouns, they think of things like: he, she, they, we, I, etc. Relative pronouns in English, however, can generally be translated with either “that”, “who” or “which”. In German, we still have to deal with those pesky grammatical genders. Depending on how the relative pronoun is being used, you can use a ton of different versions of these pronouns. 

Rules for Using Relative Pronouns in German

There are 3 general rules for using relative pronouns in German. 

Relative Pronoun Rules
Relative Pronoun Rules

Basic Examples of Relative Pronouns & Clauses in German

Der Mann, der das Auto verkauft, bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man, who is selling the car, brings me the key. 

Der Mann, den ich gerade getroffen habe, bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man, whom I just met, brings me the key. 

Der Mann, dem ich das Geld gegeben habe, bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man, whom I gave the money, brings me the key. 

Der Mann, dessen Auto ich gekauft habe, bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man, whose car I bought, brings me the key. 

In each of those sentences, the relative clause refers to “the man” at the beginning of the sentence. Each of them had a different form, however, because the case in which the relative pronoun is used in each sentence is different. 

Example Sentences Breakdown

Example #1: Nominative Case

The first sentence uses the relative pronoun in the nominative case, as it is the subject of that clause. You can split the sentence into two parts to see how the relative pronoun is being used. 

Der Mann bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man brings me the key.

Der Mann verkauft das Auto. –
The man is selling the car. 

As you can see, “der Mann” is written in both of those sentences. That’s how we can tell we need the nominative case when we put them together. Simply remove the word “Mann” from behind the article and use the article as a sort of pronoun. 

Der Mann, der das Auto verkauft, bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man, who is selling the car, brings me the key. 

Example #2: Accusative Case

What about the second example? How did we end up with “den”? It is a similar process. Split the sentence into two parts to see how the relative pronoun is being used in the relative clause. 

Der Mann bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man brings me the key. 

Ich habe den Mann gerade getroffen. –
I just met the man. 

Again, “Mann” shows up in both sentences, but this time, I used “den Mann” in the second one, because the man in that sentence is the direct object. He is the one I met. I am the one acting in that sentence, so we had to use the man in a different case. Again, we remove the word “Mann”. Since “den Mann” is not at the beginning of the example sentence, we have to move it to the beginning of the clause. This makes our full sentence: 

Der Mann, den ich gerade getroffen habe, bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man, whom I just met, brings me the key. 

Example #3: Dative Case

The third sentence used the dative case, because the man is the indirect object of the clause (the one receiving the direct object, the money). The split version would be: 

Der Mann bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man brings me the key. 

Ich habe dem Mann das Geld gegeben. –
I gave the man the money. 

We use the same logic as before with this sentence. The man in the second sentence is used in the dative case, so we use the dative version of the relative pronoun. Just move the article to the front of the clause, remove the noun and move the conjugated verb to the end of the clause.

Der Mann, dem ich das Geld gegeben habe, bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man, whom I gave the money, brings me the key. 

Example #4: Genitive Case

In the last example, I used a word that you have probably never seen in all of your German learning so far, dessen. And that’s the weirdness of the genitive case. I’ll show you a chart full of all of the relative clauses in a bit, but let’s take a look at how this sentence breaks apart. 

Der Mann bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man brings me the key. 

Ich habe das Auto des Mannes gekauft. –
I bought the man’s car. 

This time we used “des Mannes”, which is the genitive case showing the person to whom the car belongs. Since we are still talking about the noun “Mann”, we have to find a way to put the article at the front of the relative clause, but “des” is only ever used in front of a noun when there is another noun in front of it. To avoid that problem, we use a word that resembles the genitive question word “wessen”, but this isn’t a question. This is how we end up with dessen. 

Der Mann, dessen Auto ich gekauft habe, bringt mir den Schlüssel. –
The man, whose car I bought, brings me the key. 

German Relative Pronouns Chart

All of the examples I have given so far are just for masculine nouns. For a quick overview of all of the relative pronouns for all of the genders and cases, let’s turn to our chart. 

Relative Pronouns Chart
Relative Pronouns Chart

As you can see, this chart is incredibly similar to that of the definite articles (der-words). (Compare below.)

The only parts that are different are the dative plural, which is denen instead of den and all of the genitive ones, which essentially just add an extra syllable to the usual des and der to become dessen and deren

Relative Pronouns vs Definite Articles
Relative Pronouns vs Definite Articles

Relative Pronouns Rules Reminder

Before we go on to more examples of relative pronouns, let’s review of the rules.

Relative Pronoun Rules
Relative Pronoun Rules

More Relative Pronoun Example Sentences

Again, the easiest way to see how we chose which case to use with the relative clause, is to split the sentence in half and see how the noun we are replacing would be used in that sentence. For that reason, I will show you the two parts first and then show you the sentence together with the relative pronoun and clause. 

Example #1: Nominative Case

Ich habe eine Frau getroffen. –
I met a woman. 

Die Frau fährt einen Ferrari. –
The woman drives a Ferrari. 

Ich habe eine Frau, die einen Ferrari fährt, getroffen. –
I met a woman who drives a Ferrari. 

The woman is the subject of the sentence that becomes the relative clause, so we used the nominative case relative pronoun, die. 

Example #2: Accusative Case

Ich gehe heute Abend ins Kino mit einer Frau. –
I am going to the movie theater with a woman this evening. 

Ich habe die Frau gestern getroffen. –
I met the woman yesterday. 

Ich gehe heute Abend ins Kino mit einer Frau, die ich gestern getroffen habe. –
I am going to the movie theater this evening with a woman, whom I met yesterday. 

In this sentence, the woman is the direct object of the sentence that becomes the relative clause, so we used the accusative case relative pronoun, die. 

Example #3: Dative Case

Du musst diese Frau treffen. –
You have to meet this woman. 

Ich gehe mit der Frau ins Kino. –
I am going to the movie theater with the woman. 

Du musst diese Frau, mit der ich ins Kino gehe, treffen. –
You have to meet this woman, with whom I am going to the movie theater. 

The woman is in the dative case in this sentence, as she is the object of a dative preposition. When you use a preposition with a relative clause, you simply put the preposition before the relative pronoun. It is one of the few times you will see a relative pronoun used in a position other than the very first word in a relative clause. 

Example #4: Genitive Case

Die Frau ist nicht meine Freundin. –
The woman is not my girlfriend. 

Ich kaufe die Kinokarten der Frau. –
I am buying the woman’s movie tickets. 

Die Frau, deren Kinokarten ich kaufe, ist nicht meine Freundin. –
The woman, whose movie tickets I am buying, is not my girlfriend. 

Again, this one is a bit confusing, as the possessive form shown with the genitive case cannot be in the same order as before when used as a relative pronoun. So instead of “die Kinokarten der Frau” we say “deren Kinokarten”. 

Differences Between English & German Relative Pronouns

Difference #1: Relative Pronouns are NOT Optional

In English it is pretty common to skip a relative pronoun and simply pretend it is there. For example: 

The book I like is sold out. 

This could have been written as “The book that I like is sold out.” and “that” would have been a relative pronoun. In German, you have to have the relative pronoun and you can’t skip over it. 

Das Buch, das ich mag, ist ausverkauft. –
The book that I like is sold out. 

Difference #2: There is no difference between people and non-people.

In English we differentiate between people and inanimate objects by using “who”, “whom” or “whose” for people and “that” or “which” for non-people. In German, you simply use the words from the chart that I showed you before, which are mostly the same as the definite articles. 

The man who threw the ball is the same man who caught the ball. –
Der Mann, der den Ball geworfen hat, ist derselbe Mann, der den Ball gefangen hat. 

Stacking Relative Clauses: The Turducken of German Grammar

In order to understand the sentence at the beginning of this post, we need to understand the concept of stacking relative clauses. This is essentially when you have a relative clause that also has a relative clause attached to it. Let’s start with a simple example and work our way towards something more complex. 

Die Frau, die einen Ferrari, der in den Siebzigern gebaut wurde, fährt, ist nicht meine Freundin. –
The woman, who drives a Ferrari that was built in the seventies, is not my girlfriend. 

Here we essentially have 3 sentences pushed together. The first one is the main sentence and therefore is the main clause. 

Die Frau ist nicht meine Freundin. –
The woman is not my girlfriend. 

The second and third sentences describe two of the other parts, namely the woman and the Ferrari. 

Die Frau fährt einen Ferrari. –
The woman drives a Ferrari. 

Der Ferrari wurde in den Siebzigern gebaut. –
The Ferrari was built in the seventies. 

Combined: 

Die Frau fährt einen Ferrari, der in den Siebzigern gebaut wurde. –
The woman drives a Ferrari that was built in the seventies. 

Now combine that with the original main sentence: 

Die Frau, die einen Ferrari, der in den Siebzigern gebaut wurde, fährt, ist nicht meine Freundin. –
The woman, who drives a Ferrari that was built in the seventies, is not my girlfriend. 

You can see that when we nest these relative clauses together in sentences it can be a bit complicated to figure out where the conjugated verbs go. In the last example, I put the innermost conjugated verb at the end of its clause (wurde). The secondary conjugated verb goes at the end of its clause (fährt), but because there is another clause inside of that clause, the conjugated verb ends up after the end of the innermost clause. The verb in the main clause (ist) is still in the same position it usually is, but seems a bit odd, due to the fact that its location is after those two previously mentioned conjugated verbs.

All of that is to say that in the end we have three conjugated verbs in a row: wurde, fährt, ist. Each of them are conjugated to agree with a different subject: der Ferrari (from the third clause), die Frau (from the second clause), and die Frau (from the main clause).

When Word Order Rules Are More Like Suggestions

Another bit of oddness that happens with these clauses is about verbs. You have seen me use a few examples that include a past participle that is separated from everything else that it has to do with. This is technically the correct way to do this, however, most Germans would prefer not to split the verb away from the rest of it’s clause. For example: 

Das Mädchen, das in meinem Kurs, den ich mittwochs um 3 Uhr habe, ist, steht vor der Tür, die von dem Hund, der wild herumläuft, kaputt gemacht wurde. –
The girl, who is in my course, that I have on Wednesdays at 3 o’clock is standing in front of the door that was broken by the dog, that is running around wildly. 

There is a confusing bit in the middle of that sentence where you have 3 verbs together (habe, ist, steht). It is a bit difficult to figure out which verb belongs to which clause. This is remedied by simply keeping the conjugated verb with the clause to which it belongs. When you do that, it looks like this. 

Das Mädchen, das in meinem Kurs ist, den ich mittwochs um 3 Uhr habe, steht vor der Tür, die von dem Hund, der wild herumläuft, kaputt gemacht wurde. –
The girl, who is in my course, that I have on Wednesdays at 3 o’clock is standing in front of the door that was broken by the dog, that is running around wildly. 

You can also say: 

Das Mädchen, das in meinem Kurs ist, den ich mittwochs um 3 Uhr habe, steht vor der Tür, die von dem Hund kaputt gemacht wurde, der wild herumläuft. –
The girl, who is in my course, that I have on Wednesdays at 3 o’clock is standing in front of the door that was broken by the dog, that is running around wildly. 

This is perfectly fine, since the course cannot run around wildly. The context is clear no matter where we put “kaputt gemacht wurde”. That’s actually the beauty of genders and cases. It’s pretty rare that you would find a relative clause that could make sense to several things in a sentence, if it refers to them and uses the same gender and on top of that the correct case within the context that could cause confusion. It is still confusing for learners, but Germans understand it just fine. It just takes practice. 

Another Example of Optional Word Order Rules

Kinder, die Hunde haben, die glücklich und hilfreich sind, sind glücklicher und hilfreicher. –
Children who have dogs, who are happy and helpful, are happier and more helpful. 

In this sentence, I moved the verb “haben” to be with the clause about dogs instead of its official location between the two “sind” verbs. If you had it in the officially correct spot, it would look like this. 

Kinder, die Hunde, die glücklich und hilfreich sind, haben, sind glücklicher und hilfreicher. –
Children who have dogs, who are happy and helpful, are happier and more helpful. 

To me, this version is more confusing. This is the reason that most people would phrase it like I did the first time with the verb “haben” with the clause including “Hunde”. 

The Original Example Breakdown

Now let’s go back to our original sentence from the beginning of this post and see how we can break it apart to understand it better. 

Wenn die, die reinwollen, die, die rauswollen, nicht rauslassen, dann können die, die rauswollen, die, die reinwollen, nicht reinlassen. –
If those who want in, don’t let those who want out, out, then those who want out can’t let those who want in, in. 

Demonstrative Pronouns vs Relative Pronouns

Let’s start by understanding that the words “die”, when not used in relative clauses, are actually pronouns, too. These are demonstrative pronouns, which are exactly like relative pronouns, but not used in relative clauses. You can use them like this: 

Ich mag diese Schuhe. Die kaufe ich. –
I like these shoes. I’m buying them. 

The implied subject of all of this is “die Menschen” or “die Fahrgäste”. Since this is a kind of PSA for public transportation etiquette, let’s use the word “Fahrgäste” to illustrate this point. 

Wenn die Fahrgäste, die reinwollen, die Fahrgäste, die rauswollen, nicht rauslassen, dann können die Fahrgäste, die rauswollen, die Fahrgäste, die reinwollen, nicht reinlassen. –
If the passengers who want in, don’t let the passengers who want out, out, then the passengers who want out, can’t let the passengers who want in, in.

What’s with the other “die’s”?

That takes care of the demonstrative pronouns in this sentence and leaves us with only the relative pronouns to worry about. In order to split this sentence apart like I did with my other example sentences, we have to add extra words, as both the direct objects and subjects of all of the clauses are the same noun “die Fahrgäste”. So, to differentiate between the two groups of Fahrgäste, I’m going to use the adjective “anderen” to describe the second group of Fahrgäste.

Another issue we need to address is the use of the subordinating conjunction “wenn”, which pushes the conjugated verbs to the middle of the sentence around a comma in simpler sentences. For example: 

Wenn die Fahrgäste die anderen Fahrgäste nicht rauslassen, können die anderen Fahrgäste die Fahrgäste nicht reinlassen. –
If the passengers don’t let the other passengers out, the other passengers can’t let the passengers in. 

Adding the Relative Clauses Back In

This sentence gives us a sort of base form of the original clause. Instead of “die anderen Fahrgäste”, however, we need to use a relative clause to describe this group to differentiate them from the other group and another relative clause to describe the first group. So there are two groups of passengers: 

Die Fahrgäste, die reinwollen. –
The passengers who want in. 

Die Fahrgäste, die rauswollen. –
The passengers who want out. 

Now we are ready to have our final overview of the full sentence. 

Wenn die, die reinwollen, die, die rauswollen, nicht rauslassen, dann können die, die rauswollen, die, die reinwollen, nicht reinlassen. –
If those who want in, don’t let those who want out, out, then those who want out can’t let those who want in, in. 

If you remove all of the relative clauses, you can see the main sentence. 

Wenn die die nicht rauslassen, dann können die die nicht reinlassen. –
If they don’t let them out, then they can’t let them in. 

The first “die” refers to those who want in, which is why it is followed by “die reinwollen” (who want in). The second “die” refers to those who want out, which is why it is followed by “die rauswollen”. In the clause that starts with “dann”, the first “die” refers to those who want out, which is why it is followed by “die rauswollen” (who want out). The second “die” refers to those who want in, which is why it is followed by “die reinwollen”. 

More Ridiculous Examples

Surely this is a ridiculous example and no one would ever actually say something like this, right? 

Well, just for good measure, let’s try some more ridiculous examples of how to use these to really drive the point home. 

Die Frau, die ich gestern im Park getroffen habe, hat mir von einem Hund erzählt, als plötzlich ein Kind, dessen Eltern in der Nähe gesessen haben, auf den Hund zugelaufen ist. –
The woman, whom I met yesterday in the park, told me about a dog, when suddenly a child, whose parents were sitting nearby, walked up to the dog.

Der Mann, dessen Auto kaputt gegangen war, musste von dem Fahrradfahrer, dem er dankbar war, dass er ihm half, ins nächste Dorf gefahren werden, wo er endlich einen Mechaniker fand, der ihm reparieren konnte, was defekt war, und dessen Arbeit er bezahlte, bevor er glücklich weiterfahren konnte. –
The man, whose car broke down, had to be driven by a bicycle rider, to whom he was thankful, that he helped him, into the next village, where he finally found a mechanic, who could repair that, which was defective, and whose work he paid, before he could happily drive away. 

Die Studentin, die in dem Seminar über Architektur teilnahm, in dem auch der Professor unterrichtete, dessen Vorlesungen sie besonders interessant fand, besuchte anschließend die Bibliothek, in der sie das Buch fand, das sie suchte, und dessen Inhalt sie ausführlich studierte, um ihre Prüfung bestehen zu können. –
The student, who took part in the seminar about architecture, in which the professor also taught, whose lecture she found especially interesting, finally visited the library in which she found the book that she was searching for, and whose content she studied completely in order to be able to pass her exam. 

If you would like to practice these relative clauses and pronouns for yourself, you should consider becoming a member of my Deutschlerner Club. Members of that club get access to extra materials to go with every lesson I upload. The examples in the worksheet aren’t nearly as complicated as the ones at the end of this post, but they will definitely help you master the concept of relative pronouns and clauses. Click here to get started today!

If you are really wanting to put your German learning on track, consider joining Herr Antrim’s Deutschlerner Club! For just $9.99 per month you will get access to his full A1 and A2 courses plus new materials as he creates them. You will go from knowing zero German to being able to have a short conversation in a short few weeks. Before you know it, you will be conversational in German on a variety of important topics, all while mastering German grammar.

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