Relative Pronouns in German

    This week’s 3 Minuten Deutsch episode is all about the relative pronouns in German. You can learn all about them in the video and get more examples in the blog that follows. If you want a worksheet about this topic or more materials, you can get them on my Patreon page for just $5 per month.

    The relative pronouns are a way to refer back to a noun that was already mentioned in the sentence. They start relative clauses, which require the same word order as the “Nebensätze”, because they are a type of secondary clause that cannot stand on its own. Generally speaking, they look like the der-words (definite articles), but they are different for dative plural (denen) and the genitive case (dessen, deren, dessen, deren). The full chart can be seen below next to a comparison to the der-words chart.

    Relative Pronouns Chart
    Der-Words Chart

    In order to use these pronouns, you need to know a few things about the sentence in which you are using them. First, you need to know the gender of the noun, to which you are referring with the relative pronoun. This will allow you to decide which column from the above chart you need to use. Second, you must decide in which case the relative pronoun is being used within the relative clause.

    Example #1: Nominative Case

    Der Junge steht in der Ecke. – The boy is standing in the corner.

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    Der Junge, der in der Ecke steht, ist mein Sohn. – The boy, who is standing in the corner, is my son.

    Der Junge ist mein Sohn. – The boy is my son.

    In the three sentences above we see how to form the relative pronoun and the relative clause. The first sentence is a very simple sentence. It has a subject, a verb, and a prepositional phrase denoting the place. In the second sentence, I took the first sentence and turned it into a relative clause in the second. The third sentence shows what the second sentence would look like if the relative clause was not included. Our relative pronoun and relative clause are contained within the commas in the second sentence. The verb is at the end of the clause, because of the rules of dependent clauses in German. The relative pronoun is masculine, because it refers back to the masculine noun “Junge” (boy). It is the subject of the relative clause, which makes it nominative.

    Example #2: Accusative Case

    Ich mag den Jungen. – I like the boy.

    Der Junge, den ich mag, ist mein Sohn. – The boy that I like is my son.

    Der Junge ist mein Sohn. – The boy is my son.

    In these three sentences, we can see that the “Junge” (boy) is the direct object in the first sentence and in the relative clause of the second sentence. The subject of the main clause in the second sentence and the subject of the third sentence is “der Junge”, but this does not effect the case of the relative pronoun in the second sentence. The case is determined by the case in which the relative pronoun is used within the relative clause. The gender of the relative pronoun is again determined by the noun to which it refers, “der Junge” (boy).

    Example #3: Dative Case

    Ich gebe dem Jungen einen Ball. – I am giving the boy a ball.

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    Der Junge, dem ich einen Ball gebe, ist mein Sohn. – The boy, to whom I am giving a ball, is my son.

    Der Junge ist mein Sohn. – The boy is my son.

    This time “der Junge” is the indirect object of the first sentence and the relative clause in the second sentence. This means that it is used in the dative case and must therefore be “dem” for the relative pronoun.

    Example #4: Genitive Case

    Ich gebe dem Hund den Ball. – I am giving the dog the ball.

    Der Hund gehört dem Jungen. – The dog belongs to the boy.

    Ich gebe dem Hund des Jungen den Ball. – I am giving the dog of the boy (the boy’s dog) the ball.

    Der Junge, dessen Hund ich den Ball gebe, ist mein Sohn. – The boy, whose dog I am giving a ball, is my son.

    Der Junge ist mein Sohn. – The boy is my son.

    The case that is often confusing for German learners is the genitive case. There must be a noun that is used with the genitive case, but that noun can be use in any of the other cases In the first sentence above, there is no genitive case being used. It is to show you that “der Hund” is in the dative case in both the first sentence and in the relative clause of the fourth sentence. The second sentence also does not use the genitive case, but is another way to show ownership of the dog. The third sentence is a combination of the first and second sentences to use the genitive case. The noun that is possessed in this sentence is “der Hund”, but it is in the dative case in this sentence, because it is still the indirect object of that sentence. Since “der Junge” is the one that owns the dog, “der Junge” is used in the genitive case in that sentence. If you combine the information from the third sentence and the last sentence, you end up with the relative clause that tells you more information about the dog in the fourth sentence. Because “der Junge” is still the noun being replaced with the relative pronoun in the fourth sentence, the case in which it is used is still the genitive case, as it was in the third sentence. The dog is still used in the dative case in the relative clause, because it is still the indirect object of the clause.

    Example 5: Let’s get complicated

    If you want to make your sentences really complicated and convoluted, you can add a relative pronoun/clause after each noun in your sentence. Below I have written an example of this nonsense.

    Der Junge, den ich mag, gibt dem Hund, dem ich den Ball gegeben habe, ein Hundeleckerli, das aus meiner Tasche gefallen ist. – The boy, whom I like, gives the dog, that I gave a ball, a treat, that fell out of my bag.

    You can actually make it even more complicated by putting a relative clause inside of a relative clause to give more information about a noun mentioned within the first relative clause. While technically the rules state that you should put the verb of the first relative clause at the end of that clause and your middle relative clause should have its verb at its end, a lot of Germans will move the first relative clause verb to before the second relative clause starts to avoid making things overly complicated.

    Der Junge, den ich mag, gibt dem Hund, dem ich den Ball, den ich in den Park, in den ich oft gehe, mitgebracht habe, ein Hundeleckerli, das aus meiner Tasche, die ich immer trage, gefallen ist. – The boy, whom I like, gives the dog, whom I gave the ball, that I brought along to the park, to which I often go, a treat, that fell out of my bag that I always carry with me.

    If you are still confused, don’t worry, this is one of the topics that takes a lot of practice and a lot of absorbing information through reading, listening, and watching German native speakers.

    Herr Antrim

    Herr Antrim is a German teacher with over 10 years of teaching experience. In 2011 he started his successful YouTube Channel "Learn German with Herr Antrim". In 2015 he created this website to enhance the German language lessons he was providing on YouTube. He is now the author of his own e-book, "Beginner German with Herr Antrim". He has also been featured on numerous blogs and other sites.