Drumroll, please! Learning dative pronouns is an exciting event, like a graduation in your German-learning journey!
You will have a WHOLE WORLD of phrases open up to you once you can use dative pronouns.
The dative case is used in connection with many daily, basic activities; and also for expressing opinions, communicating your personal experience, and more!
You use the dative case to talk about what’s important to you, whether a friend’s new shirt looks nice on him /her, to say that you need to wash your hands or brush your teeth, or to communicate the location of something (‘your phone is right in front of you’).
And it doesn’t even stop there. The dative case (and therefore, dative pronouns) is VITAL to speaking German like a pro.
In this guide, you’ll learn the following:
Before we delve into dative pronouns, let’s set the stage by making sure you understand what pronouns are in general.
Pronouns are little words that replace nouns or entire noun phrases.
English pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, them) are used to replace names, or another other noun / noun phrase when it’s understood who or what is being referred to.
For example, instead of saying Frank is tall. Frank is nice. Frank is rich, we can use the first ‘Frank’ (so we know who we’re talking about) and then use ‘he’ to replace ‘Frank’ after that:
Frank is tall. He is nice. He is rich.
German uses pronouns the same way. BUT there are extra pronouns in German that we don’t have in English AND some pronouns that have multiple uses (<– confusing!).
Both English & German have pronouns such as I, you, he, she, we, they, us, me, him, etc. And both languages use them the same way (to replace names, nouns, and noun phrases).
But of course, we couldn’t get off quite that easily!
There are a handful of ways that German pronouns are trickier than English ones.
One that is very relevant to the topic of dative pronouns is this: German has a whole additional category of pronouns than English does (keep reading!).
Trust me. It makes sense to do things this way! Here we go…
Nominative pronouns, or ‘subject pronouns’, have a direct 1-to-1 German-English relationship:
These are the pronouns that are used to talk about the subject of the sentence, e.g.
It is really hot outside — Es ist draußen sehr heiß.
We go on vacation next week — Wir gehen nächste Woche in den Urlaub.
You (all) look exhausted — Ihr seht erschöpft aus.
They eat scrambled eggs every morning — Sie essen jeden morgen Rühreier.
Think of each of these sentences ^^ as having ‘slots’ that get filled up with nouns.
The most important slot — that gets filled up first — is the nominative. Whatever noun (or pronoun) is the subject of your sentence goes into that slot (usually the very first word in the sentence!), for example:
All of the bolded pronouns in the examples above are nominative pronouns that would go into the nominative ‘slot’ just like our driver, Frank. 😉
If we make this into a short & sweet Pronoun Principle, I’d say this:
The first noun/pronoun in your sentence is the subject and fills up the nominative ‘slot’.
Nominative personal pronouns replace the subject of the sentence. That’s easy enough.
The next Pronoun Principle you need to learn is:
After the nominative ‘slot’ has been filled up with a noun / pronoun that is functioning as the subject of the sentence, default to the accusative for the next noun / pronoun.
It’s time for you to check out this graphic. Notice the relationship of each case (‘slot’) to the role of the noun / pronoun that is filling up that slot.
Now, read these sentences with direct object pronouns (English only examples for now!):
Can you see how ‘I’ is the subject (nominative ‘slot’ [case]) of the sentence each time? The person taking action or doing something?
All the italicized direct object (accusative case) pronouns are the people who receive action. They are being seen or heard (by the subject!).
GREAT. Now we can finally talk about dative pronouns!
As you learned in the graphic above, dative pronouns replace the indirect object in a sentence.
Let’s look at this English example of nominative, accusative, and dative nouns all working together in the same sentence:
Who is taking the action of giving? The man (subject).
What is he giving? The money (direct object).
To whom is he giving the money? To the woman (indirect object).
The great news is that German uses nouns this same way!
The same example sentence in German is…
Now, check out what happens in BOTH English & German if we replace all those nouns with pronouns:
That’s right! The accusative and dative slots swapped places. Iiiiinteresting.
Here are the 2 key points to remember regarding the dative case & word order in German:
In our examples above (e.g. The man gave the woman the money), we saw one of the very few instances in English when we have distinctly accusative and dative objects.
Normally, English doesn’t distinguish between accusative and dative. BUT German always does.
This core difference between German & English impacts a lot of grammar, including pronouns.
English has THE SAME pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, us, you [all], them that you saw above) that get used for BOTH the accusative AND dative cases.
German, however, uses TWO DIFFERENT groups of pronouns: accusative (‘direct object’) pronouns and dative (‘indirect object’ pronouns).
You can see this difference between English & German laid out in this graphic:
So, in English we have just the one set of pronouns (called ‘object pronouns’) that covers both the accusative & dative cases (combined together & called the objective case in English).
But, to speak German, we have to learn how to make the distinction between accusative & dative — including between accusative & dative pronouns, which is usually pretty tricky at first.
To get you started off on this German-learning adventure, check out these German nominative, accusative, AND dative personal pronouns side-by-side:
I’ve circled the pronouns that you saw in our example sentence (bolded)
Der Mann gibt der Frau das Geld (The man gives the woman the money)
→ Er gibt es ihr(He gives it to her).
You now understand that German dative pronouns function differently from nominative (<– of course) AND accusative (<– not quite so self-evident for an English-speaker). You can even now start memorizing all of them.
You have the basic theory of accusative pronouns down — you understand what they are and the similarities and differences between English & German. But now we need some examples!
Keep reading for the practical whens & hows of accusative pronouns: when exactly do you use them (<– there’s a rule for that) and how do you pick the right one (<– we’ll hash that out, too).
How do you know when to use the dative pronouns vs. the nominative or accusative ones?
Fortunately, there are some quick-and-easy rules for that!
It’s really just a matter of sentence structure. For a basic sentence, we need 1-2 components:
That’s not so bad! And the key exception to #2 is this:
Some particular (<– read: easily memorizable) verbs, adjectives, and prepositions require that the following noun (or pronoun) be in the dative case.
We don’t ever use dative nouns / pronouns for the heck of it. There is always a clear reason to do so.
That, of course, is good news! Using the dative case isn’t some sort of stylistic decision you need to make all on your own.
What you need to do is understand the situations that require (or at least allow) you to use the dative.
As referenced above, sometimes it’s because you’re using a particular adjective or preposition that you then need to use the dative case (whether noun or pronoun).
Many times, it’s because of the verb you’re choosing to use!
There are 3 basic categories of verbs that relate to the dative case:
The verbs that belong to category #1 are very distinctly German (i.e. there is nothing in English that we can relate this to) and need to be memorized.
Some very common examples are the verbs gratulieren, wehtun, and zustimmen, e.g.:
Ich gratuliere dir! (‘I congratulate you’ / Congratulations!)
Das tut mir weh! (‘That does me pain’ / That hurts!)
Ich stimme dir zu (I agree with you)
Our earlier example of The man gives the woman the money belongs in category #2. The verb ‘to give’ requires both dative & accusative nouns / pronouns.
TIP: It is ONLY the very few verbs from category #2 (e.g. ‘to give’) that have direct English equivalents, i.e. when English makes a technical distinction between the accusative & dative cases instead of lumping them together as the ‘objective’ case.
There’s a handy little test you can use to see if a given German verb belongs to this 2nd category:
Try saying the sentence in English with a ‘to’ in front of the person, e.g.:
I’ll write her a letter → I’ll write a letter to her.
Whenever you can add a ‘to’ in front of the person (including pronouns!), you can know that that is a German verb that MUST HAVE that person in the dative case!
The verbs that belong to category #3 are easy to work with. They take an accusative noun (a ‘direct object’) and IF you add a dative noun, it will be to mention for whom the action was taken:
I open the door → I open the door for my mother.
Ich öffne die Tür → Ich öffne meiner Mama die Tür.
This is also a good example of how, when German uses the dative case, English usually opts for a prepositional phrase (e.g. for my mother).
NOTE: It is also possible to avoid the dative case and use a prepositional phrase in German instead. The same example could be said this way, with an accusative prepositional phrase:
Ich öffne die Tür für meine Mama.
The rule of thumb here is that, if you can say the sentence in English with a ‘for’ in front of the whom (e.g. Mama), then it is most likely a category 3 dative verb and you can go ahead and use the accusative preposition für instead of the dative case!
It’s a GREAT start to understand when you need to use a dative noun / pronoun (with a verb, adjective, or preposition that requires / allows one!).
That narrows down our pronoun options to just those listed under ‘Dat’, but how do you know which one of those to pick?
When you’re first learning pronouns, you might think of these dative pronouns with their English equivalents:
Of course, remember that German accusative pronouns have the same English translations! So just that in and of itself isn’t so helpful — you have to know when to use the accusative vs. dative as we’ve covered already.
Something nice about dative pronouns (vs. accusative ones) is that they refer just to people & animals and NOT also to things. This makes it MUCH simpler to pick out the right pronoun!
Are you talking…
Sometimes it can feel as if there are an awful lot of charts involved with learning German …
Let’s make it a bit easier, shall we?
Notice the following things:
3rd person singular, masculine: ihm
3rd person singular, feminine: ihr
3rd person singular, neuter: ihm
3rd person singular, plural: ihnen