At this stage in learning German, you likely have a nice bit of German nouns under your belt — great job!
BUT it stinks to always sound like you’re reading out of a 1st grade book: The girl is tall. The girl is kind. I like the girl. Do you like the girl?
Using PERSONAL PRONOUNS — little words that replace people (like ‘she’ replacing ‘the girl’) — is one of the ways to start sounding a lot more authentic when you’re speaking German.
Even just She is tall. She is nice. I like her. Do you like her? is quite a bit better, right?!
Continue reading below for the essential elements of learning personal pronouns:
In English & in German, personal pronouns are used all. the. time.
Personal pronouns (for example, she) are used to replace names or even entire (<– sometimes really long) noun phrases:
Sally → she
The girl → she
The tall, kind girl that I like but you don’t → she
These are important, time-saving little words!
BUT there using personal pronouns in German can definitely be more challenging than English…
The best way to learn personal pronouns is to see them listed side-by-side in the 3 main cases (nominative, accusative, dative).
On some level, you do have to simply memorize these pronouns. BUT there are some shortcuts (reading Digging Deeper below) so that you can memorize fewer.
If you feel like you’re getting the gist of the above, you should be ready to move on to section 2.
There, we’ll answer questions we need to address to apply personal pronouns to your German.
We have to get a little deeper into grammar here, but it’s worth it: the terminology of ‘person’ is something you will use a lot in learning German (or any other foreign language) and it’s not hard anyway. You can do it!
There are 3 ‘persons’: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.
Those 3 ‘persons’ get split into 2 subcategories: singular and plural.
This table of English pronouns will hopefully make sense, but we’ll break it down in a sec:
Get egotistical for a moment now: you are the ‘1st person’ (singular). That’s why the 1st person pronouns are I and me (ich, mich/mir).
Likewise, the ‘1st person plural’ is for a group of 2+ people that includes you — a.k.a. we, us (wir, uns).
Then, if you imagine that you (1st person) are talking to someone else … that someone else is the 2nd person. If you’re talking directly to one person, you would use the 2nd person singular (you / du) and the plural (you / ihr), if you’re talking to 2+ people.
Remember from above that this du / ihr difference is one of the 4 reasons German pronouns are tricky — we don’t have an official 2nd Person Plural form in English (at least outside of Texas 😉). When I’m explaining it, though, I use ‘you all’ or even ‘y’all’ in my examples).
Remember, too, that in German we have the formal 2nd Person (Sie) and the informal (du) plus their plural forms! Again, this is tricky because we don’t have an English equivalent (however, if you know any Spanish, it’s Sie = Usted and du = tu).
Finally, if you (1st Person) are talking to/with someone (2nd Person) about someone else (a ‘3rd party, if you will), that someone else is the 3rd Person!
Of course, just like in the other examples, you have the singular version (talking about a him, her, or it) and a plural [2+] version (talking about them).
It’s helpful to know the grammar terminology for ‘person’, especially in those instances where there are differences between English & German (e.g. all the forms of ‘you’ English doesn’t have).
But perhaps the fastest way to be sure of the person (1st, 2nd, 3rd; singular, plural) of your noun is to know the basic nominative personal pronouns (in English & German) like the back of your hand.
Then, if you know which pronoun you’d use in English, you can know which German one to use!
So, what are ‘nominative personal pronouns’? They are the pronouns we use for whoever is the subject of the sentence (and are therefore also called ‘subject pronouns’).
Look at English & German nominative / subject personal pronouns side-by-side:
In any sentence, you have to know whether you’re trying to say I see the dog vs. You see the dog, He sees the dog, etc.
If you still don’t know which subject pronoun you need, try answering these questions to figure it out:
1st Person Singular
Question: Can you fill in that slot in the sentence with your own name?
1st Person Plural
Question: Are you talking about a group of 2+ people that includes yourself?
2nd Person Singular
Question: Are you talking directly to that person?
2nd Person Plural
Question: Are you talking directly to a group of 2+ people?
3rd Person Singular
Question: Are you talking to someone about someone else?
3rd Person Plural
Question: Are you talking to someone about a group of 2+ people?
After you know exactly which person your noun is in (1st, 2nd, 3rd; singular, plural), you still need to figure out which case your noun is in.
There are two great ways of doing this.
So, you can work forwards by figuring out the noun’s role as the means to select its case…
OR you can work backwards by looking at nearby declensions to decipher the noun’s case.
Let’s look first at how to determine which role a noun plays in a given sentence.
There are 3 main roles we’re concerned with right now: subject, direct object, and indirect object.
Whatever role a noun has, it has to be put in the case that reflects that role.
For example, if your noun is the subject, it has to be put into the nominative case.
In English, we rarely make a distinction between direct and indirect objects — for us, objects are just objects.
You can see this spelled out by looking at this side-by-side chart of English & German personal pronouns according to case:
Both German & English have unique nominative personal pronouns.
Then, German continues to have separate pronouns for the accusative vs. dative cases (e.g. mich vs. mir, ihn vs. ihm). These are then ‘direct object pronouns’ and ‘indirect object pronouns’, respectively.
But, in English, the accusative & dative pronouns have the same translation (e.g. me & me, him & him) because in English there is no difference between the two — they both are the same ‘object’ (vs. subject) pronouns.
It’s fairly easy to know when to use the subject pronouns in either English or German, and we’ve talked about that above.
Knowing when to use the German accusative or dative pronouns, though, is harder. Luckily, there are some tips & tricks to help out us English-speakers who aren’t used to an accusative vs. dative distinction!
The case of each noun is signaled by the words that come directly in front of it.
There are two types of words that come in front of nouns: determiners & adjectives.
Determiners: a, the, some, few, this, etc. that tell us how many of the noun or which one.
Adjectives: describe some feature of the noun (e.g. big, small, round, flat, blue).
Determiners & adjectives take little changes called declensions (bolded):
Die große weiße Gans schnattert mit einer kleinen gelben Ente.
(The big, white goose gaggled with the small, yellow duck.)
Declensions are just single letters (^^ -r, -e, -n) that get added to the ends of determiners (^^ the, a) and adjectives (^^ big, white, small, yellow).
There are 3 types of declensions (none, strong, & weak) that you can see reflected in this All-In-One Declensions Chart:
If you need to know the case that a noun has already been put into (so that you can replace the noun with the correct pronoun), then you can ‘work backward’ by looking at the declensions on this chart to analyze which case (nominative, accustive, dative) your noun is in.
Knowing the gender of monosyllabic German nouns (e.g. Tisch, Stuhl, Wand, Bild, etc.) is pretty tricky — these nouns should definitely be memorized with the der, die, das in front of them.
BUT if the noun has a suffix (e.g. -ling, -heit, -ment, etc.), you can successfully relate it to one gender (masculine vs. feminine vs. neuter) up to 100% of the time, dependent on the suffix.
There are also some noun groups (e.g. months of the year) that are comprised of nouns all (or with few exceptions) taking the same gender.
Of course, if you don’t have the noun’s gender memorized and neither a suffix nor a particular noun group can help you out either, you can always look the noun up in a German dictionary!
You saw this chart (unmarked) above. But we can simplify it a bit yet!
We can talk about some patterns, so you have to memorize even fewer of these pronouns.
Do you see how the 3rd person masculine pronouns (er, ihn, ihm) have the same -r, -n, -m strong declensions listed under the masculine nom. / acc. / dat.?
Similarly, the 3rd person singular feminine pronouns (sie, sie, ihr) line up perfectly with the strong -e, -e, and -r declensions for the nom. / acc. / dat. in the feminine column!
And, that’s right: it’s the same thing for the 3rd person singular neuter pronouns (es, es, ihm). We see exactly those same -s, -s, -m strong declensions in the neuter column. NICE.
You can see in this marked up version of the pronouns chart that we have THREE different ‘sie’s!
*NOTE: the formal ‘you’ is ALWAYS capitalized in German. In English, I like to capitalize it, too — You vs. you — just to help make the distinction when teaching this concept.
She and they have their own spots on the chart — no problem.
But the formal ‘You’ is a hard one.
In a way, since it’s the 2nd person singular / plural, it should not only be listed TWICE (<– if we’re being thorough), but it should be up in the 2nd person parts of the chart.
HOWEVER, the different forms of Sie (You [formal], singular/plural) are exactly the same as the sie (= they [3rd person plural]). So in some ways, it would make sense to list Sie there in the chart.
In the end, what I recommend is to NOT officially list the Sie anywhere. Instead just remember: