German Relative Pronouns: Your Essential Guide

If you’re looking into relative pronouns, you’re starting to really advance your German skills!

Using relative pronouns (and the relative clauses they introduce) is a nice way to add some sophistication to your German writing & speaking.

Relative pronouns help smooth out our speech. If we have too many separate sentences, it sounds choppy, right?

Relative pronouns help us combine info together into fewer sentences — still getting the same ideas across, but in a more authentic-German, easier-on-the-ears way.

You’ll learn the following:

  • How relative pronouns work in English & German
  • What the German relative pronouns are (with a chart!)
  • How to know which relative pronoun to use
  • How sentence structure is impacted by relative pronouns

Section 1: The Basics
What you need to know to start getting the hang of relative pronouns

Pronouns in general replace other nouns / noun phrases so that we don’t have tediously (or at least obnoxiously) repeat ourselves.

How obnoxious can a couple sentences be without pronouns you ask? Let’s compare one with and one without…

No pronouns: My cross-eyed pony is a circus performer. My cross-eyed pony can juggle. My cross-eyed pony can walk a tightrope. My cross-eyed pony is a star! I love my cross-eyed pony.

^^ Feeling a bit cross-eyed yourself?? Let’s try …

With pronouns:My cross-eyed pony is a circus performer. She can juggle. She can walk a tightrope. She is a star! I love my her!

^^ That’s a LOT better!

Relative pronouns are slightly different — instead of replacing a noun / noun phrase, they are used to refer back to information previously mentioned.

Your basic relative pronouns are just who & that and many times they are interchangeable.

Can you see how the relative pronouns refer back to the circus pony and give us more information on it?

It’s not just any circus pony who will be a crowd favorite, rather it’s only those with crossed eyes … a relative pronoun told us so!

How do relative pronouns work in English?

There are a number of relative pronouns, e.g. who, that, which, what.

The woman who I met at the train station …
The dog that bit me last week …
The aspect which troubles me most …
The letter details what he was truly feeling …

We use relative pronouns often in English, and it’s no different in German! Learning relative pronouns is a must.

There are two main complications of relative pronouns in German, though.

  1. They have to be plugged into the case system & take declensions
  2. They impact the word order of the clauses they are in.

How do relative pronouns work in German?

First, the good news: relative pronouns are nearly identical to the various ways of saying ‘the’ in German — so there’s not much new to memorize.

When you use one of these relative pronouns, you need to make sure of 3 things: that the relative pronoun …

  1. matches the gender of the noun it’s referring back to
  2. BUT indicates the case of the relative pronoun has in its own clause (not the case of the noun that’s being referred to!)
  3. ‘kicks’ the verb in its own clause (<– a dependent clause!) to the end.

Now what?

Um. Gulp. This all sounds like a little much, am I right?

Have no fear! We’re going to next look at examples that really spell things out.

You can’t intimidate us, relative pronouns!

Section 2: Putting it into practice
When & how to use relative pronouns

Rather than getting theoretical about relative pronouns and THEN showing you examples, we’re just going to look at examples right away.

In each example, we will talk about what you need to know to pick the correct relative pronoun:

  1. the gender of the noun being referred to
  2. the case of the relative pronoun in its own clause

You will also see in every example how the clause the relative pronoun heads up (italicized below!) always has the conjugated verb at the very end (vs. standard word order of the conjugated verb being in position #2).

This is because a relative clause is a type of dependent clause (i.e. it can’t stand alone –unlike an independent clause — and still make sense) and dependent clauses in German (but NOT in English!) always ‘kick’ the conjugated verb to the end of the clause. Just cuz.

Example #1

Der Mann, der aus Berlin kommt, heißt Peter.
(The man, who is from Berlin, is named Peter.)

Relative Pronoun: der (masculine, nominative)

WHY is the relative pronoun in the masculine, nominative? Because …

Gender of the noun being referred back to (der Mann): masculine
Case of the Relative Pronoun: nominative

NOTE: re-read through the example and notice how the dependent clause can be taken out of the sentence … but what remains (the independent clause) still makes sense and can ‘stand alone’: Der Mann heißt Peter (The man is named Peter).

Example #2

Der Mann, den ich neulich kennengelernt habe, heißt Peter.
(The man,whom I recently met, is named Peter.)

Relative Pronoun: den (masculine, accusative)

WHY is the relative pronoun in the masculine, accusative? Because …

Gender of the noun being referred back to (der Mann):masculine
Case of the Relative Pronoun: accusative

TIP: How do you know that the case of the relative pronoun is accusative? Because of the verb! Kennenlernen (to become acquainted) requires an accusative object. You have to become acquainted with someone.

Here, ich (subject; nominative case) is becoming acquainted with the man, so the relative pronoun used to refer back to him must be in the accusative case because in the relative clause (not the main clause), the man is playing the role of accusative object.

Example #3

Der Mann, mit dem ich gerade gesprochen habe, heißt Peter.
(The man, with whom I just spoke, is named Peter.)

Relative Pronoun: dem (masculine, dative)

WHY is the relative pronoun in the masculine, dative? Because …

Gender of the noun being referred back to (der Mann):masculine
Case of the Relative Pronoun: dative

WHY is the relative pronoun in the dative? Because of the preposition mit (with) being combined with the verb sprechen.

To ‘speak with someone’ (mit jemandem sprechen) is a collocation (<– verb + preposition combo) that uses a dative preposition. So, the ‘someone’ that is being spoken with will have to be in the dative case.

Here, we’re not using a person’s name or even a noun (e.g. dem Mann) — we’re using a pronoun instead!

Summary

Nice job working through those examples! 

You should now hopefully understand the basics of how to use relative pronouns.

When to use a relative pronoun is simple: whenever you would in English.

But, wait … we typically wouldn’t use English relative pronouns in those example above, would we? 

Nope! 

It’s true: German uses relative pronouns (and, therefore, relative clauses) in some additional scenarios than English does. But that’s a topic for another day…

Main Takeaways

  1. Relative pronouns are almost identical to the various ways of saying ‘the’ in German.
  2. Relative pronouns are used to refer back to a noun / noun phrase.
  3. Relative pronouns head up relative clauses, which are a type of dependent clause.
  4. Dependent clauses in German always ‘kick’ their conjugated verbs to the end.
  5. Relative pronouns have to match the gender of the noun they refer to, BUT
  6. Relative pronouns have to have the case required by how they fit into their own clauses.