German Formal & Informal Pronouns

Instructor: Penelope Heinigk

Penelope holds a doctorate degree in German and a professional teaching license in the state of Colorado. She has taught middle school through university, online and live.

In this lesson we will learn the three forms of you in German: the singular familiar form, the plural familiar form, and the formal form that can be used to indicate singular or plural pronouns.

Formal and Informal Pronouns

Germans are rather finicky about showing the proper respect towards each other, which is reflected in the language itself. There are three different pronouns for you that indicate singular or plural as well as formal or familiar. English, being a closely related Germanic language, used to have this distinction too with the 'thee' and 'thou' forms. The three forms of you are the only pronouns that distinguish a difference between the formal and informal in German.

The Three Forms of You

There are three different German words for you: du, ihr, Sie. Here are some guidelines to help you figure out which one you should be using:

  • Du (pronounced: doo) is used to address a single (one) person whom you know and with whom you are on familiar terms.
  • ihr (pronounced: ear) is used to address a group (two or more people) whom you know and with whom are on familiar terms.
  • Sie (pronounced: zee) is used to address one or more people formally, meaning those whom you do not know or with whom you are not yet on familiar terms.

When to Use Them

For non-native German speakers, choosing between the informal and the formal to address someone may seem complicated. People very well may consider you impolite or downright rude if you use the informal way of addressing them in a situation that calls for more formality. You may also find that some people are more easy-going and, depending on the situation, may take the liberty to address you in the informal.

Here are some helpful guidelines to take the guesswork out:

  1. If you are a young person (teen or younger) you may address others your age or younger in the familiar (du, ihr).
  2. You may address children in the familiar (du, ihr).
  3. If you have been invited to use the familiar by the other person, then by all means use it. You may hear the verb duzen (to use the du form): Wir können duzen (We can use the du form with each other).
  4. If you are talking to adults who are strangers to you, use the formal (Sie).
  5. If you are talking to adults who are familiar to you but have not yet invited you to use the familiar form, then use the formal (Sie).
  6. If you are unsure, use the formal. Better to err on the side of politeness than on the side of assumed familiarity (Sie).

Translation: You are a good friend.
girls talking

Singular Familiar (du)

Here is a conversation between two really good friends, Bella and Anna. Notice the use of du.

Bella: Gehst du heute heute einkaufen? (Are you going shopping today?)

Anna: Ja, ich brauch neue Schuhe. Willst du mitkommen? (Yes, I need new shoes. Do you want to come along?)

Bella: Du brauchst immer neue Schuhe. Na klar komme ich mit! (You always need new shoes. Of course I am coming along!)

Translation: Are you going to the party now?
boys dressed up

Plural Familiar (ihr)

In this conversation, a father (Vater) is talking to his three sons (Söhne) and therefore uses ihr, indicating the plural familiar:

Vater: Seid ihr bereit zu fahren? (Are you ready to go?)

Söhne: Ja, Vati. Gehen wir jetzt? (Yes, dad. Are we going now?)

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