German Relative Pronouns

Instructor: Sandra Salajic

Sandra has a master's degree in teaching German. She has taught middle and high school German, and worked on different on- and offline courses with kids and adults.

In this lesson, we'll take a look at the German relative pronouns, which introduce and mark a relative clause. We will learn more about when and how to use them.

Relative Pronouns in German

Your friend has brought you on a tour of their new neighborhood. She says:

Das ist ein Haus. Ich habe das Haus gekauft. Das Haus hat ein Schwimmbad. (This is a house. I bought the house. The house has a swimming pool.)

However good having a swimming pool may sound, the way it was presented here in these sentences wasn't very poetic. To avoid having such short and clumsy sentences, we will have to combine them into longer, more complex ones. To do so, we will often use relative pronouns to help us build those sentences.

What is a relative pronoun? Relative pronouns are used to introduce and mark a relative clause. It may sound complicated, but the concept is pretty simple.

Let's take a look at our example from the introduction:

  • Ich habe das Haus gekauft. Das Haus hat ein Schwimmbad. (I bought the house. The house has a swimming pool.)

And now look at the improved version:

  • Das Haus, das ich gekauft habe, hat ein Schwimmbad. (The house, which I bought, has a swimming pool.)

Sounds much better, right?

Relative pronouns in German make longer, more complex sentences to mark and introduce relative clauses and avoid repeating the same subject over again.

Translation: The house that has a garden.

Using Relative Pronouns

The most used relative pronouns in German are the definite articles:

  • der for masculine
  • die for feminine and plural
  • das for neutral

When using relative pronouns, it is important to use the one that matches the gender and number of the subject used in the previous sentence.

For example:

  • Das ist der Junge, der sehr schnell rennen kann. (This is the boy that can run very fast.)

The relative pronoun here is der, because it has to match the noun der Junge from the first sentence.

Few more examples:

  • Hier ist das Schloss, das ich dir zeigen wollte. (Here is the castle that I wanted to show to you.)
  • Wie heißt das Kind, das du gesucht hast? (What is the name of the kid that you were looking for?)
  • Schildkröten sind Tiere, die sehr lange leben. (Turtles are animals that live very long.)

Remember that in the relative clause, the verb will always be at the end of the sentence. Also try to keep in mind to always put a comma in front of the relative clause in German. This is not quite like English, where a comma is only placed before 'which' but not 'that'.

Translation: This is the boy that draws.

Declining Relative Pronouns

In German, nouns and pronouns get declined, which will make all of this a little bit more complicated.

Let's take a look at this example.

  • Wer ist der Mann, den du begrüßt hast? (Who is the man that you greeted?)

Der Mann is a masculine noun, but the verb in the second sentence requires an accusative subject. That's why instead of using der, we use the declined den relative pronoun in the accusative.

A few more examples:

  • Die Lehrerin, deren (genitive) Schüler gute Noten haben, ist sehr streng. (The students, whose teacher is very strict, have good grades.)
  • Der Bus, mit dem (dative) ich fahre, kommt zu spät. (The bus, which I am taking, is coming late.)

Let's freshen up our knowledge about the declension of the German definite article:

Case Masculine Feminine Neutral Plural
nominative der die das die
accusative den die das die
dative dem der dem den
genitive dessen deren dessen deren

So remember to always use the correct gender and number depending on the noun, and the correct case depending on the relative clause!

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