German Relative Pronouns: A 6-Part Guide For Natural Sounding German

German relative pronouns

When you learn German, it seems that there's a ton of grammar to deal with. So where should you focus your energy?

Well, German relative pronouns and clauses, which you can't live without, will take your comprehension skills to the next level.

Not only do Relativsätze improve your understanding of der, die, and das, but also your conversations will begin to sound more natural as well.

Although the term might sound complicated, the idea is straightforward. Relative pronouns replace a shared noun. So they combine two sentences into one.

The main benefit is that you'll avoid repetition and gain more fluidity in your speech.

In this post, I'll explain the ins and outs of German relative pronouns with plenty of examples to clarify. So sit tight, keep reading and get ready for smoother, better flowing German thanks to these indispensable little words.

By the way, if you're just getting started in German and want to make progress fast without getting bogged down in grammar then I recommend German Uncovered, which will take you from beginner to conversationally fluent through the power of story.

#1 What Are Relative Pronouns & Clauses Anyway?

You might not know it, but you use relative pronouns and clauses all the time in English. Words like who, which, that, and whose replace regular pronouns such as he, she, and it.

In other words, relative pronouns refer to a noun in the sentence. At the same time, relative pronouns connect phrases and clauses.

Take a look at these example sentences without a relative pronoun to join them.

Speaking like that makes you sound a bit like a robot doesn't it? Let's try popping a relative pronoun into that same example and see what happens.

Sounds a lot more natural right? In the example above, “that” is our relative pronoun. Following is the relative clause, “I bought last year.”

Not as complicated as you thought, right?

All you're doing is combining two sentences into one.

The German relative pronouns function in the same way. Next, I'll show you the relative pronouns in German and how to use them.

#2 Relative Pronouns In German

In German, you typically use definite articles (der, die, and das) as relative pronouns.

However, before you can choose, you need to make three essential considerations.

  1. The case of the relative pronoun must agree with its grammatical function
  2. Relative pronouns must agree with the noun's gender and declension
  3. Your sentence's word order will change to send the conjugated verb to the end of the relative clause

Below is a reference table.

German relative pronouns chart

Remember that the gender of relative pronouns must agree with the noun to which it is referring.

I know these rules sound like too much to remember. But the following examples will help clarify everything.

I've prepared a sentence for you that highlights each case and gender. I'll tell you more about word order a little later.

Example 1

Relative pronoun: die (Feminine, nominative)

Here, the woman, or die Frau, is a feminine noun, and the subject of the sentence. So I chose the corresponding relative pronoun in the nominative.

Example 2

Relative pronoun: den (Masculine, accusative)

In German, some verbs always take the accusative case and others the dative. Here, “I” is the subject and “the coffee” is the direct object, which calls for the accusative case.

In German, coffee is a masculine noun, so we choose the accusative, masculine relative pronoun, den. If you're not sure which case is correct, use the accusative case. Most German verbs fall into this category.

German relative pronouns

Example 3

Relative pronoun: dem (Neuter, dative)

The dative case is used for indirect objects. Or after dative verbs.

Some dative verbs include es geht, gefallen, folgen, fehlen, glauben, gehören, passieren, passen, schmecken, schaden, wehtun, and vertrauen.

Here, I have a neuter noun, das Haus, and a dative verb, gefallen, so I chose dem.

Example 4

Relative pronoun: dessen (Masculine, possessive)

In English, we use the relative pronoun “whose” to indicate possession in a relative clause. The German equivalent is dessen (masculine or neuter) or deren (feminine or plural).

Here, the relative pronoun is referring to “the man”. But I also want to indicate ownership, so I choose dessen.

#3 Word Order And Relative Clauses

Now that you know what the German relative pronouns are, I want to explain how you can choose the correct word order.

There are two rules you need to know.

#1 Relative clauses are dependent clauses, which means they can't stand alone in a sentence.

The portion of the sentence in bold is our relative clause, and wouldn't make sense on its own.

#2 Place the conjugated verb at the end of the clause.

Here, the conjugated verb in bold comes at the end of the relative clause. Also, note that commas indicate the beginning and end of a relative clause.

Let me walk you through an example.

Walk-Through Example

Sentence 1:

First, you need to identify whether there are one or more verbs in the main sentence. If you only have one verb, your relative clause can begin after a comma following the noun. If you have two verbs, the final verb will come before the relative clause.

Second, you want to identify the gender of the noun the clause will refer to. In this case, die Bäckerei, is feminine.

Now, you need to determine which case to use. Here, lieben is an accusative verb, so you want to use the relative pronoun die.

The next steps are simple.

You need to remove the second Bäckerei and place the verb liebe at the end of the clause.

You should end up with the following:

Sentence 1:

#4 Relative Clauses That Begin With Prepositions

Sometimes, you'll encounter relative clauses with prepositions. Prepositions always come before the relative pronoun.

Note that mit is a dative preposition. Consequently, your relative pronoun must also be in the dative case.

If you don't remember which prepositions are accusative, and which ones are dative, review my post learn German prepositions the easy way.

Für is an accusative preposition, and der Kurs is masculine, so here you should use den.

Auf can be either accusative or dative, depending on whether or not motion takes place. Here, there is no motion, so you should use the dative case.

In this sentence, you have the dative preposition vor and a plural noun, which is why you should use denen.

#5 The Relative Pronouns Wo, Wer, And Was

Sometimes you need to talk about more abstract concepts that don't have a definitive noun.

In this case, you can use the relative pronouns wo, wer, and was to talk about more general ideas without a gender.

Let's look at an example of each one.

Here, you can see how wer is used instead of a noun.

Notice how no town has been specified and how wo takes its place.

Because alles is undefined, you should use was as a relative pronoun. You can use was to refer to other indefinite pronouns such as das Beste, die Erste, nichts, or etwas.

Note that in English, it can be acceptable to leave out the relative pronoun. However, in German, the pronoun must always be present.

#6 How To Recognise Relative Clauses In German

If you're just starting to learn relative clauses, there are a few signs to look out for when trying to identify them.

To sum things up, any clause that contains a form of der, die, or das, follows a noun, includes commas, and ends with a verb is a relative clause.

German Relative Pronouns: Immerse Yourself

You now know that German uses forms of der, die, and das in the same way that we use who, which, and that in English.

Relative clauses, which are also dependent, can't stand on their own and must follow the noun they are modifying.

Also, you know all the rules for choosing the correct relative pronoun. For example, gender has to agree with the noun, but the case depends on grammatical use within the clause.

Congratulations on making it through the examples! I bet you know a lot more about German relative clauses than you did before.

You're another step closer to mastering the German language.

Know what it takes to master any language? Plenty of daily contact with it, whether that's in the form of podcasts, movies, TV or, my personal favourite, stories. 

So get out there and immerse yourself in German.

Over to you – how do you feel about German relative pronouns after reading this post? Is it clear how you could use them in your own German conversations? Let me know in the comments below? 

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