You no all about homophones, right?
Wait, that should have been “You know all about homophones, right?”
And that’s just the problem with homophones.
They are those awkward words that sound the same but have different meanings.
Just like with “know” and “no,” many of them are spelled slightly differently.
We have a lot of these in English. Just take “to,” “too” and “two.”
What’s even more confusing is there are also homophones that have different meanings even though they are spelled the same, such as “rose” (the flower) and “rose” (past tense of “to rise”).
German has these words as well, and they can be particularly difficult for non-native speakers to learn.
Most German homophones only have two meanings, making them easier to remember.
This post, however, is dedicated to one of those exceptional homophones that has a variety of different meanings.
What’s more, it’s also one of the most commonly used homophones in German.
Have you guessed which one I’m talking about?
That’s right, say hello to ihr and its four (yes, four!) different meanings.
In this post, I’ll be getting to the bottom of each of these meanings to help you see the different contexts in which ihr can be used.
Gotcha! 4 Must-know Uses of the Sneaky German Homophone “Ihr”
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1. Plural Informal “You”
In German, there’s a clear distinction between the formal and informal aspects of language. If you are speaking to somebody you don’t know, then you’ll address them with Sie. However, if you are speaking to friends, family or young children, then you can use the informal “you,” du.
You also have to take into account plural forms of the formal and informal language—when you are speaking to a group of people, you need to utilize plural forms of “you.”
It’s easy if you need to keep things formal, as Sie is used for both singular and plural situations.
However, if you want to say “you” to refer to two or more people who you know really well, then you need to use the plural version of informal “you,” which is ihr.
Here’s an example of this version of ihr in action:
Ihr seid nett.
(You are all nice.)
This is in contrast to if you are speaking to just the one person—in this case, you would need to use du:
Du bist nett.
(You are nice.)
This version of ihr isn’t too hard to understand—just see it as an alternative version of du (although not completely interchangeable!). If you are ever stuck and aren’t sure which form of “you” to use, just ask yourself how many people you are addressing. If it’s just the one, stick with du. But for a group of two or more, it’s time to switch to ihr.
Ihr (her) is also the dative form of sie (she). That’s sie as in “she,” and not capitalized Sie, which is the formal form of “you” (I’ll get more into capitalizing formal words later on…).
There are different cases in German sentences that affect nouns. They usually depend on the noun’s position in a sentence and whether or not they are preceded by prepositions. The indirect object of a sentence always takes the dative case. Whenever sie (her) is the indirect object, we need to change it to ihr. As this is a personal pronoun, we don’t need to add an ending onto the word, unlike what we would do with adjectives in the dative position.
Here’s an example of ihr when used to mean “her”:
Ich kaufe ihr das Buch.
(I’m buying her the book.)
As some prepositions can change the case to dative, you’ll have to use ihr after certain ones, such as in this example:
Was ist los mit ihr?
(What is wrong with her?)
It’s also important to remember that ihr means “her” when implying possession. In this case, we do need to use it as if it were an adjective and add on the correct ending. Here’s an example:
Das ist ihre Katze.
(That is her cat.)
So, in the example above, we need to add an “e,” as Katze (cat) is the object of the sentence, which means it’s in the accusative case.
3. Polite “Your”
We’re not quite finished with the polite aspect of German just yet! Ihr is also used as the polite form of “your,” as shown below.
Können Sie mir Ihr Buch geben?
(Can you give me your book?)
One aspect of formal pronouns shown in this sentence is that they always need to be capitalized in written German. If you forget, then it changes the meaning of the sentence entirely (we’re almost at that full explanation of capitalization that I promised..!).
What you also need to remember is that this Ihr needs a different ending depending on its case and the gender of the following noun. In the sentence above, it remains as it is because it’s in the accusative case and Buch (book) is a neuter noun.
This next sentence shows how it can change:
Können Sie mir Ihren Hund geben?
(Can you give me your dog?)
Hund (dog) is a masculine noun. When it’s in the accusative case, as in the above sentence, the preceding adjective or possessive pronoun has to take an “-en” ending.
Here’s an alternative ending in action:
Darf ich heute Ihr Auto fahren?
(May I drive your car today?)
So, as the Ihr is being used to refer to the Auto (car), it’s in the accusative case (because Auto is the subject of the sentence). And as Auto is a neuter noun, it doesn’t change the ending of Ihr.
But that’s not all…there’s one more use of ihr to go through. It’s also used to describe third person possession. So if you want to say something belongs to a group of people—if something is theirs, to be more precise—you need to use ihr.
Here’s an example:
Hast du ihre Sachen?
(Do you have their things?)
Just as when Ihr meant the polite form of “your,” here it needs to change its ending depending on cases and genders.
But wait, how can you tell these two different meanings of ihr apart? If you just see a single sentence, like the one above, the context can be slightly hazy and you might have trouble interpreting whether “yours” or “their” is meant.
Below are two almost identical sentences, but there’s one thing that gives each meaning away. See if you can spot the tell-tale sign…
Die Maus hat ihren Käse gegessen.
(The mouse has eaten their cheese.)
Die Maus hat Ihren Käse gegessen.
(The mouse has eaten your cheese.)
Can you spot it? Take a closer look at those two uses of ihren…
The sentence in which the Ihren means “your” is sporting a capitalized “i” at the beginning of the word. It’s this key grammatical difference that helps you spot which meaning ihr has taken. In formal German, it’s not only Ihr that’s capitalized, Sie also gets the special treatment—it’s this pointer that helps you to fully understand the context in which the word is being used.
Unfortunately, we don’t really know whether words are capitalized or not in spoken German. But usually, you’ll have a clear grasp of the context from the rest of the conversation.
So there we have it, everything you need to know about the four different uses of ihr.
Now you’ll never have to be embarrassed by muddling up your “theirs” with your “yours” and your “hers” with your “you.”
You’ll find that knowing all about ihr will help to widen your use of everyday German!
After studying German and Philosophy at The University of Nottingham, Laura Harker relocated to Berlin in 2012. She now works as a freelance writer and is also assistant editor at Slow Travel Berlin.
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