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.
This post 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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And now, back to you (and variations thereof).
1. Plural Informal “You”
In German, there’s a clear distinction between the formal and informal registers. If you are speaking to someone in a formal context like a business meeting or customer service interaction, or even just someone you don’t know, then you’ll usually address them with Sie (you). However, if you are speaking to a friend, family member or a young child, then you can use the informal “you,” du.
But that’s not all, there’s another informal “you” used when talking to a group of people.
However, if you want to say “you” to refer to two or more people you know well, then you need to use the plural, 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.
Luckily, the formal “you”, Sie, can be used for individuals as well as groups.
Our tricky homophone in the hot seat has another trick up its sleave, as ihr can also be translated as “her”.
It’s the dative form of sie (she). (That’s sie as in “she,” and not capitalized Sie, which is the formal form of “you”)
Some of you might be asking what the dative is. In a nutshell: there are different cases in German that cause articles (eg; the, a, some), adjectives and pronouns (eg; I, you, he, she, we etc.) to change. What case they are in depends on the noun’s function in a sentence, whether or not they are preceded by certain prepositions that demand certain cases, or whether a verb that always takes the dative case, like helfen (to help), is being used.
Firstly, if the lucky lady in, sie (she), in question is the indirect object in the sentence, ie; receiving the direct object, then we need to change it to its dative version: ihr.
Here’s an example of ihr when used to mean “her”:
Ich kaufe ihr das Buch.
(I’m buying her the book.)
The “she” in this sentence is receiving the direct object, the book, making it the indirect object, so we need to put it into the dative case – ihr (her).
Some prepositions also change the case to the dative automatically, so you’ll have to use ihr , such as in this example:
Was ist los mit ihr?
(What is wrong with her?)
Anything that follows the preposition mit goes in the dative, so the girl in this sentence, the sie (she), once again becomes ihr (her).
Lastly, a dative verb can also be the trigger for this dramatic, dative transformation. A common example is the verb helfen (to help), which is always followed by a dative object:
Ich helfe ihr.
(I’m helping her)
But wait! That’s not where the translations of ihr as “her” end! As ihr can also mean “her” as in “her car”, ie; a possessive pronoun (indicating that something belongs to someone, eg; my, your, his, her, etc.)
Wo ist ihr Auto?
Where is her car?
Don’t forget to add on the correct ending depending on the case and singularity/plurality! Here’s an example:
Ihre Katze trinkt die Milch.
(Her cat is drinking the milk.)
So, in the example above, we just need to add an “e,” as Katze (cat) is the subject of the sentence, which means it’s in the nominative 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?)
Watch out for your capitals here! Just like the formal “you”, Sie, the formal possessive pronoun always needs to be capitalized in written German, Ihr, as uncapitalized ihr means “her”, as we saw above.
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.
Here is an 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.
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, there’s no way to tell 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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