It doesn’t take Einstein to deal with the German language’s relative pronouns.
The laws which govern the usage of German relative pronouns are much simpler than the laws of physics.
You might think building sentences is one of the easiest parts of learning German.
Once you know where all the words go, you’re good to go, right?
Well, not exactly.
Building a basic sentence is quite easy once you have a good lexicon. But when you’re ready to progress and lengthen your sentences, things can get ever so slightly tricky. To turn a simple sentence into a complex sentence requires various clauses to be strung together. And how do we do that? Well, for that you need to have mastered relative pronouns…
What’s a Relative Pronoun?
The idea of relative pronouns is an easy one to understand: They’re just the words which join two clauses together. If you want to add on an extra clause to a sentence, you’ll be joining it up with a relative pronoun.
The extra clause also has a special name too—it’s a relative clause. Nice and easy to remember!
In most cases, relative pronouns are the definite article. So that’s der, die, and das. How do we know which one to use? We need to look back at the noun which was used in the previous sentence. Here’s an example:
Der Hund, der schwarz ist.
The dog which is black.
As der Hund (the dog) is a masculine noun, the relative pronoun we need also has to be masculine. So we just repeat the der. However, as the below examples show, it isn’t always quite so straightforward…
10 Examples of German Relative Pronouns in Action
1. Der Mann, der fuhr, ist mein Vater.
Translation: The man who drove is my father.
An easy one to get us started with, this first example is exactly like the above one involving the dog. Since Mann (man) is masculine, we just use der.
One thing to note in this sentence is the positioning of the verbs. In German if you ever follow a verb with a comma, you must follow the comma with another verb. This is the “verb comma verb” rule.
2. Das ist der Typ, der Musik spielt.
Translation: That’s the guy who plays music.
Again, Typ (guy) is a masculine noun so the relative pronoun is der.
There’s some more verb action to note in the example: Verbs in relative clauses always have to be sent to the end of the clause.
This is a very strange thing for native speakers to comprehend as our verbs are stuck in one place. If we were to literally translate the above sentence into English it’d read “That’s the man who music plays.” Sounds weird! But, verbs get sent to the ends of clauses quite a bit in German, so make sure you know exactly where your verbs in your spoken and written German should be placed!
3. Mein Onkel ist ein Mensch, auf den man bauen kann.
Translation: My uncle is a person on whom you can rely.
For this relative clause, we need to use the masculine relative pronoun because Mensch is a masculine noun. So that’d be der right? Ah, not in this case!
In this example, we need to use the accusative case because the expression auf jemanden bauen (to count on someone) requires it.
Case rules in German also apply to relative pronouns. Here’s a quick review of the two most basic cases in German, the nominative and accusative, in case you need a little refresher.
4. Sie ist ein Mensch, dem man nicht helfen kann.
Translation: She is a person whom you can’t help.
Above we tackled the accusative case and relative pronouns. Now, we have to struggle with the dative.
Helfen is one of those verbs that requires the dative case. As with the above example, we just have to place the dative masculine relative pronoun (dem) in the place of the nominative one (der). So, that’s how der becomes dem.
5. Die Frau, deren Handy ich benutzt habe.
Translation: The woman whose cell phone I used.
Okay, so now things start to become trickier.
Before when we were changing cases, we could look at a table of definite articles and it would double up as a table of relative pronouns. But now that we’re dealing with possession, we need to introduce some new words to our lexicon. Namely: Dessen and deren.
These are the genitive relative pronouns. Dessen is used for masculine and neuter antecedent nouns. Deren is used for feminine and plural nouns.
Notice that these possessive relative pronouns correspond to the owner, such as die Frau (the woman), and not to the object in possession, das Handy (the cell phone).
So, looking at the example above, we need to use the feminine form deren as it refers back to Die Frau (the woman).
6. Das sind die Männer, mit denen ich Schach gespielt habe.
Translation: Those are the men with whom I played chess.
Okay, I confess, there’s another word you need to add to your German vocabulary: Denen. But, once you’ve mastered slipping dessen and deren into your language, you’ll have no problems whatsoever with this useful word.
If your relative clause involves a plural noun in the dative case, then you’ll need to use the dative plural relative pronoun, which is denen.
In the example above, we need the dative case because mit (with) always takes the dative. In this way, the dative plural relative pronoun, denen, refers back to the plural die Männer (the men). One of the most common mistakes made by German learners is using the dative plural definite article, den. Be wary of this pitfall!
7. Was er uns gesagt hat, war nicht wahr.
Translation: What he told us wasn’t true.
Don’t think your relative clauses should be left for the end of a sentence—here’s a sentence which starts off with a relative clause. And it also shows that you don’t need to use der, die, or das—or one of their many different counterparts—as a relative pronoun.
It’s also possible to use wo (where), was (what) and wer (who / whoever). Whichever word you decide to use though, always remember to send that verb to the end of the clause!
8. Wer den Kaffee getrunken hat, muss den Direktor sehen.
Translation: Whoever drank the coffee has to see the principal.
Here we have wer as our relative pronoun. When you’re translating a relative clause which begins with wer it’s worth bearing in mind that it doesn’t always have to be translated literally as “who.” More often than not, wer at the beginning of a sentence is actually translated as “whoever.”
9. Ich möchte irgendwo arbeiten, wo ich kein Auto brauche.
Translation: I’d like to work somewhere where I don’t need a car.
All is explained below…
10. Weißt du, wo wir hingehen müssen?
Do you know where we have to go?
Examples 9 and 10 both show wo as the relative pronoun. As you can see, unlike with der, die or das, it doesn’t change its form, no matter what the case of the relative clause may be. Easy, huh?
From all the above examples, you can see that relative pronouns and relative clauses aren’t all that scary.
They just involve a bit of time getting used to altering them to fit the case of the clause and knowing where exactly the verb needs to go.
Now go forth and use all this exciting relative pronoun knowledge to boost your 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.
And One More Thing…
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