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Relative pronouns - Easy Learning Grammar German

What is a relative pronoun?
In English a relative pronoun is one of the words who, which and that (and the more formal whom). These pronouns are used to introduce information that makes it clear which person or thing is being talked about, for example, The man who has just come in is Ann’s boyfriend; The vase that you broke was quite valuable.

Relative pronouns can also introduce further information about someone or something, for example, Peter, who is a brilliant painter, wants to study art; Jane’s house, which was built in 1890, needs a lot of repairs.
  • In German the most common relative pronouns der, den, dessen, dem etc have the same forms as the definite article, except in the dative plural and genitive singular and plural. They are declined as follows:
CaseMasculine SingularFeminine SingularNeuter SingularAll Genders Plural
Nominativederdiedasdie
Accusativedendiedasdie
Genitivedessenderendessenderen
Dativedemderdemdenen
  • Relative pronouns must agree in gender and number with the noun to which they refer, but the case they have depends on their function in the relative clause. The relative clause is simply the part of the sentence in which the relative pronoun appears. Relative clauses are ALWAYS separated by commas from the rest of the sentence.
  • In the following example, the relative pronoun den is in the accusative because it is the direct object in the relative clause.
Der Mann, den ich gestern gesehen habe, kommt aus Zürich.The man that I saw yesterday comes from Zürich.
  • In this second example, the relative pronoun dessen is in the genitive because it is used to show that something belongs to someone.
Der Student, dessen Smartphone gestohlen wurde, ging zur Polizei.The student whose smartphone was stolen went to the police.
TipIn English we often miss out the object pronouns who, which and that. For example, we can say both the friends that I see most, or the friends I see most, and the house which we want to buy, or the house we want to buy. In German you can NEVER miss out the relative pronoun in this way.
Die Frau, mit der ich gestern gesprochen habe, kennt deine Mutter.The woman I spoke to yesterday knows your mother.
  • Note that the genitive forms are used in relative clauses in much the same way as in English, but to translate one of whom, some of whom use the following constructions.
Das Kind, dessen Fahrrad gestohlen worden war, fing an zu weinen.The child whose bicycle had been stolen started to cry.
Die Kinder, von denen einige schon lesen konnten, ...The children, some of whom could already read, …
Meine Freunde, von denen einer ...My friends, one of whom
Grammar Extra!When a relative clause is introduced by a preposition, the relative pronoun can be replaced by wo- or wor- if the noun or pronoun it stands for refers to an object or something abstract. The full form of the pronoun plus preposition is much more common.
Das Buch, woraus ich vorgelesen habe, gehört dir.
OR:
Das Buch, aus dem ich vorgelesen habe, gehört dir.The book I read aloud from belongs to you.
  • In German wer and was are normally used as interrogative pronouns (meaning who? and what?) to ask questions. They can also be the subject of a sentence or a relative pronoun. For example, he who, a woman who, anyone who, those who etc.
Wer das glaubt, ist verrückt.Anyone who believes that is mad.
Was du gestern gekauft hast, steht dir ganz gut.The things you bought yesterday really suit you.
  • Note that was is the relative pronoun used in set expressions with certain neuter forms. For example:
alles, was …everything which
das, was …that which
nichts, was …nothing that
vieles, was …a lot that
wenig, was …little that
Nichts, was er sagte, hat gestimmt.Nothing that he said was right.
Das, was du jetzt machst, ist unpraktisch.What you are doing now is impractical.
Mit allem, was du gesagt hast, sind wir einverstanden.We agree with everything you said.
Key points
  • The most common relative pronouns der, den, dessen, dem etc have the same forms as the definite article, except in the dative plural and genitive singular and plural.
  • Relative pronouns must agree in gender and number with the noun to which they refer, but take their case from their function in the relative clause.
  • In German you can NEVER miss out the relative pronoun, unlike in English.
  • Relative clauses are always separated by commas from the rest of the sentence.
  • Wer and was are normally used as interrogative pronouns but can also be the subject of a sentence or a relative pronoun.

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