When you learn German, it seems that there's a ton of grammar to deal with and so German relative pronouns can feel like another item on the never ending “to learn list”. So do you really need to bother?
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 want to learn German fast and have fun while doing it, my top recommendation is German Uncovered which teaches you through StoryLearning®.
With German Uncovered you’ll use my unique StoryLearning® method to learn German relative pronouns and other tricky grammar naturally through stories. It’s as fun as it is effective.
If you’re ready to get started, click here for a 7-day FREE trial.
#1 What Are Relative Pronouns In German And English?
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.
- Das ist das Haus. Ich habe das Haus letztes Jahr gekauft. (That is the house. I bought the house last year.)
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.
- Das ist das Haus, das ich letztes Jahr gekauft habe. (That is the house that I bought last year.)
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 How To Use 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.
- The case of the relative pronoun must agree with its grammatical function
- Relative pronouns must agree with the noun's gender and declension
- Your sentence's word order will change to send the conjugated verb to the end of the relative clause
Below is a reference table.
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, so you'll get plenty of German relative pronoun practice.
I've prepared a sentence for you that highlights each case and gender. I'll tell you more about word order a little later.
Relative pronoun: die (Feminine, nominative)
- The woman, who comes from Munich, is named Sara.
- Die Frau, die aus München kommt, heißt Sara.
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.
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.
- The coffee that I ordered is cold.
- Der Kaffee, den ich bestellt habe, ist kalt.
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.
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.
- The house that I liked best is already sold.
- Das Haus, dem mir am besten gefallen hat, ist schon verkauft.
Here, I have a neuter noun, das Haus, and a dative verb, gefallen, so I chose dem.
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).
- That's the man whose bicycle was stolen.
- Das ist der Mann, dessen Fahrrad geklaut wurde.
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 relative pronouns in German 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.
- Example: Das ist das Haus, das ich letztes Jahr gekauft habe.
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.
- Example: Der Kaffee, den ich bestellt habe, ist kalt.
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.
German Relative Pronouns Practice: Walk-Through Example
- Ich möchte dir meine Lieblingsbäckerei zeigen. Ich liebe die Bäckerei. (I want to show you my favorite bakery. I love the bakery.)
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:
- Ich möchte dir meine Lieblingsbäckerei zeigen, die ich liebe. (I want to show you my favorite bakery that I love.)
#4 Relative Clauses That Begin With Prepositions
Sometimes, you'll encounter relative clauses with prepositions. Prepositions always come before the relative pronoun.
- Example: Die Frau, mit der ich gesprochen habe, ist im Urlaub. (The woman, with whom I spoke, is on vacation.
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.
- Example: Der Kurs, für den man bezahlen muss, ist sehr gut. (The course, which you have to pay for, is very good.)
Für is an accusative preposition, and der Kurs is masculine, so here you should use den.
- Example: Ich habe eine Karte, auf der man Deutschland sehen kann. (I have a map that you can see Germany on.)
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.
- Example: Relativsätze, vor denen du keine Angst mehr hast, sind eigentlich nicht so schlimm. (Relative clauses, which you aren't afraid of anymore, aren't actually that bad.)
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.
- Wo – Where or wherever
- Wer – Who or whoever
- Was – What or whatever
Let's look at an example of each one.
- Example: Wer mitkommen will, muss sich beeilen. (Whoever wants to come along has to hurry.)
Here, you can see how wer is used instead of a noun.
- Example: Er kehrt immer in die Stadt zurück, wo er geboren ist. (He always returns to the city where he was born.)
Notice how no town has been specified and how wo takes its place.
- Example: Sie will alles, was ihre Schwester hat. (She wants everything (that) her sister has.)
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.
- Example: Das Beste, was ich machen kann, ist warten. (The best thing (that) I can do is wait.)
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.
- Relative clauses come directly after the nouns they're describing.
- Commas set off relative clauses.
- Verbs come at the end of relative clauses.
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 Practice: 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? Forget pouring over grammar books and doing a ton of German relative pronouns exercises. Instead, opt for plenty of daily contact with German, whether that's in the form of podcasts, movies, TV or, my personal favourite, stories.
So get out there and immerse yourself in German.