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German Pronouns: Nominative Case
Like the English subject pronouns I, you, he, she, it, we, and they that function as the subject of sentences, the German nominative case pronouns also function as subjects. However, speakers new to the German language must learn some significant differences between the pronouns of English and those of German.
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Grammatical Gender and Case
German is a language in which nouns including pronouns have both grammatical gender and grammatical case. Grammatical gender means that nouns are classified into categories such as masculine, feminine, and neuter. For example, the German words der Bruder "brother" is masculine, die Schwester "sister" is feminine, and das Kind "child" is neuter. Grammatical gender should not be confused with natural gender, which refers to biological or social gender. For example, the German word das Mädchen "girl" is grammatically neuter even though girl refers to a biological female. All nouns including pronouns in the German language have gender.
All German nouns and pronouns also show grammatical case. Grammatical case refers to the grammatical function of a word, phrase, or clause. A grammatical function is "what a word, phrase, or clause does." For example, the grammatical function of the pronoun sie "she" in Sie ist aus Deutschland "She is from Germany" is subject. Unlike languages like English that show grammatical function of nouns through word order, German expresses grammatical function through grammatical case. The grammatical cases in German are nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive.
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Nominative Case or Subject Pronouns
The nominative case in German expresses the grammatical function of subject. For example, the noun mein Vater "my father" in the sentence mein Vater ist groß "my father is big" functions as the subject of the sentence. The German pronouns in the nominative case are:
- ich "I" (first person singular)
- du "you" (second person singular familiar)
- Sie "you" (second person singular formal)
- er "he, it" (third person singular masculine)
- sie "she, it" (third person singular feminine)
- es "it" (third person singular neuter)
- man "one, you, they, people" (impersonal)
- wir "we" (first person plural)
- ihr "you" (second person plural familiar)
- Sie "you" (second person plural formal)
- sie "they" (third person plural)
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The pronouns ich (not capitalized) "I," wir "we," and sie "they" are used almost identically to the same pronouns in English. All three are used by both male and female speakers, and the plural wir "we" and sie "they" can refer to groups of males, females, and mixed genders.
The second person pronouns du and ihr, which are both "you" in English, are familiar forms. Familiar forms should be used only with family members, close friends, children, peers, and animals. For example, du isst "you are eating" can be said to a best friend or a baby cousin. The familiar du is also used pejoratively by the speaker to show superiority or express contempt.
The second person singular and plural pronoun Sie (always capitalized) is the formal or polite form of "you." Formal forms are always used with strangers, casual acquaintances, superiors, professional colleagues, people with formal titles, and others not well know to the speaker. For example, Sie schreiben "you are writing" can be said to a boss at work or a stranger at the library.
The use of the third person singular pronouns er "he, it," sie "she, it," and es "it" is determined by the grammatical gender of the noun it replaces rather than biological or social gender. Both the masculine der Tag "day" and der Onkel "uncle" are replaced by the masculine er, the feminine die Woche "week" and die Tante "aunt" by the feminine sie, and the neuter das Buch "book" and das Mädchen "girl" by the neuter es.
The impersonal man in German corresponds to the impersonal one in English. For example, the German pun man ist was man isst translates to the English idiom "one is what one eats." The use of the impersonal man is much more common in German than the use of the impersonal "one" in English.
The difference in person (second, third) and number (singular, plural) between the different forms of sie/Sie is distinguished by the form of the verb in the sentence, the context of the sentence, and the capitalization in writing.
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The accompanying printable vocabulary sheet the personal pronouns in German is available for download at German Personal Pronouns Reference Sheet.
German Pronouns: Part 1: Nominative Case
German pronouns have both grammatical gender and grammatical case. The following four part series explores German pronouns in the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive cases.