Demonstratives edit

There are several more classes of pronouns and determiners we need to cover. In this section we'll cover demonstratives.

Terminology edit

Demonstratives are used to used to identify and clarify which particular thing or person you're talking about. For example, in the sentence "I own the cat," the speaker assumes everyone already knows exactly which cat, so all that is needed is a definite article. But if there are several cats in the room, the speaker can make it clear by pointing or using some other gesture, and saying "I own this cat." As usual, we make a distinction between a determiner, where the word comes before a noun and replaces an article, and a pronoun where the word stands on its own and replaces a noun. For example "this" in "I own this cat," is a demontrative determiner, while "this" in "This is my cat," is a demonstrative pronoun. Other demonstratives in English include "that", "these" and "those". The list is somewhat longer in German, and when you include compounds, because German loves to form compounds for all kinds of things, the list gets quite long.

Demonstrative determiners edit

As mentioned above, determiners are words that can replace an article if one is required in front of a noun. So a demonstrative determiner is a demonstrative that can replace an article. They are declined like der and so now join welcher in our inventory of der words.

dieser/jener edit

You might say dieser means "this" (close to the speaker) and jener means "that" (far from the speaker), but it's only partially true. In modern German it rare to use jener at all, and if it is used then it's in combination with dieser as a contrast between two similar things. Normally German uses dieser for both "this" and "that" no matter how distant the object is from the speaker. If you really need to specify the distance then use hier - "here" and da - "there". Examples:

  • Dieser Hund liebt mich, aber jener Hund mag mich nicht. – "This dog loves me, but that dog doesn't like me."
    • This is an example of where jener might be used in combination with dieser.
  • Dieser Berg ist sehr hoch. – "That mountain is very tall."
    • In general, use dieser for both "this" and "that".

Knowing that dieser is declined like der should enable you to fill in its declention table, but we'll include it anyway for completeness.

Declension of dieser (determiner)
Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative dieser diese dieses diese
Accusative diesen diese dieses diese
Dative diesem dieser diesem diesen
Genitive dieses dieser dieses dieser

With expressions of time, dieser refers to the period immediately following or preceding. Depending on context, it could be translated as "this", "next" or "last". For example:

  • Wir reden diesen Freitag. – "We'll talk this Friday."
    • Note the diesen Freitag is used as an adverb in this sentence. In general, German uses the accusative case in such situations, and you can see that in the -en ending of diesen.

der edit

In addition to being the definite article, der also acts as an demonstrative determiner and can be translated as "that". (In fact, the very early ancestors of German did not have articles at all, and the article der evolved from the demonstratives in those early languages. Similarly, the article ein evolved from the word for the number one.) Unlike dieser, the demonstrative der does not necessarily refer to anything you can point at, but is demonstrative in the sense that it refers to something in the current context. For example a subject you were just talking about or a person who just left the room.

There is actually no difference between the way the two meanings are written, so you have to rely on context and a certain amount of guesswork to tell if "the" or "that" is meant in a given sentence. When spoken, the demonstrative der is stressed while the article is unstressed, making it easier to tell the difference. Examples:

  • Ich mag den Kerl nicht. – "I don't like that guy."
    • If, for example, he was mentioned in conversation.
  • War die Frau deine Ehefrau? – "Was that woman your wife?"
    • If, for example, someone just meantioned being with his wife at a party.

Demonstrative pronouns edit

dieser/jener edit

The pronoun versions of these demonstrative determiners have about the same meaning except that they don't precede a noun. They are inflected like the determiners, except that they rarely exist in the genitive case since davon (see below) will work just as well. In addition, there are impersonal versions, dies and less commonly jenes, both uninflected, that are used with sein. The impersonal form can refer to a recent situation or event, or simply to whatever happens to be in the general direction you're pointing to:

  • Dies ist meine Schuld. – "This is my fault."
  • Dies ist Kurt – "This is Kurt."

der edit

It may seem odd to a English speaker for der to be used without a noun, but it's the demonstrative promoun instead of the article; there is no pronoun "the" in English.

Unlike dieser, using der has more to do with context than with location, and you'd use it to refer to something that was mentioned previously. So both der and the personal pronoun er may be translated as "he", but der carries more of a reminder that the person/thing was mentioned earlier, while er would be used when no such reminder is needed. So der might also be translated as "that guy" or "that thing" rather than "he" or "it". In addition, der may be used to single out the person or thing as being special or unique in some way. For example, let's say Anja and her friend Julia are having a conversation about Anja's boyfriend Peter and Peter's brother Stefan. Anja says:

  • Peter besucht seinen Bruder in Berlin. - "Peter is visiting his brother in Berlin."

To which Julia, who has a secret crush on Stefan, might reply:

  • Der sieht sehr süß aus. - "He (Stefan) seems very sweet."

Peter, being the subject of the previous sentence, would be the current topic of conversation, so er would refer to him in this context. But by using der, Julia is showing that she's talking about Stefan, who is not the current topic, but who has also been mentioned. Anja, sticking up for Peter, says:

  • Peter ist auch sehr süß.

But Julia has just been through a bad breakup and wants to remind Anja that some are not so lucky in their choice of boyfriends. She says:

  • Ja, der ist süß. - "Yes, he (Peter) is sweet."

This time, by using der Julia is singling out Peter as being unusual in being a sweet boyfriend, and implying that Julia is fortunate to find someone like Peter.

One thing to keep in mind though is that referring to someone as "that guy" in English could be considered rude or disrespectful, and the same thing might happen if you refer to a person (you like) as der without a good reason.

These distinctions are subtle and we probably have not captured all the complexities here. In addition, different German speakers may use the different pronouns in different ways, or may even use them interchangeably, especially in casual conversation. Using der rather than er seems to be primarily a feature of the spoken language, where emphasis and tone can mitigate any ambiguity, and is more rare in written German.

Just as dieser has an impersonal version dies, der has an impersonal version das. As with the impersonal es, it can refer to the environment, things in general, the current situation, or to nothing in particular. Since they don't refer to a specific thing, it isn't declined according to gender or number. As with dies, the impersonal das is usually only used with the verb sein. For example:

  • Ich habe eine Katze, einen Hund, eine Ziege, ein Schwein, ein Pferd und eine Kuh. Das sind eine Menge. - "I have a cat, a dog, a goat, a pig, a horse and a cow. That's a lot."

The German das isn't referring to a specific animal, just as "that" doesn't refer to a specific animal, but the list, so the impersonal form is used. But since there is more than one animal, sein is conjugated in the plural while English uses the singular "is".

As with the impersonal es, the impersonal das is especially prone to being dropped in converstation:

  • Ist in Ordnung.
  • Ist mir egal.

This seems to violate the V2 rule. But if you fill in the missing das:

  • Das ist in Ordnung. – "That is alright."
    • This uses the fixed phrase in Ordnung, which literally means "in order" but can be interpreted as "alright", "fine", "okay".
  • Das ist mir egal.
    • This uses the point-of-view dative to say "That's (all) the same to me." A shorter way to say it in English is "I don't care (about that)."

da- and wo- compounds edit

When a demonstrative pronoun would follow a preprosition, it's customary to replace the pronoun with the prefix da(r)- and attach it to the preposition. An r is included when the preposition starts with a vowel; in these cases dar- is often shorted to dr-, especially in spoken German. Functionally, they are adverbs.


  • Ich esse damit. – "I'm eating with this."
  • Das Kind spielt darin. – "The child is playing in this."

Similarly, when an interogative pronoun follows a preposition, it's customary to replace the pronoun with the prefix wo(r)-. (We're covering this here because we hadn't done prepositions when we introduced interrogatives.)


  • Womit isst du? – "What are you eating with?"
  • Worin spielt das Kind? – "What is the child playing in?"

Such compounds do exist in English, but it the modern language they are only used in legalese and not understood well by most people. Examples include "thereto" and "whereby".


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