We're going to organize the material here by starting with the basic elements and then discussing how to put them together into more and more complex and interesting combinations. The first step will be personal pronouns, the most basic type of pronoun. With these, and a few verbs, to be covered in the next section, you can start forming your own sentences without actually knowing a lot of vocabulary.
Personal pronouns are the small words used to refer to someone or something else without using the name. For example, "I", "you", "she" and "it" are personal pronouns in English. Personal pronouns are one category of pronouns; as you might guess, there are other categories including impersonal pronouns as well as a few other types which will be covered elsewhere. Pronouns, in turn, can be used to form a noun phrase, the phrases that tell you what a sentence talks about, as opposed to verbs which describe the action that is taking place.
Which personal pronoun to use in a German sentence depends on four factors, the case, the person, the number, and in some cases, the gender. There are four cases in German, whose functions will be covered later, and to avoid information overload we’ll only be talking about what it called the nominative case in this section. Person identifies whether the pronoun is referring to the person speaking (first person), the person being spoken to (second person), or some other person or thing not included in the conversation (third person). For example, in English "I" is first person, "you" is second person, and "he" is third person. Number is the distinction between one (singular) and more than one (plural), for example "I" is singular and "we" is plural. In German, gender only applies to the third person (as in English). It refers to the grammatical gender which, as mentioned in the introduction, is different than the natural gender ("he", "she", "it") used in English.
The pronouns by personEdit
The first person personal pronouns in German are ich ("I") and wir ("we"). As in English, which one to use depends only on number. So if you’re taking about yourself alone then you use the first person singular, ich, and if you’re talking about yourself as included in a group of people then you use the first person plural, wir. Note that ich is only capitalized at the start of a sentence.
Second person familiar versus politeEdit
Unlike English, but like many other languages, the German second person comes in two flavors, familiar and polite. In normal conversation, familiar is used with family, friends, coworkers you know well, small children, etc. Polite is used with strangers and people for whom you want to show respect. But there are no exact criteria for when to use familiar vs. polite, so there is a large grey area and when in doubt you should listen to how you are addressed and how your peers address others.
Second person familiarEdit
The second person familiar personal pronouns are du (singular) and ihr (plural). So if you're referring to just the person you're talking to then use du, and if you're referring to a group of people including the person you're talking to then use ihr. Note that, unlike English, German makes a distinction between second person singular and second person plural. (Some varieties of English have a second person plural, for example in American Southern English the plural form "y'all" is often used.)
Second person politeEdit
The only second person polite personal pronouns is Sie (singular and plural). First note that this is always capitalized, similar to the way that the English "I" is always capitalized. In this case, as with English "you", there is no distinction between singular are plural.
There are three third person singular personal pronouns in German, one for each of the three German genders. They are er (masculine singular), sie (feminine singular), es (neuter singular). The third person plural pronoun is the same as the feminine, sie, but this should be regarded as a coincidence. In general, while there is a certain correlation between feminine and plural forms, there are are enough exceptions that you should not take this to be any kind of rule. Note that in spoken German, sie and Sie sound the same, so without additional context it's impossible to tell the two apart. This ambiguity also occurs when the word is at beginning of a sentence. One way to tell the difference in meaning is by the way the verb is conjugated, since the different meanings of sie/Sie require different verb conjugations.
Introduction to genderEdit
As mentioned in the introduction, and hinted at above, German genders are very different from English genders. We shall use masculine, feminine and neuter for the German genders, and male, female, and inanimate for English genders. English genders are natural, meaning that you can determine the gender of the word from the thing it refers to: male for male people and animals, female for female people and animals, and inanimate for everything else. But German, like many other European languages, uses grammatical gender, which usually has more to do with how the word has evolved over time than with its meaning. Because of this, there is no way to translate between "he/she/it" and er/sie/es without first figuring out what these pronouns are referring to. For people, especially adults, masculine and feminine generally correspond to male and female. For example:
- Wo ist der Mann? Er ist draußen. ― "Where is the man? He is outside."
- Wo ist die Frau? Sie ist drinnen. ― "Where is the woman? She is inside."
For inanimate objects you have to know its grammatical gender to work out which pronoun to use.
- Wo ist der Stein? Er liegt auf dem Boden. ― "Where is the stone? It is on the ground."
- Wo ist das Auto? Es steht auf der Straße. ― "Where is the car? It is on the street."
- Wo ist die Schale? Sie steht auf dem Tisch. ― "Where is the bowl? It is on the table."
Similarly, with animals and children the German gender may be different than the natural gender.
- Wo ist die Katze? Sie liegt auf dem Sofa. ― "Where is the cat? He is on the sofa." (Assuming he's a male cat.)
- Wo ist der Hund? Er liegt auf dem Bett. ― "Where is the dog? She is on the bed." (Assuming she's a female dog.)
- Wo ist das Baby? Es schläft. ― "Where is the baby? She is sleeping." (Assuming she's a girl.)
- Wo ist das Baby? Es schläft. ― "Where is the baby? He is sleeping." (Assuming he's a boy.)
Note: For some animals there are different words that only refer to the male or female of the species. For example, just as in English the word "tomcat" refers specifically to a male cat, the German word Kater refers specifically to a male cat. In such cases the gender of the noun matches the natural gender of the animal. However, constantly calling your pet cat a Kater would sound just as odd in German as constantly calling him a tomcat would be in English. English speakers often have a hard time accepting, for example, that a male animal might be called "she". But keep in mind that "she" and sie are different words with different meanings, so German speakers are actually calling the animal sie, which is a different matter and they don't really see this as an inconsistency.
One may well ask, if you can't tell the gender from what the word means, then how do you tell what gender it is. The good news is that the gender of many words can be determined using a few relatively simple rules. In fact there are more such rules than are actually useful since some are only applicable to rare technical words, and some have so many exceptions that memorizing them takes more effort than you save by applying the rule when it actually works. The bad news is that there is a core vocabulary of words, including some of the most common ones, that don't seem to follow any pattern at all in terms of gender. For these the best you can do is to memorize the gender when you learn the word.
The above is summarized in the following table.