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Pronouns are substitutions for "real" nouns (people, places, things). Just as the "I" in English changes to "me" when it becomes the object in a sentence, the personal pronouns in German also change by case:
List of Pronouns
Nom. Acc. Dat. Pos.*
ich** mich mir mein
du dich dir dein
er ihn ihm sein
es es ihm sein
sie sie ihr ihr
wir uns uns unser
ihr euch euch euer
sie/Sie sie/Sie ihnen/Ihnen ihr/Ihr

* Possessives are referred to as both "possessive pronouns" and "possessive adjectives."
** Note that ich is not capitalized, except as the first word in a sentence.

Pronoun function

Pronouns take the place of nouns which have already been established, as in Enlgish. (I have a book. It is brown.) In German the situation is complicated because all nouns have a grammatical gender, and the gender of the noun determines the pronoun used. Thus, "es" doesn't mean "it" in English, it is just a pronoun referring to a neuter object, which might also be a person, as in "das Mädchen."

The two most important things to remember are that:

  1. Male nouns like der Stuhl or der Mann all use masculine pronouns, whether they are living beings with male gender or just plain inanimate objects with male gender. The same goes for neuter and feminine.
  2. Certain nouns referring to people do not correspond to the "biological" gender of those people. In these cases, the proper pronoun to use is the one which correlates to the grammatical gender of the noun, not the biological sex of the person to which the noun refers.
Here are some examples

Ich sehe einen Mann. Er ist groß.

Ich schreibe mit einem Kuli. Ich habe ihn im Klassenzimmer gefunden.
(In English, we would translate this as "I found it," but in German you cannot say es because der Kuli is masculine!)

Das ist eine Frau. Sie ist intelligent.

Das ist eine Zeitung. Ich will sie lesen. (Again: I want to read it.)

Das Mädchen kann seine Mutter nicht finden. (In English we'd have to say "her mother")

Jede Person hat ihre Probleme. (die Person is feminine, so pronouns referring to it are feminine as well--even though "every person" also refers to male people. In English we might say, informally, "Every person has their problems," but the ihre in the German sentence is NOT plural--it's singular and feminine.)

Pronouns: Their Place in the Sentence
As objects, pronouns in both accusative and dative like to come before "real" noun objects. If there are two pronoun objects in a sentence, then the accusative one comes first. If there are two "real" noun objects in a sentence, that the dative noun comes first. (Compare the first and last sentence below.)

The following sentence has three nouns. Pay attention to word order as the nouns become pronouns.

(S=Subject, V=Verb, I=Indirect Object, D=Direct Object)
Franz gibt dem Mann das Geld.

Franz gibt ihm das Geld.

Franz gibt es dem Mann

Franz gibt es ihm.
Note: In all of these sentences, you could substitute er for Franz with no change in word order.

The only time there is a difference between pronouns used for human beings and those used for inanimate objects is when the pronoun in question occurs within a prepositional phrase. When pronouns referring to people occur within prepositional phrases, we use regular pronouns from the chart above. When the pronoun of a prepositional phrase refers to an inanimate object, we use Da- and Wo-compounds.

Copyright © 2017 Will Lehman. All artwork copyright © 2017 Milo Schuman.