5. Relative Pronouns and Relative Clauses

In Unit 6, we dealt with dependent clauses as introduced by subordinating conjunctions. Now we will deal with another type of dependent clause, the relative clause which is introduced with the German equivalent of “which,” “that,” “who,” “whom,” etc. Examples in English:

I saw the cat which my dog hates.
I saw the cat that ate the mouse.
I saw the man who owns the cat.
I saw the house in which they live.

The German relative pronouns in the different cases are exactly the same as the definite article, except for those bolded below. They are translated either as “who” and its forms (“whose”, “whom”) or  as “which,” “that,” and “what”:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative der die das die
Accusative den die das die
Dative dem der dem denen
Genitive dessen deren dessen deren

Compare these with the definite articles in Unit 2. The differences are in the genitive (“of which,” “whose”), where we see dessen and deren, and in the dative plural (“to which,” “to whom”), where we see denen.

In much older German texts, we will find another form of the relative pronoun, welch-, which is declined like the der– words as shown in Unit 3. There is no genitive form of welch– as a relative pronoun.

Relative pronouns are used to introduce relative clauses. In the English sentence, “The book that he is reading is very interesting,” the relative clause is, “that he is reading,” and the main sentence is: “The book is very interesting.” The meaning of a relative clause is to modify the item in the main sentence to which the entire relative clause refers – in this case, “book.”

There are two rules in German that make recognizing relative clauses easier than in English:

  1. German only rarely omits the relative pronoun as we often do in English: "The book he is reading is interesting." Thus, normally, the relative pronoun will be the first word in the clause, unless it is used with a preposition, which will precede it – see example #6 below.
  2. German marks both the beginning and the end of the relative clause with commas.

Examples of relative pronouns and clauses:

  1. Der Computer, der [nominative case-masculine] in diesem Zimmer steht, ist neu.

    The computer (which is) standing in this room is new.
  2. Der Computer, den [accusative-masculine] ich habe, ist neu.
    The computer (which) I have is new.
  3. Der Professor, dessen [genitive-masculine] Buch ich lese, ist wohlbekannt.
    The professor whose book I am reading is well-known.
  4. Der Student, dem [dative-masculine] ich das Buch gebe, heißt Hans.
    The student to whom I give the book is called Hans.
  5. Die Arbeiter, denen [dative-plural] wir Computer geben, sind intelligent.
    The workers to whom we give computers are intelligent.
  6. Die Maschine, mit der [dative-feminine] ich arbeite, ist komplex.
    The machine with which I am working is complex.

The meaning of a relative pronoun can be determined if you note the following:

  1. The relative pronoun agrees in both gender and number with the word it refers to. Therefore, in our examples, if the noun in the main sentence is masculine and singular then the relative pronoun is masculine and singular, etc.
  2. The case of the relative pronoun agrees with the role it plays within the relative clause, not by the role of the word in the main sentence to which it refers.
  3. When you are in doubt about which item the clause is referring back to, assume the nearest preceding noun (whether implied or stated) that meets the first rule above.

Thus, in example #1 it is nominative since it is the subject, in #2 accusative since it is the direct object, in #3 the genitive, in #4, #5, and #6 the dative since it is the indirect object or is governed by a dative preposition or verb.

Paying attention to the agreement of gender and number can be crucial for reading comprehension. German can be much clearer and more efficient than English since one can (and sometimes must) rely on this agreement to determine exactly what is referring to what.

Last revised on December 7, 2017.