“Sein” and “ihr” are pronouns that German students find notoriously difficult to use. In this blog article, I will clarify the difference between them, show the various ways in which they can be used, and give advice on how to distinguish between them.
Before we get to “sein” and “ihr”, let’s consider some background.
Each personal pronoun that we use to conjugate verbs (ich, du, er/sie/es, wir, ihr, sie/Sie) represents the nominative case in a sentence (i.e. the subject) but can be declined and used in the accusative and dative case as well. In addition, each personal pronoun has a possessive equivalent instead of the genitive case. In the table below, I concentrate on the pronouns "er", "sie", "es", "ihr" and "sie/Sie" because they are relevant for our discussion here. In my post on pronouns in general, you'll find the complete table.
sie/Sie they/formal you
euch you (all
ihm to him
ihr to her
ihm to it
euch to you (all)
ihnen/Ihnen to them/to you
As the table shows, "sein" can be used in two different ways, whereas "ihr" can be used in five different situations.
Let's start with "sein". The pronoun can be
- the possessive pronoun or possessive article of “er”. As such, “sein” can be declined like the indefinite article “ein”. So it can be used in all four cases.
Here are some examples of how "sein" can be used in the different cases.
Sein Mann ist Ingenieur (His husband is an engineer)
Seine Frau kommt aus Düsseldorf (His wife comes from Düsseldorf)
Sein Kind steht vor dem Haus (His child is standing in front of the house)
Ich kenne seinen Mann (I know his husband)
Ich besuche seine Frau (I’m visiting his wife)
Sie mag sein Kind (She likes his child)
Ich schicke seinem Mann eine E-Mail (I‘m sending an email to his husband)
Ich zeige seiner Frau meine neue Wohnung (I show my new flat to his wife)
Sie gibt seinem Kind ein Geschenk (she gives a present his child)
Er kennt die Eltern seines Mannes (He knows the parents of his husband)
Ich besuche die Heimatstadt seiner Frau (I‘m visiting the hometown of his wife)
Sie mag das Kleid seines Kindes (She likes the dress of the child)
The same table could be written for "sein" as the possessive article for the neuter pronoun "es". The difference would just be one of translation "sein" as "his" for the masculine and "its" for the neuter. In terms of their use "sein" for the neuter is less common. So it's best to concentrate on the masculine pronoun.
Das Auto ist neu (The car is new). Seine Farbe ist rot (Its colour is red)
Das Mädchen spielt mit seiner Puppe (literally: The girl plays with its doll since Mädchen is a neuter noun)
Now that the use of “sein” is clearer, let’s look at examples of the various meanings of “ihr”.
a) as a personal pronoun in the nominative case, “ihr” acts as the subject in a sentence.
Wann kommt ihr zu Besuch? (When do you all come visit?)
Ihr versteht meine Erklärung (You all understand my explanation
Ihr mögt die deutsche Sprache (You all like the German language)
b) as the indirect pronoun of “sie”, “ihr” is the dative object in a sentence.
Ich gebe ihr ein Geschenk (I give her a present)
Sie zeigt ihr ein Buch (She shows her a book)
Er schenkt ihr eine Uhr (He gifts her a watch)
c) as the possessive article of “sie”, “ihr” can be declined like “sein” and used in all four cases. In the sentences below, I therefore replaced “sein” with “ihr” to highlight the changes in meaning.
Ihr Mann ist Ingenieur (Her husband is an engineer)
Ihre Frau kommt aus Düsseldorf (Her wife comes from Düsseldorf)
Ihr Kind steht vor dem Haus (Her child is standing in front of the house)
Ich kenne ihren Mann (I know her husband)
Ich besuche ihre Frau (I’m visiting her wife)
Sie mag ihr Kind (She likes her child)
Ich schicke ihrem Mann eine E-Mail (I‘m sending an email to his husband)
Ich zeige ihrer Frau meine neue Wohnung (I know my new flat to her wife)
Sie gibt ihrem Kind ein Geschenk (She gives a present to her child)
Er kennt die Eltern ihres Mannes (He knows the parents of her husband)
Ich besuche die Heimatstadt ihrer Frau (I‘m visiting the hometown of her wife)
Sie mag das Kleid ihres Kindes (She likes the dress of her child).
d) as the possessive pronoun of “sie” (they) that translates as “their”, “ihr” can be used in all four cases just like the possessive articles “sein” and “ihr” above.
Ihre Männer sind Ingenieure (Their husbands are engineers)
Ihre Frauen kommen aus Düsseldorf (Their wives come from Düsseldorf)
Ihr Kinder stehen vor dem Haus (Their children are standing in front of the house)
Ich kenne ihre Mann (I know their husband)
Ich besuche ihre Frau (I’m visiting their wife)
Sie mag ihr Kind (She likes their child)
Ich schicke ihrem Mann eine E-Mail (I‘m sending an email to their husband)
Ich zeige ihrer Frau meine neue Wohnung (I know my new flat to their wife)
Sie gibt ihrem Kind ein Geschenk (She gives a present to their child)
Er kennt die Eltern ihres Mannes (He knows the parents of their husband)
Ich besuche die Heimatstadt ihrer Frau (I‘m visiting the hometown of their wife)
Sie mag das Kleid ihres Kindes (She likes the dress of their child).
e) the possessive pronoun of “Sie” (formal you), which translates as “your” (formal). The latter can be distinguished from the plural by virtue of being capitalised.
So, how to you learn all those different meanings? First, learn both the indefinite articles and pronoun table by heart. Second, practice the four German cases and their use until you're confident that you fully understood them. And when you finally return to the pronouns and the distinction between "sein" and "ihr", you realise that most of it is down to the context in which they are being used.
If a text is about a boy or a man, the likelihood that "sein" as the possessive article will be used is naturally quite high. The same, of course, applies to a text about a woman, where the possessive pronoun "ihr" may well come up.
When it's about a group of people that is being addressed informally (like a teacher addressing his students), then "ihr" as "you all" will probably come up. When a text is about a group of people that the author talks about rather than to, then "ihr" as in "their" may be used. And finally, if the text addresses a group of people formally, "Ihr" as "your" will likely make an appearance.
So the context will reveal which of the various forms of "sein" and "ihr" is applicable.
Since I have used "his", "her", their" and other pronouns quite a lot in this post, I would like to address the positive development in recent years in which the English language is used to be more sensitive to the identities of transgender and non-binary people. Since English, apart from a few exceptions, doesn't use genders for its nouns but only for its pronouns, it is much easier to speak in a neutral manner than in a language like German that has three genders in both. Using the plural forms like in English would be too ambiguous and the so-called "Neopronomen" are not widely used yet. So in general correspondences, it is best to avoid pronouns altogether, wherever possible. Bear in mind, pronouns are just substitutes for nouns anyway, so nouns can be used instead.
On our German language blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!", you will also find a post on the difference between "mir" and "mich", as well as many other German grammar topics, such as adjective declensions, the dual prepositions, and German word order.