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Decoding Relative Clauses in German: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated: Feb 13

For some German learners, the intricacies of relative clauses in German may seem as puzzling as Einstein's theory of relativity. 😜 However, fear not! When armed with a solid understanding of cases, prepositions, and word order in subordinate clauses, unraveling the mysteries of relative clauses becomes a manageable task. Let's explore why.





Understanding the Essence of Relative Clauses:


Relative clauses seamlessly integrate your knowledge of the cases in German, prepositions, and German word order in subordinate clauses. These clauses, designed to provide additional information about a noun, are a distinctive type of subordinate clause. The key lies in focusing on the case of the noun you aim to describe within your relative clause.


Refer to the chart below for relative pronouns used to construct relative clauses, closely mirroring the definite articles.


Cases

Masculine

Feminine

Neuter

Plural

Nominative

der (welcher)

die (welche)

das (welches)

die

Accusative

den (welchen)

die (welche

das (welches)

die

Dative

dem (welchem)

der (welcher)

dem (welchem)

denen

Genitive

dessen (welches)

deren (welcher)

dessen (welches)

deren


Unlocking the Code: Relative Pronouns in Action:


Nominative

  • Das ist der Mann. Der Mann heißt Max. Das ist der Mann, der Max heißt. (This is the man, who is called Max)

Accusative

  • Das ist der Mann. Ich kenne den Mann. Das ist der Mann, den ich kenne. (This is the man, whom I know)

Dative

  • Das ist der Mann. Ich gab dem Mann ein Buch. Das ist der Mann, dem ich ein Buch gab. (This is the man, to whom I gave a book)

Genitive

  • Das ist der Mann. Ich kenne die Frau des Mannes. Das ist der Mann, dessen Frau ich kenne. (This is the man, whose wife I know)


As exemplified, relative clauses combine two distinct sentences while omitting the noun they seek to describe. If you ever find yourself puzzled about the appropriate relative pronoun, isolate your relative clause, revert it to the standard word order of a main clause, and determine the suitable article for the noun.


Navigating Exceptions: A Quick Glance:


Beware of the three exceptional relative pronouns


  • Dessen: For masculine and neuter Genitive.

  • Deren: For feminine and plural Genitive.

  • Denen: For Dative plural.


The pronouns welcher, welche, welches are rarely used in modern German. Their main use is to avoid confusion between relative pronoun and the article that follows, e.g.


Das ist die Frau, die die E-Mail geschrieben hat.

Das ist die Frau, welche die E-Mail geschrieben hat


If there is a preposition at the start of your relative clause, apply the case that the preposition goes with. Given that prepositions influence your choice of relative pronoun, familiarise yourself with the dual prepositions in German and those exclusive to accusative, dative, and genitive cases. The only exceptions are dessen, deren, denen, which are not affected by preposition rules.


Finally, if the relative clause relates to a whole sentence rather than a single noun, just like in English, we use the question word "was" e.g.


Ich habe vergessen, was ich kaufen wollte

(I forgot what I wanted to buy)


The Significance of Relative Clauses:


Relative clauses play a crucial role as one of two methods to describe nouns in the German language – the other being adjectives. Mastery of both topics empowers you to articulate your thoughts with nuance and precision.

Embark on this linguistic journey armed with the knowledge of relative clauses, and soon you'll find yourself seamlessly integrating them into your German expression.



Feel free to share your experiences or ask questions about relative clauses in the comments below!


Do you have other questions about German grammar? Then check out our German language blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!", where you will find posts about the difference between the subordinate clause clause conjunctions um...zu and damit, as well as als and wenn; the pronouns mir and mich, man, and pronoun rules more generally; gender and plural rules in German; separable verbs and many other topics.

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