One area of confusion for many beginner German students is the difference between the three personal pronouns "du", "Sie", and "ihr". In this blog post, I will explain the difference between them and how they are used in the German language.
German students first encounter the three personal pronouns "du", "Sie" and "ihr" when they learn to conjugate German verbs in the present tense. The standard explanation is that "du" is the so-called informal you, which should only be used for people you're already familiar with, such as friends and family members, whereas "Sie" (also known as the formal you) should be used for any adult you do not know or in formal settings, such as at work. While "du" can only be used in the singular, so for one person, "Sie" can be used both in the singular or plural, so for one and several persons. The personal pronoun "ihr" is the plural form of "du", so the same rules apply as for the latter, except that "ihr" is used for multiple people you already know, such as a group of friends and family members. Its English translation is "you all", "you guys" or "you lot".
Let's look at some examples.
"Kannst du mir bitte helfen?" would be a question to a friend or family member.
"Könnte ihr mir bitte helfen?" would be a question to a group of friends or family members.
"Können Sie mir bitte helfen?" would be a question to your boss, a colleague or a stranger
The translation would be "can you help me please?" in all three examples. If you are curious what "mir" is grammatically and why we have to used it here, check out our blog posts on the difference between "mir" and "mich" and dative verbs in German.
"Du sprichst gut Deutsch" would be a compliment to a fellow student.
"Ihr sprecht gut Deutsch" would be a compliment to a group of students.
"Sie sprechen gut Deutsch" would be a compliment to any adult you don't know well.
"You speak German well" is the translation.
Languages are subjected to trends and cultural changes, though, and so the use of the three personal pronouns sometimes deviates from the aforementioned explanation. In liberal parts of Germany, Austria and Switzerland and more casual settings like the arts, music, a bar or restaurant, for example, people are more likely to use "du" from the outset, so even in situations when they are not familiar with the other person. However, to be on the safe side, use "Sie" first and only revert to "du" when it was suggested by the native speaker or person you interact with.
Also bear in mind that using "Sie" is actually easier than the use of "du". That is because the formal you always uses the infinitive of the verb, irrespective of whether the verb is regular or irregular, except for the verb "sein" which is completely irregular. By contrast, with "du" you have to know whether your verb is regular or irregular because irregular verbs have a stem change in the second person singular. Let's look at some examples again.
"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" (do you speak German in a formal setting)
Sprichst du Deutsch"? (do you speak German in an informal environment)
So, in short, start with "Sie" and take it from there!
On our German language blog "Auf Deutsch bitte!", you will find many other helpful explanations of German grammar. So check out our other posts on topics like German word order and the articles in German.