Relative Clauses in German Grammar

Introduction

Relative clauses allow us to provide additional information about a noun without starting a new sentence. We can also use them to combine two main clauses. Relative clauses are always introduced by relative pronouns, usually, der, die, das for people and things and not wer/wen (who/whom) as in English relative clauses. In German grammar, relative clauses are always set off by commas.

Learn about the construction and word order of German relative clauses with Lingolia. Use the simple declension table to help you master the inflection of relative pronouns, then put your knowledge to the test in the exercises.

Example

Das sind die Freunde, mit denen ich viel Zeit verbringe. Bodo, den ich schon ewig kenne, ist sehr lustig. Toni, der eine Brille trägt, geht in meine Klasse. Linda, deren Lächeln bezaubernd ist, kann toll tanzen.

Advertisement

Usage

We use relative clauses to give additional information about a subject or object, or to turn two main clauses into one complex sentence. The relative clause can be in the nominative, accusative, dative or genitive case.

Nominative:
Toni, der eine Brille trägt, geht in meine Klasse.Toni, who wears glasses, is in my class.
(Toni trägt eine Brille. – Wer?)Toni wears glasses. - Who?
Accusative:
Bodo, den ich schon ewig kenne, ist sehr lustig.Bodo, whom I’ve known forever, is really funny.
(Bodo kenne ich schon ewig. – Wen?)I’ve known Bodo forever. - Whom?
Dative:
Das sind die Freunde, mit denen ich viel Zeit verbringe.These are the friends with whom I spend a lot of time.
(Mit den Freunden verbringe ich viel Zeit. – Mit wem?)I spend a lot of time with these friends. - With whom?
Genitive:
Linda, deren Lächeln bezaubernd ist, kann toll tanzen.Linda, whose smile is enchanting, can dance well.
(Lindas Lächeln ist bezaubernd. – Wessen Lächeln?)Linda’s smile is enchanting. - Whose smile?

Construction and Word Oder of Relative Clauses

To construct relative clauses in German grammar, we use relative pronouns or relative adverbs. They generally come directly after the subject/object to which they refer – this can be at the end of the main clause, or in the middle of the sentence. Relative clauses are dependent clauses so we have to pay attention to the word order and placement of the verb. The verb is always placed at the end of the relative clause.

Declension Table: Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns change form according to the gender and number of the noun to which they refer. The following table provides an overview of the declension/infelction of relative pronouns in the nominative, accusative, dative and genitive cases.

NominativeAccusativeDativeGenitive
masculine (m) der/welcher den/welchen dem/welchem dessen
feminine (f) die/welche die/welche der/welcher deren
neuter (n) das/welches das/welches dem/welchem dessen
plural (pl) die/welche die/welche denen/welchen deren

Which case we use depends on whether the relative pronoun is replacing a subject or an object in the relative clause. Remember that we often have to use a different case in the relative clause than in the main clause.

Example:
Bodo, den ich schon ewig kenne, ist sehr lustig.

Bodo ist sehr lustig. (Wer? – nominative in main clause)
Bodo kenne ich schon ewig. (Wen? – accusative in relative clause)

Usage of Relative Pronouns

The relative pronouns der/die/das are generally prefered in everyday speech. Whereas, welcher/welche/welches are mostly used to avoid repeating the same word.

Example:
Das ist die Frau, die die Post austrägt.That is the woman who delivers the mail.
better:
Das ist die Frau, welche die Post austrägt.That is the woman who delivers the mail.

A preposition can come before the relative pronoun.

Example:
Das sind die Freunde, mit denen ich viel Zeit verbringe.These are the friends with whom I spend a lot of time.

Relative Adverbs

Relative adverbs do not change form. They often refer to an entire clause rather than a single noun. Some relative adverbs are was, wo, womit, wofür, worüber.

Example:
Er spricht fünf Fremdsprachen, was mich sehr beeindruckt.He speaks five foreign languages, which really impresses me.
Ich warte dort, wo wir uns immer treffen.I’ll wait there where we always meet.
Christian unterstützte mich, wofür ich ihm sehr dankbar bin.Christian supported me, for which I am very grateful to him.
Sybille besuchte uns, worüber wir uns sehr freuten.Sybille visited us, which made us very happy.