German: Relative Clauses

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by John Pustejovsky

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A Practical Guide to German: Relative Clauses - bannersketch of Herr Prof Doc Pusto

What's it used for?

It  is simply a way of rearranging two or more sentences into something that may be more stylish ("renovation," not "redesign").  The individual sentences can still be found inside the larger one, retaining their individual meanings.  A relative clause is not really a grammatical category.

What's hard about it?

Nothing really.  It's English that makes them a little slippery for us.  We use relative clauses without thinking in English, and--as with subjunctive--not always with great grammatical precision.  For example, here are two sentences:

A:  The man is standing in the shade. 
B:  The man is a spy.

In English, you can combine these sentences in several ways, inserting one sentence into the other:

A into B:  The man who is standing in the shade is a spy.
A into B:  The man standing in the shade is a spy.

German only allows a single option for doing this, and requires inserting one sentence into the other.  It's grammatically more conservative.

A:  Der Mann steht im Schatten.
B:  Der Mann ist ein Spion.

A into B:  Der Mann, der im Schatten steht, ist ein Spion.

Universal Rules

A relative clause allows you to take sentences that share some common element and combine them into a single longer sentence, for style.  In the example above under "What's hard about it?", The man is the common element.  The sentence being inserted into the other is called a relative clause.  German always uses a relative pronoun to indicate the common element.  There are three things to know:

  1. Getting the right relative pronoun:
    A "common element" refers to the same person or thing, and therefore has identical gender and number. Its function in the two sentences may be different, so the case might not be the same. You'll have to identify all three things before you can combine the sentences. A chart of relative pronouns is below.
  2. Placing the relative clause inside the other sentence:
    As in English, a relative clause should be inserted immediately after thing it refers back to.
  3. Rearranging the relative clause:
    The relative pronoun is usually the first word in the clause, and the finite verb is always last.

Relative pronouns

Relative pronouns table
Singular: Masculine
Singular: Feminine
Singular: Neuter
der die das die
den die das die
dem der dem denen
dessen deren dessen deren

Extra stuff that's good to know

About prepositional phrases:

Usually the relative pronoun is the first thing in the relative clause, such as:

Ich habe einen Freund, der Akkordion spielt.
I have a friend who plays accordion.

But, if the common element is inside a prepositional phrase (1.), then you have to keep the prepositional phrase intact.  That means putting the preposition before the pronoun (2.). Check these sentences:

  1. Ich habe mit diesem Freund eine Reise nach Finnland gemacht.
    I took a trip to Finland with this friend.
  2. Ich habe einen Freund, mit dem ich eine Reise nach Finnland gemacht habe. 
    I have a friend with whom I took a trip to Finland.
    (This is how we should do it in English, but rarely do.)

Single word end-placement exception:

If placing the relative clause right behind the common element would leave one single word to come after the whole clause (1), then German lets you slip in that word before the relative clause (2). Here are the two possibilities with a separable-prefix verb as an example.

  1. Ich rufe meinen Freund, der Akkordion spielt, an.
    I'm calling my friend who plays the accordion.
  2. Ich rufe meinen Freund an, der Akkordion spielt.
    I'm calling my friend who plays the accordion.


Combine these sentences using relative clauses.  "B into A" means B becomes a relative clause in A.

A. Kennst du die Frau?

B. Die Frau ist Manager bei einer großen deutschen Computer-Firma.

C. Gestern hat die Zeitung einen Artikel über sie gebracht.

D. Wir haben sie oft im Fernsehen gesehen.

Building relative clauses exercise:
1. B into A 5. D into C
2. D into A 6. C into D
3. C into B 7. B into D
4. C into A 8. B into C