German Relative Clauses: Easily Explained

German Relative Clauses: Easily Explained

The German language uses relative clauses to express the relationships between different parts of a sentence. Relative pronouns are used in these clauses to refer back to the antecedent, or the word that this pronoun replaces in the main clause.

In German, relative clauses are used to provide additional information about something that has been mentioned in the main clause. 

What are the relative clauses, and how to use them?

Relative pronouns are words such as 'that', 'which' or 'who' which refer back to a previous word. For example, in the sentence "The man who wrote this book is my father", the relative pronoun is that. In sentences where there are two subjects and one of them is an object (not a direct object),then it's necessary to have a relative clause attached.

Relative Pronoun Gender

 Declension of the German Relative Pronouns

The German language has three genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter. Depending on the gender the relative pronoun changes.

Relative pronouns are in German used to replace nouns that are not found within the sentence. These pronouns can be either singular or plural depending on the grammatical context in which they occur.

In German, relative pronouns always have the same gender as the noun they refer to. The most common relative pronouns in German are "der" which is used for masculine words and "die" for feminine words.

Relative Clauses with different cases

The relative clauses in the German language are changing depending on the case and gender we use.

German relative clauses are a bit different than English ones. In German, the relative pronoun is always inserted in the clause and they change depending on who is doing what. There are four German relative pronouns: The German relative pronoun that corresponds to "who" is "der" or "die." “das” is used when the person performs an action in the sentence. The German relative pronoun that corresponds to "whom" is "dem," which translates to "to him," or "to her."

This pronoun can be used for things as well as people. The German relative pronoun that corresponds to "which" is "das," which translates to “that." It can be used for both people and things. The German relative pronoun that corresponds to "that" is "dem." It can be used for both people and things. English: The woman who I saw yesterday.German: Die Frau, die ich gestern gesehen habe.The woman that I saw yesterday.


German Relative Clauses with Nominative

In German, relative clauses are introduced by a relative pronoun. These pronouns are in the nominative:

der, (masculine),die (feminine),and das (neuter).

The gender of the antecedent determines the gender of the relative pronoun. The above table lists all possible combinations.

Examples of nominative relative clauses:

  • Der Mann, der ins Kino geht, heißt Tom. The man who goes to the cinema is named Tom.
  • Die Frau, die eine Handtasche hat, geht in den Bus. The woman who has a handbag goes in the bus.
  • Das Kind, das 8 Jahre alt ist, fährt in die Schule. The child, who is 8 years old, goes to school.


The relative pronouns in German for Genetive are the following: dessen (masculine/neuter) and deren (feminine/plural).

Using the genitive in a German relative clause is the most difficult and therefore not used that often in the language.


  • Der Mann, dessen Auto schnell fährt, arbeitet als Anwalt. The man whose car drives fast works as a lawyer.
  • Die Frau, deren Haus sehr schön aussieht, lebt in Köln. The woman, whose house looks very nice, lives in Cologne.
  • Das Kind, deren Freunde die gleiche Schule besuchen, macht gerne Sport. The child whose friends go to the same school likes to do sports.


The relative pronouns for dative are the following: dem (male, neuter),der (feminine),and denen (plural).


  • Der Kollege, mit dem du zusammen arbeitest, heißt Tim. The colleague you work with is called Tim.
  • Die Studentin, mit der du ins Kino gehst, reist gerne. The student you go to the cinema with likes to travel.
  • Das Kind, mit dem die Mutter in den Zoo geht, mag Tiere gerne. The child, with whom the mother goes to the zoo, likes animals.


Here you can see the relative pronouns for accusative: den (male,) das (neuter) die (feminine/plural)


  • Der Student, den du siehst, studiert Medizin. The student you see is studying medicine.

How to form relative clauses in German?

Relative clauses are subordinate clauses that always have the verb in the final position. If you don't use a preposition in the relative clause, the relative pronoun is always placed at the beginning.


  • Der Mann, der nach Hause geht, isst in Eis. The man who is going home is eating ice cream.
  • Die Frau, die du siehst, heißt Tina. The woman you see is called Tina.


German Relative clauses with prepositions


In case we use a preposition in a German relative clauses sentence, then the construction is changing a bit. The preposition comes at the beginning of the relative clauses and the relative pronoun is placed at the 2nd position,


  • Das Auto, mit dem der Mann fährt, ist sehr teuer. The car the man drives is very expensive.
  • Das Haus, in dem wir wohnen, ist sehr groß. The house we live in is very big.

Relative pronouns with wo, woher, wohin

Relative pronouns with wo, woher, wohin

Relative pronouns in German are also needed to provide more information about the location of an object or person.

The relative pronouns in German that can be used in these situations are: wo, wohin, woher. Wo gives us information where a person or a thing is. Wohin tells us where a person or a thing goes to and woher gives us information about where a person or a thing comes from.

The relative pronouns in German that can be used in these situations are: wo, wohin, woher. Wo tells us where a person or a thing is, wohin tells us where a person or a thing goes to, and woher gives us information where a person or a thing comes from.

Relative pronouns with wer, wem, wen

Relative pronouns with wer, wem, wen

Relative pronouns in German can also be formed with wer, wem and wen.


  • Ich frage mich, wer zu dem Geburtstag kommt. I wonder who's coming to the birthday party.


Wem and wen are both translated as whom. We always use wem with a dative and wen with an accusative. In German wem and wen are 2 different words that have different meanings.


  • - Die Frau fragt den Mann, wem er hilft. - The woman asks the man whom he is helping.

If you reformulate the 2nd sentence, then it is clear that it is a dative and must therefore be formed with it.

  • Wem hilft er? Er hilft dem Jungen. Who does he help? He helps the boy.

When there is an interaction between the subject and the object then we use a dative case, when there is no interaction an accusative case is used. In this case, there is an interaction and therefore it is a dative.




  • Der Junge fragt das Mädchen, wen sie zum Geburttag einlädt. The boy asks the girl who she is inviting to the birthday party.

In this case there is no interaction and therefore an accusative case is used, which is always with wen.

  • It is sometimes not easy to find out whether it is a dative or an accusative. You can find more information about the cases here

Relative pronouns with was

Relative pronouns with was

A German relative sentence can also be built with was which stands for what.

  • Das, was mir Spaß macht, ist reisen. What I enjoy is travelling.

German Relative Clauses in Passive

German Relative Clauses in Passive

In the German language, a relative clause can be in passive.

Here you can see an example:

  • 1. Aktiv = Das Haus, das der Bauarbeiter baut, ist groß.
  • Active= The house that the construction worker builds is big.
  • 2. Passiv= Das Haus, das von dem Bauarbeiter gebaut wird, ist groß.
  • Passive = The house that is being built by the construction worker is big.

The passive clause in the 2nd example has the same relative pronoun, the predicate "werden" is at the end as in every subordinate clause and the past participle is in the penultimate place before the predicate. Overall, you can see that the sentence construction in a relative clause in the passive is the same as in any other subordinate clause in the passive.

Alternative of relative clauses

Left Attribute clauses

There are a number of alternatives to German relative clauses.

The most common alternative to a relative clause is a Links Attributsatz "attribute clause", which can be formed with an adjective or participle.

An attribute clause gives information about a person or thing and this additional information is in the same clause and not in a subordinate clause like the relative clause.

First, we go to the simplest attribute clauses, those that replace a relative clause with an adjective. These attribute sets are very widely used in the German language and very easy to form.

Attributsätze mit einem Adjektiv

1. Relativsatz: Das Haus, das groß ist, ist schön. Relative Clause: The house that is big is beautiful.

2. Attributsatz mit einem Adjektiv: Das große Haus ist schön. The big house is beautiful.

Attributsätze mit Partizip 1

1. Relativsatz: Das Mädchen, das gut singt, heißt Tina. The girl who sings well is called Tina.

2. Attributsätze mit einem Partizip 1: Das gut singende Mädchen heißt Tina. The good singing girl is called Tina.

Forming a participle clause is more difficult, especially for an attribute clause with a participle 1. This is used less in German than an attribute clause with an adjective. Nevertheless, it is good to be able to use this form as well.

To form a 1st participle, a "d" is added to the end of a verb:

  • reden, redend = talk, talking,
  • spielen, spielend = play, playing
  • lachen, lachend = laugh, laughing 

In addition, the appropriate adjective ending is added.


  • Nominative: The laughing boy goes to the park.
  • Genitive: This is the laughing boy's bicycle
  • Dative: The girl goes to the park with the laughing boy.
  • Accusative: The girl sees the laughing boy.

Attributsätze mit einem Partizip 2

Now let's see how relative clauses can be replaced by attribute clauses with a participle 2:

Example 1:

  • 1. Relativsatz: Das Haus, das die Frau gekauft hat, ist schön. The house the woman bought is beautiful.
  • 2. Attributsätze mit einem Partizip 2: Das von der Frau gekaufte Haus ist schön. The house bought by the wife is beautiful.

Example 2:

  • 1. Relativsatz: Die Rechnung, die der Mann bezahlte, war von dem Rechtsanwalt.
  • 2. Attributsätze mit einem Partizip 2: Die von dem Mann bezahlte Rechnung war von dem Rechtsanwalt.


German Relative Clauses Quiz

  • It makes sense to practice the relative pronouns in German with Quizzes and exercises. You can find a free Quiz: here.



Article by Niko

Published 30 Jul 2023
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