This is another instalment in my grammar series where I try to answer some of the questions posed by readers of my newsletter and (hopefully) shed some light on certain bewildering grammar topics, always with a practical focus on how people actually speak. Here’s today’s question, by Myron:

“Would you explain all that which is “Demonstrative” in German grammar, and especially, the use of “dies” as opposed to the likes of “dieser, diese, dieses” and so on.”

What are Demonstrative Pronouns?

  1. They are “demonstrating”, i.e. “pointing” at something
  2. They are stand-ins for nouns (“pro nouns”)

In English the demonstrative pronouns are this, these, that, those. The first two “demonstrate” things which are closer to the speaker, the latter two those which are farther away.

  • This cat is hungry.” – pointing to cat close to speaker
  • That cat is thirsty.” – pointing to cat farther away

The German equivalent is: dies(er/e/es), diese, jen(er/e/es), jene

  • Diese Katze ist hungrig.” – closer
  • Jene Katze ist durstig.” – farther away
While this is strictly speaking the correct usage in German, most speakers will just use dies(er/e/es) regardless of distance, since jen(er/e/es) sounds somewhat stilted.

So, it’s actually pretty straightforward. The real complexity comes due to the different endings (declensions). Let’s have a look at the full gamut:

case singular plural
male female neuter
Nominativ dieser Kater diese Katze dieses Kätzchen diese Katzen
Genitiv dieses Katers dieser Katze dieses Kätzchens dieser Katzen
Dativ diesem Kater dieser Katze diesem Kätzchen diesen Katzen
Akkusativ diesen Kater diese Katze dieses Kätzchen diese Katzen

If you’re already familiar with basic declension endings in German, then this shouldn’t seem too difficult. These endings for demonstrative pronouns are exactly the same as when using personal pronouns, i.e. der/die/das.

The other forms jen(er/e/es), while somewhat rare in colloquial use, follow the exact same pattern. I’m listing them here for completeness’ sake:

case singular plural
male female neuter
Nominativ jener Kater jene Katze jenes Kätzchen jene Katzen
Genitiv jenes Katers jener Katze jenes Kätzchens jener Katzen
Dativ jenem Kater jener Katze jenem Kätzchen jenen Katzen
Akkusativ jenen Kater jene Katze jenes Kätzchen jene Katzen

Personal Pronouns as Demonstrative Pronouns

There are a number of other forms of demonstrative pronouns in German (see here for a full list). However, one of the most important ones for daily life is the following: using personal pronouns as demonstrative pronouns. Say what? It’s actually less confusing than it sounds.

This variety is often used to prevent repetition of a noun or to emphasize it. These emphasized pronouns are often seen in position 1. Here are some examples.

  • “Hast du Sarah gesehen?” – “Die habe ich heute in der Stadt gesehen.” (I’ve seen her in the city.)
  • “Wo hast du den BMW gekauft?” – “Den habe ich in München gekauft.” (I bought it in Munich.)
  • “Wo hast du denn die Katze her?” – “Die habe ich aus dem Tierheim.” (I got it from the animal shelter.)
  • “Wie findest du Peter und Sarah?” – “Von denen will nichts mehr hören.” (I don’t want to hear from them.)
case singular plural
male female neuter
Nominativ der die das die
Genitiv dessen deren dessen deren/derer
Dativ dem der dem denen
Akkusativ den die das die

As you can see there are some deviations from the regular personal pronouns here (marked in orange) specifically in Genitiv and Dativ (plural). Here are some examples.

  • “Wo ist eigentlich Peter?” – “Ich weiß nicht. Dessen Vater habe ich gestern gesehen.” (I’ve seen his father yesterday.)
  • “Hast du den Müllers die Einladung gegeben?” – “Denen habe ich die Einladung noch nicht gegeben.” (I haven’t given them the invitation yet.)

These forms are highly prevalent in colloquial use. And yes, they are a bit tricky to learn and you don’t have to use them yourself, at least in the beginning, but it’s certainly helpful to understand the patterns early on.

Another thing that may be confusing for native English speakers is the difference between “dies” and “das” which can strictly speaking both be used where an English speaker would use “that”.

Example:

  • “Did you know that?” – “Hast du das gewusst?” / “Hast du dies gewusst?”
  • “I didn’t see that.” – “Ich habe das nicht gesehen.” / “Ich habe dies nicht gesehen.”

I say “strictly speaking”, because in most cases using “dies” sounds awkwardly stilted.

As a general rule of thumb, whenever you find yourself wondering whether to use dies (without ending) or das, just pick das.

Here are some good exercises to practice the most common forms of demonstrative pronouns from Toms Deutschseite , one of my favorite worksheet resources: