How To Use The Word They In The German Language

German is widely agreed to be a difficult and complex language from the native English speaker’s perspective. In fact, the great American author Mark Twain was so frustrated by his study of the German language that he dedicated an entire book to air his grievances, titled, The Awful German Language (which you can check out for free with an Audible trial membership). 

Using the word ‘they’ in the German language takes some preparation as it’s more nuanced than in English, but with practice, it’ll become easier. Sie is the German plural for ‘they’; technically, third-person, nominative case. And unless ‘sie’ starts the sentence, it is not capitalized.

This one-star review of the language should not deter you from your personal reasons for learning it, but you can likely commiserate with the poet. And if you have found yourself reading this article, you are probably far enough along in your journey of learning the German language that you can agree with Twain on just how confusing German is to learn.

Reading about the wide array of uses for, and meanings of, the word “sie” in German will likely not dissuade you from this opinion. However, I do aim to greatly simplify this confusing prospect for you.

As a German-language tutor, a self-taught speaker of German, and current (at the time of this article’s publication) resident of Germany, I understand some of the most common hang-ups with comprehending this topic, and exactly how to aid you in the learning process. 

Sind Sie bereit? Na dann, los geht’s! 

What Is The Meaning Of Sie In German?

Don’t freak out, but I have a bit of bad news. There are actually multiple meanings for the German word, “sie.” It is regularly stated that there are three definitions/ways to use the word “sie”, which is true; there are three main definitions.

But to be exact, there are technically six possible meanings and usages of “sie.” The translations are as follows: they, you (formal), and she, as well as the less common her, them, and it. All forms have something in common, namely that they are a type of pronoun.

I’m going to break down the meaning of each, how to recognize them all, and how to signify which version you are using. It sounds daunting, but you’ll see it makes more sense as we go. 

Let’s dive into a brief overview of each use/definition, before specifying how to avoid some of the most common mistakes in usage and identification.

Overview Of Sie Usage

  • They  In the plural, third-person, nominative case (if this is an unfamiliar phrase to you, see section “How to Say Them in German” below for a brief crash course of grammatical cases in German), “sie” means they. Unless at the beginning of a sentence, the word is never capitalized.
    • Them The meaning of “sie” takes on a new meaning when in the plural, third-person, accusative grammar case. There is technically no immediate way to distinguish it from the “they-sie” form if you do not recognize the different case, since it is also never capitalized
      • Hint: while that may initially sound confusing, this makes it easier for you when you are constructing a sentence, since there is less for you to worry about getting correct! Regardless of whether your phrase is in the nominative or accusative case, it doesn’t matter in terms of your “sie” usage, as it won’t change either way.
  • You (formal) German, similar to languages like Spanish, has a formal and informal way to address others. In German, “du” is the informal way to say “you.” Verb conjugation for this version of “Sie” is identical to the “they” form of “sie,” namely the infinitive form (the -en verb form, or the one seen in dictionaries and translators). Lastly, “Sie” is always capitalized to designate it as the formal “you.” 
  • She“Sie” means “she” in the singular, third-person, feminine, nominative usage. Unless at the beginning of a sentence, this form is also never capitalized, much like the English “she.”
    • ItAny inanimate object which is grammatically feminine [all German nouns are given a designation of being either feminine (die), neuter (das), or masculine (der), based on word origin and spelling rather than on any perceived “gender characteristics” of that object], should be referred to as “sie,” or “she,” rather than “es,” or the direct “translation of “it.” Sometimes I have heard Germans stray from this rule and refer to grammatically female/male objects as “es,” but this is an instance of slang or technically “bad grammar.” This form of “sie” would also not be capitalized unless at the beginning of a sentence.
      • Example: The word “cat” in German is feminine. So even if a cat being discussed is a male cat, you could say “Die Katze, sie ist grau” (The cat, it is gray).
    • Her –  When in the singular, third-person, feminine, accusative form, “sie” means “her.” Again, similarly to they/them, there is no discernible difference between she/her in German other than the case of the phrase, so this means less work for you! This form is also not capitalized unless it were at the beginning of a sentence.

Here is a summarized table or ‘cheat sheet’ I made for your ease of reference!

MeaningGrammatical CaseConjugationExample Sentence
Never capitalized unless at the beginning of a sentence
Third-person plural; accusative-en, -nlachen, angelnSie haben es geschafft. (They did it.)
Never capitalized unless at the beginning of a sentence
Third-person plural; accusativen/aDie Polizei verhaftete sie. (The police arrested them.)
Never capitalized unless at the beginning of a sentence
Third-person singular, feminine; nominative-t, -etgeht, findetSie ist sehr schlau. (She is very clever.)
Never capitalized unless at the beginning of a sentence
Third-person singular, feminine; accusativen/aDu hast sie nur wegen ihrem Geld verheiratet. (You only married her for her money.)
Used in the exact way grammatically as ‘she’, but refers to inanimate objects which have the grammatical feminine gender, i.e. use the definite article ‘die’
Third-person singular, feminine (inanimate); nominative/accusative-t, -etsingt, arbeitetSiehst du die Kiste? Hol sie für mich bitte! (Do you see the box? Bring it to me, please!)
You (formal/unfamiliar)
Always capitalized; in contrast to the second-person singular, ‘du’ (familiar)
Second-person singular; nominative/accusative-en, -nmachen, handelnHaben Sie Hunger? (Are you hungry?)
Summarized Table for German ‘They’

Still with me? Yes? Gut gemacht! Now let’s tackle some of those aforementioned nuances of how to differ between each use of the word in more depth.

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Is Sie She Or They In German?

In case you wanted to bypass the long-winded explanation of all uses and nuances of “sie” provided in the above paragraphs; you might have a more specific question and want to get straight to the point.

So the short answer to the question “Is sie she or they in German?” is, yes. “Sie” translates to both of these words depending on the context and grammatical structure of the sentence it is used in. The two hints which will indicate which is which are as follows…

  1. Context: Obviously your biggest clue will be the context of the sentence in which the word is used, which may indicate if a discussion is happening around a singular female (she), or a group of people (they). But you likely already knew that, so what’s our other option in more ambiguous sentences? 
  2. Conjugation: Once you have become familiar with how to conjugate most German verbs for the various types of pronouns, you will quickly and efficiently be able to determine which pronoun is being used. “They” has the infinitive verb conjugation (-en verbs, also known as those forms of the verbs you will see in dictionaries or translators), while “she” uses the third-person, singular verb conjugation (usually ends in -t or -et for regular verbs).

Does Sie Mean You or They?

It’s important to learn how to properly use Sie in German.

“Sie” is translated to both “you” (formal) and “they.” A clue which helps one differentiate between “they” and “she” in German, as discussed above, was verb conjugation. We do run into the problem with “you” and “they” that they use identical verb conjugation, so that trick won’t help us here. But don’t worry, we have two other clues to watch out for…

  1. Context – Again, context is everything in telling you whether the discussion is centered around multiple people or a single person. Furthermore, the dialogue will indicate whether a person/people are being discussed in the third-person or talked to directly (second-person).
  2. Capitalization – The other key is if you are reading this dialogue, “Sie” when used for the formal “you” is always capitalized. The “they” form is only capitalized at the beginning of the sentence.

What Is ‘They’ Plural In German?

Anyone learning German knows of the fun pronoun to use in German, specifically ‘ihr’. This is a useful word which doesn’t quite exist in English, unfortunately, unless you live in the Southern United States that is (i.e. the notorious “y’all”).

The German pronoun ‘ihr’ can be likened to the southern US ‘y’all’.

A central northerner or midwesterner may say “you guys,” but this phrase doesn’t pack the same punch of a quick, one-syllable word like ‘ihr’, the second-person, plural “you” in German. 

Similarly, you may be wondering if there exists a ‘plural they’ within the German language. Since “they” is already considered to be a plural pronoun (i.e. it refers to two or more people), yes!

  • “Sie” is used to describe a group of people in the third-person, designated via capitalization at the beginning of a sentence and no capitalization when used anywhere else.
  • “Wir” refers to a group of people in the first-person (“we”), and as mentioned above, “ihr” refers to two or more people in the second-person. So those are our plural pronouns in German (with some variations based on the grammatical case; for example, “wir” to “uns,” and so on). 

How To Say Them In German

The short answer to how to say ‘them’ in German is that you simply say “sie.”

Whereas in English you need to change “they” to “them,” in German you would use the same word. But if you are interested in a more detailed description, read ahead.

So in my description of “them” earlier, I casually threw out the term, “accusative.” If that word means nothing to you yet, you may have felt a little lost. To understand exactly how to say, ‘them’ in German you need to know two things: the literal translation (you already know it, of course; “sie”!), and how to implement the accusative case.

There are four grammatical cases in German (Nominative, Accusative, Dative, and Genitive).  If you were like me, you may have no idea what a ‘case’ even means, particularly if you were never even taught that there are also grammatical cases in English (though there are only three and they operate differently than in German)! And as an educator, I can affirm that grammar instruction in American schools has taken a backseat.

Grammatical Cases

A case essentially marks nouns to indicate what they are doing/what they mean to the other nouns in the sentence. For example, a noun is marked as the subject of the sentence in the nominative case, as the direct object in the accusative case, and the indirect object in the dative case.

The genitive case shows the possessive relationship between two nouns. Cases “mark” and signify these nouns most often through the use of certain prepositions or by changing how the associated definite/indefinite articles, adjective endings, and sometimes even the other nouns are written.

Multiple cases can exist within one sentence. Since these markers exist, word order becomes much more flexible in German sentences compared to English.

As previously mentioned, most relevant here is the accusative case. Unlike in English, where we switch “they” to “them” in the accusative case, German uses “sie” in both situations.

A Step-by-Step Cases Example

  1. In the sentence “I see them,” ‘I’ is our subject and ‘them’ is our direct object [i.e. the object or person(s) TO WHICH an action is happening], which is why what normally would be ‘they’ was changed to ‘them’.
  2. Similarly in German, ‘they’ would be our direct object, i.e. the action ‘see’ is happening TO them, while ‘I’ is the action-taker or subject. But unlike in English, German does not require a change to the pronoun.
  3. So the sentence would be “Ich sehe sie.” You may have noticed that this could be confused as “I see her,” so more context would be crucial in this case.

Hopefully you are at the end of this article with a much clearer idea of what “sie” means and when/how to use it. If you have any further questions, feel free to leave a comment below! Viel Glück!

The Final Word on They In The German Language

As you can see, using ‘they’ in the German language is certainly more involved than typical in English. However, don’t let this thwart you from moving forward in your pursuit of learning German.

Even if you feel the need to vent in detail like Mr. Twain, as long as you keep practicing and reviewing the rules of the language, you’ll get there!

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Alexis Booe

Alexis is our daughter, an accomplished language learner, an international English teacher, and a seasoned world traveler. She brings tons of experience both in learning a language to fluency as well as teaching all levels of language learners in English and German. She has won multiple scholarships, including a Fulbright Scholarship to Germany and a full scholarship to LSU. She graduated in 2021 with a BS in Biology, a minor in German, and a concentration in Secondary Education. She continues to travel and study in higher education as she pursues her passions.

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