What are relative clauses?

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Relative clauses are subordinate clauses which provide more information about a noun or phrase in the main clause. They are usually introduced by relative pronouns, words such as ‘who’, ‘whose’ in English and die, dessen in German:

Das ist die alte Frau, die in unserer Straße wohnt.
This is the old woman who lives in our street.
Da geht der Mann, dessen Auto gestohlen wurde.
There goes the man whose car was stolen.

Relative pronouns – an overview

List of all relative pronouns
Here are all the relative pronouns:

 MasculineFeminineNeuterPlural
Nom.derdiedasdie
Acc.dendiedasdie
Dat.demderdemdenen
Gen.dessenderendessenderen

Note that the forms of relative pronouns are similar to the definite articles. Only the dative plural (denen) and all the genitive forms differ in their endings.

Using the correct relative pronoun

In German, the relative pronoun has to agree in gender (masculine, feminine or neuter) and number (singular, plural) with the preceding noun it refers to. Note that the case of the relative pronoun depends on its function within the clause it introduces. If, for instance, the relative pronoun functions as the subject in the relative clause it has to take the appropriate nominative form:

Sie sahen einen Film, der in den 50er Jahren gedreht wurde.
They watched a film, which was made in the 1950s.

The function of the relative pronoun within the relative clause becomes clear, when you convert it into a statement:

→ Der Film (subject, nominative) wurde in den 50er Jahren gedreht.

Equally, if the relative pronoun refers to the direct object, it needs to take the appropriate accusative form:

Ist das der Mantel, den du gestern gekauft hast?
Is this the coat which you bought yesterday?
→ Du hast den Mantel (direct object, accusative) gestern gekauft.

In the following sections, you will find more details on relative clauses in all four cases.