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I am starting to learn German and I'm trying out Duolingo, I've faced this problem several times.

If I understand correctly "sie" means both she and they. So if there is no context, can I distinguish between the both?

See this example:

enter image description here

Could I have known which one does it refer to?

How do you do it normally, by context and only context? I know that they are always pronounced the same.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 19 down vote accepted

In each case you conjugate the verb differently. Here the verb is sein meaning to be.

Sie ist schlecht.

She is bad.

Sie sind schlecht.

They are bad.

Although to add to the confusion here, there is yet another pronoun Sie meaning you in the plural or polite form. In the middle of a sentence you can see that it is capitalized but in spoken German or in the above examples there is ambiguity. "Sie sind schlecht." could also mean "You are bad." This can only be distinguished by context.

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There are also cases, namely accusative objects, where one can't distinguish between all three: "Ich liebe sie" –  phg Jun 21 '12 at 18:48
Thank you! that's hard!! –  Trufa Jun 21 '12 at 18:53
You conjugate the verb differently... because "she" is a singular and "they" is a plural. At least in the example. Easy, isn't it? ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 22 '12 at 0:14
And to add insult to injury: "Ihr ist schlecht" would mean "She's feeling sick/nauseous" :D –  Jules Jun 22 '12 at 9:02
@phg: At least in written form, it can only be "she" or "they" — if it were "you" it would have needed an uppercase "S": "Ich liebe Sie". Of course in spoken German, you don't see the uppercase letter. –  celtschk Jun 22 '12 at 13:58

To keep the explanation simple:

If "sie" comes with a verb in singular, it means she.

If "sie" comes with a verb in plural, it means they.

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There's one more option apart from those explained in the fellow answers, namely a change in gender in translation:

Considering your example

Sie ist schlecht.

the correct answer might as well have been

It is bad / rotten.

if the object in question is some kind of fruit, for example. In English, you speak of orange and lemon as neuter, whereas in German you use feminine gender for both Apfelsine and Zitrone.

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