German Language Stack Exchange is a bilingual question and answer site for speakers of all levels who want to share and increase their knowledge of the German language. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

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.

share|improve this question
Related: How do I know if “the sheep are bad” refers to one sheep or several sheep? – Carsten S Oct 17 '15 at 15:24
up vote 23 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.

share|improve this answer
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
@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
Yep: "Sie haben ein Schwein" - "hat" vs. "has" and "haben" vs. "have" - Not much difference to English. – tofro Mar 26 at 10:57

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.

share|improve this answer

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.

share|improve this answer

You can already figure out exactly the same distinction in English if it is presented to you as a puzzle. Even though it's not something you usually have to do, because it requires a context in which you don't know what it is that a name refers to. You are just confused when you have to do it in German because you haven't internalised German verb conjugation yet.

Here is the puzzle:

A British pop fan made a confession about his bad taste. Put his sentences back into the correct order. Start with the two that are about a woman.

  1. But I still like them.
  2. Quinn Quinn is really bad.
  3. Clover Leaf make bad music.
  4. But I like her anyway.
share|improve this answer
Puzzling, part two would then cover the distinction between you and you? ;) – Jan Oct 17 '15 at 18:07

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.