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Sie haben meine Brieftasche.

This sentence has 2 different meanings -

They have my wallet.

or

You have my wallet.

How can I know which is intended?

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That’s right, the sentence has two different possible interpretations. Now, what is the question? :-) –  chirlu Aug 18 '13 at 8:47
    
How to know if the person is talking about they or you? –  mjosh Aug 18 '13 at 8:55
3  
Context. Neither in English nor German you can know whether "You have my wallet" addresses one person or multiple –  Tobias Kienzler Aug 18 '13 at 13:42
1  
In English you will say They have my wallet for plural. –  mjosh Aug 18 '13 at 14:06
2  
In Englisg, 'you' can be plural, equivalent to German 'ihr'. As in German, it is the context that matters. –  Ursula Aug 19 '13 at 6:11

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

In that sentence it is not possible to differentiate the meaning of Sie. You need either a context or the possibility to see if Sie is capitalized because of the punctuation, or because of its meaning as "formal you". For instance:

— Haben Sie meine Brieftasche gesehen? Ich habe die verloren.
Möglichkeit A: Ja, sie haben Ihre Brieftasche. (they-meaning)
Möglichkeit B: Ja, Sie haben Ihre Brieftasche in den Händen. ("Formal you"-meaning; ok, it happens sometimes to me).

More logical:

— Haben Sie meinen Bleistift gesehen?
Möglichkeit A: Ja, sie haben Ihren Bleistift. (they-meaning)
Möglichkeit B: Ja, Sie haben Ihren Bleistift hinterm Ohr. ("Formal you"-meaning).

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1  
Note that capitalization is not reliable. Unbelievably many Germans, even print journalists, get it wrong. –  chirlu Aug 18 '13 at 9:09
    
plus with the introduction of the new german orthography several years ago, even the "formal you"-meaning is by default non-capitalized "but may optionally be capitalized"... so you will need the context in order to determine the meaning –  Ingo Aug 18 '13 at 10:55
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@Ingo: That's wrong; you are confusing Sie and du. For the situation regarding du, see german.stackexchange.com/questions/7379 (in German) or german.stackexchange.com/questions/211 (in English). This question here is about Sie and sie, where the capitalization is, in theory, always unambiguously defined and you never have a choice. –  chirlu Aug 18 '13 at 11:25

That depends on the context. If you talk to someone (single person or sometimes multiple persons, but the informal "ihr" is more common here) it means "you", if you are talking about some people (multiple persons) it means "they".

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Oh, I forgot the capitalization c.p. and chirlu mentioned. I didn't think about written words. –  rimrul Aug 18 '13 at 10:29

If you say "They have my wallet." in English, then you can also say "Die haben meine Brieftasche." And then it is obvious again. Otherwise you need to go by context.
If no context is given, you have to ask whom do you mean? Answer: "The ... took my wallet."

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