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I am learning the German personal pronouns in nominative, but there's conflicting information about the formal "Sie".

When Norwegians learn German, we go to the Ordnett site. They apperantly claim you cannot use the formal "Sie" for anything other than 3rd person plural. That doesn't seem right?

http://oi66.tinypic.com/21274ag.jpg

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Then I go to the Wikipedia article about German Grammar where they have this chart. Okay, so now I learn that the formal "Sie" can be used "naturally in 2nd formal" (plural, singular or both?) and "grammatically in 3rd plural". What does "grammatically in 3rd plural" mean?

http://oi68.tinypic.com/2zeldlf.jpg

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Then I find a chart at StackExchange, and it says formal "Sie" can only be used in 2nd person singular or plural, not in 3rd person

german.stackexchange.com/questions/22068/the-reflexive-pronouns-versus-personal-pronouns

Which one is right?

  • If you are a Norwegian, you can look at your own langage, where you have exactly the same use of the 3rd Person plural for the polite address, "dere", which of course always will be used in a 2nd Person (pl and/or sg) context – Beta Jul 5 '17 at 7:22
  • @Beta The polite form of the 2nd person pronoun, both singular and plural, in Norwegian is "De" and not "dere". The usage of the polite form has more or less died out completely and must be considered archaic. You can't expect that younger native speakers of Norwegian are able to use the polite form correctly. – jarnbjo Jul 5 '17 at 10:14
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The "Sie" with a capital "s" is used to formally address someone directly. That means that it has the same function as the informal "du".

However, grammaticaly "Sie" is used differently than the "du", more like the 3rd pers. pl. Compare those two sentences:

Du bist ein netter Mensch. (You are a nice person.)

and

Sie sind ein netter Mensch. (You, sir/madam, are a nice person.)

The 3rd pers. pl. equivalent would be:

Sie sind nette Menschen. (They are nice people.)

So semantically, "Sie" and "du" mean the same thing and are used in similar circumstances. But grammatically, they work completely different and there the "Sie" is closely related to the way the 3rd person plural works.

  • 1
    This misses the case "Sie sind nette Menschen (You guys are nice persons.)". And " "Sie" and "du" mean the same thing and are used in similar circumstances" could be refined to at least mention the parts where Sie and du differ quite substantially (which would be part of the semantics), i.e., the hierarchy. – AnoE Jul 5 '17 at 9:39
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du, sie

German is a T-V-language, this means, for 2nd person ("you" in English) there are two different forms. One form is used when talking to children, family members and good friends, the other form is used when you talk to adult strangers, to officers or to customers.

The non-formal child-and-friend-form uses the pronoun »du«:

Du siehst gut aus. = You look fine.

The formal adult-strangers-form uses the pronoun »sie«:

Sie sehen gut aus. = You look fine.

But the way to build this formal kind of 2nd person singular is grammatically identical to 3rd person plural ("they" in English). (Which btw is also the etymological root of this form: You honor the person to who you talk by talking as if they was two or more persons, and you don't offend the person by direct addressing. You talk like you would talk about absent persons. Old English also had this T-V-distinction, but lost it over the centuries.)

Sie sehen gut aus. = They look fine.

To confuse you even more, there also is another »sie« in German:

Sie sieht gut aus. = She looks fine.

This is 3rd person singular female, but as you can see, it is built in a different way: Look at the verb. In the formal form of 2nd person singular it is »sehen«, but now it is »siehst«.

And all of this kinds of »sie« exist not only in nominative case (as shown above), but also in accusative case:

  1. Ich sehe dich. = I see you.
  2. Ich sehe Sie. = I see you.
  3. Ich sehe sie. = I see them.
  4. Ich sehe sie. = I see her.
  1. Non-formal form of 2nd person singular.
  2. Formal form of 2nd person singular.
  3. 3rd person plural.
  4. 3rd person singular female.

Capitalization

I said, that the formal form of 2nd person singular is identical to 3rd person plural, but that is not absolutely correct. There is a subtile difference that exists only in written language (you can't hear it in spoken German): The pronoun »sie« is capitalized when it is used in the formal form of 2nd person. I already did it in my accusative examples:

Ich sehe Sie. = I see you.
Ich sehe sie. = I see them.

Note, that the non-formal form of 2nd person singular (»du«) may or may not be capitalized:

Ich sehe Dich. = I see you.
Ich sehe dich. = I see you.

Or in nominative case:

Wo bist du? = Where are you?
Wo bist Du? = Where are you?

You can freely decide if you write »du« or »Du«, but within one document you should always use the same form.


Plural

I've been talking about singular only until now. I just showed, that the formal form of 2nd person singular is identical to 3rd person plural, but I did not talk about 2nd person plural. I do now:

  1. Wo seid ihr? = Where are you?
  2. Wo seid Ihr? = Where are you?
  3. Wo sind Sie? = Where are you?
  4. (Wo sind sie? = Where are they? )
  1. Non-formal form of 2nd person plural, not capitalized.
  2. Non-formal form of 2nd person plural, capitalized.
  3. Formal form of 2nd person plural. Must be capitalized.
  4. (3rd person plural. Must be not capitalized.)

Some more examples:

  1. Jeder weiß, ihr seht gut aus. = Everybody knows, you look fine.
  2. Jeder weiß, Ihr seht gut aus. = Everybody knows, you look fine.
  3. Jeder weiß, Sie sehen gut aus. = Everybody knows, you look fine.
  1. Non-formal form of 2nd person plural, not capitalized.
  2. Non-formal form of 2nd person plural, capitalized.
  3. Formal form of 2nd person plural. Must be capitalized.
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"naturally in 2nd formal" (plural, singular or both?)

Both.

The formal "Sie" in German language does not distinguish between singular and plural.

grammatically in 3rd plural ...

... means that all the sentences are formed as if you would be talking/writing in 3rd person plural.

(With the exception that you write a capital "S" or "I".)

In spoken language there is no way to find out if "Sie" refers to the 2nd person formal or to the 3rd person:

SIE nehmen IHREN Mantel und gehen dann zum Bäcker. Dann kaufen SIE das Brot, das IHNEN gefällt.

You cannot distinguish between:

You take your coat and go to the bakery. Then you buy the bread that you like.

and:

They take their coat(s) and go to the bakery. Then they buy the bread that they like.

... without knowing the context because you cannot hear if the letters "S" and "I" would be written upper- or lowercase.

  • I think most people put more stress on "Sie" than on "sie" in spoken language, but you are right, in general one can never be sure which one was meant if you hear this in isolation - context helps a lot, of course. – Annatar Jul 5 '17 at 6:11
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Well, this differentiates functional usage of the formal "Sie" and grammatical use.

To compare with English: the grammatical 2nd person plural is nowadays used functionally for both singular and plural. You say "You are" both when addressing a single and multiple persons: "thou art", the singular non-formal(!) use has died out.

German had this 2nd person plural formal use for a while as well, using "Ihr seid willkommen" even for single persons, but it has shifted to the grammatical forms of the third person plural, namely "Sie sind willkommen", with the only distinguishing element being the pronoun of formal forms always being spelled with a capital starting letter (not just at the beginning of sentences). There is also an archaic impolite formal singular 3rd person form: "Ist Er nicht ganz richtig im Kopf?" that would have been used by persons addressing people in actual or insinuated lesser standing. It is not really found anymore these days, but if it were, it would be spelled with a capital starting letter as well.

So getting back to your question: the grammatical forms of formal "Sie" are always indistinguishable from talking about some unspecified group of persons in 3rd person, only the pronouns are spelled always with a capital starting letter even in mid-sentence: "Sie", "Ihr", "Ihre"...

  • I'm not sure I buy the claim that what we use as 2nd person singular in English is grammatically the 2nd person plural - I think that that's just something that used to be the case in earlier times. – sgf Jul 5 '17 at 15:24

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