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I was making my Duolingo course, and I found the following sentences:

Es sind starke Studenten.

Das sind die starken Katzen.

Something here seems off. "The students" is clearly a plural, but it uses the pronoun "es". I would have thought the right pronoun here would be sie. Same with cats. I would have used "die":

Sie sind starke Studenten.

Die sind die starken Katzen.

What is going on here?

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As a native German speaker, "es sind" sounds more like a standalone sentence to me. "Sie sind" has a somewhat relative quality to me, referring to two or more people mentioned in the previous sentence. Same with the cats.

I don't think either is actually wrong, just that the use of "sie" usually refers to subjects established in the previous sentence.

Or to put it differently, "es" is more neutral and "sie" is more personal. I'm not 100% sure about this myself, these are subtleties of language that can vary in useage.

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  • I get what you mean with it. I thank you for your opinion. It is useful to know, not only what "correct" is, but also what words can feel like in other. ;) – Enrique Moreno Tent Aug 29 '17 at 9:45
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The German "es" generally corresponds to the English "it". The English language also knows the "plural it", although it doesn't occur as often as in German:

It has been seven weeks since we last saw each other.

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  • Right, I can get that it is like it, bit then es sind kinda sounds like it are... Which of course make my head spin a little. But maybe you are right, and I should not be taking too seriously some sentences from Duolingo. Thanks. – Enrique Moreno Tent Aug 28 '17 at 11:57
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    I disagree with the last part. Sentences in this form (not this exact content though) do occur quite frequently and they certainly do not sound weird to a native speaker (in the right context). – Annatar Aug 28 '17 at 13:01
  • Genau. Im Gegenteil wird man einen Satz wie "Die sind die starken Katzen." nicht hören. Umzugshelfer vom Studentenwerk sollen kommen. "Sind die Bücherkisten nicht zu schwer?" "Es sind starke Studenten". Im Zoo: "Wir haben hier schwache und starke Katzen. Dort sehen sie kleine Pumas." "Und wieso sind bei diesen hier die Gitter so dick?" "Das sind die starken Katzen." – user unknown Aug 28 '17 at 19:58
  • Ich hab den letzten Absatz entfernt. – Roland Illig Aug 29 '17 at 5:06
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That is what is called starke and schwache Flexion.

In case an article determines genus, case and numerus, adjectives have to use strong flexion, if not, weak flexion.

weak flexion uses only the suffixes -e and -en for singular and plural, strong flexion uses all five possible adjective suffixes -e, -en, -em, -es and -er

In the specific case with "es" in combination with a form of "sein", the verb form doesn't come with the singular only, but rather correlates with the substantive form "es" relates to.

Es war meine Mutter

Es waren meine Eltern

The same can, by the way, happen with "das"

Das war meine Mutter

Das waren meine Eltern

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    My question is not really about the adjective, it is about the "es" or "das" being used to refer to a plural. – Enrique Moreno Tent Aug 28 '17 at 11:41
  • @EnriqueMorenoTent See edit – tofro Aug 28 '17 at 12:00
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    –1 because it answers a different question. – Jan Aug 29 '17 at 10:31
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  1. Es sind starke Studenten.
  2. Sie sind starke Studenten.

Both sentences are valid and correct German and in both the students are indeed plural. The difference between the two is rather subtle. In the first case, a very weak demonstrative pronoun is used. It could easily be replaced by other demonstratives such as das, dies, etc. You could imagine someone pointing from a distance and making that as a remark.

In the second case, the ‘proper’ third person plural pronoun for a group of people is used. It sounds to me as if it came with just slightly more respect. It can again be replaced but this time the closest replacement is die, again emphasising the group of people rather than something to point at. I might be more inclined to use this variant if I cannot point at the group right now; e.g. if I am talking about student friends of mine who are not present anywhere near. (However, I might still use the die variant.)

The second pair of sentences again but more obviously boils down to the use of demonstrative pronoun versus pronoun article. It has been covered in numerous other questions on this site, for example here.

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