Sie: „Der Mann da, das ist doch Walter.“
Er: „Walter? Nee, der hatte doch eine Brille.“
Sie: „Doch, das ist Walter.“

Can I say "er hatte doch eine Brille" instead of "der hatte doch eine Brille"? Why do we use der instead of er?

  • 1
    You should provide some context. You alternative sentence may or may not fit the context.
    – RalfFriedl
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 6:23
  • It's a dialogue between two people. They talk about a friend that hadn't seen for a long time . [Sie: Der Mann da, das ist doch Walter. Er: Walter? Nee, der hatte doch eine Brille. Sie: Doch, das ist Walter.] Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 8:31
  • "Der" instead of "er" expresses a (often personally wanted) distance. It simply sounds more reserved while "er" sounds more familiar. When a child is offended and says "Der hat mir das weggenommen!" its parents often correct with "Es heißt: Er hat mir das weggenommen."
    – äüö
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 10:47
  • "Walter? Er hatte doch eine Brille!" wäre der zu erwartende Ausdruck, wenn man nur kurz an der Person vorbeigegangen wäre und nicht Walter, sondern der, an dem man vorbeiging, eine Brille hatte. Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 23:11
  • @äüö Meinst Du das ernst? Entschuldigen Sie bitte, ich sollte wohl sagen: Meinst U das ernst?
    – vectory
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 16:53

4 Answers 4


Sie: „Der Mann da, das ist doch Walter.“
Er: „Walter? Nee, der hatte doch eine Brille.“
Sie: „Doch, das ist Walter.“

Here, der is a demonstrative pronoun, which is used to shift the focus in a conversation to the male subject that was mentioned last.

Actually, the conversation is about two male subjects: a man not described further, and Walter. Using der, the speaker (er) emphasizes that he is now talking about Walter, and not about the other man anymore.

@Mark Lösche's view that using der was bad style, is wrong. I guess that he confuses the article der with the demonstrative pronoun der. In fact, the opposite is true: to not use the demonstrative pronoun der here would be considered bad style. If the speaker had used the pronoun er, then there would not have been an explicit shift of the focus, leaving room for ambiguity; the speaker could still have been talking about the other man.


In addition to Björn Friedrich's answer, which, at the time of writing, is the only one that explains a functional difference between the personal and the demonstrative pronoun, I would like to point out cases such as the following, where the demonstrative pronoun is preferred even in non-colloquial language.

Als ein Student Sokolow im März nach den Plagiatsvorwürfen fragte, ließ der ihn aus dem Hörsaal werfen und zusammenschlagen. (Badische Zeitung)

The demonstrative pronoun der is interpreted to refer back to the proximate antecedent, i.e. Sokolow (and not ein Student). If the sentence read ließ er ihn instead, the reader would at first glance assume that er referred back to the subject of the embedded clause, i.e. ein Student.

So er and der have overlapping, but distinct, uses.

  • woulda coulda shoulda ... but actually doesn't. The example is useless so much so that I'm not sure whether you confused "earliest" or not. The problem is, "ließ man Ihn" is ambigious already. In the end I would always say "ließ er Ihn" in this specific case, so I can't help out. I just wonder what "earliest" means. Is that nearest, i.e. first one when tracing back through the sentence?
    – vectory
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 18:42
  • @vectory If in doubt, look at the highlighting: the expressions highlighted in italics are to be interpreted as coreferent (as are those in bold).
    – David Vogt
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 19:05
  • The word earliest contradicts your example. Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 7:13

In everyday German the personal pronouns er, sie (Sing. fem.), es, sie (Plur.) tend to be replaced by der, die, das, die. This applies also for accusative and dative forms:

Wo steckt eigentlich Peter? - Den hab ich vorhin im Garten gesehen.

Weiß Nicole, dass wir uns heute treffen? - Ja, der hab ich das gestern gesagt.

In German grammar these forms are called Demonstrativpronomen. Like personal pronous they are often anaphoric and refer to previously mentioned nouns.

Many people and many grammars say that demonstrative pronouns referring to persons are pejorative. Nevertheless in my region (Westdeutschland) it is absolutely normal to refer to previously named persons by those demonstratives, especially when they take position 1 in the sentence. It is colloquial, though, and spoken German. In position 3 you might use even in spoken German "normal" personal pronouns as well as demonstratives:

Ich hab ihn gestern angerufen und ihm Bescheid gesagt.

But if the person had been mentioned in the previous sentence, it would be more common for me to use a demontrative in position 1:

Weiß Peter Bescheid? - Ja, den hab ich gestern angerufen.

So, as an answer to the question, I would say that "er hatte doch eine Brille" is non-colloquial elevated style.

  • Downvoting without comment: Thank you. Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 11:32

Using an article instead of a pronoun is very colloquial and even in spoken language it is often seen as bad style.

When someone in my family speaks of someone as der or die instead of using names or the proper pronouns, my parents promtply reply with

Der ist Wagenschmiere


Die ist Zwiebelmine

referring that it is bad style.

There is some kind of saxon proverb about it. I didn't find much about it except this as a part of Gotha dialect (in Thuringia). This marks the der as wordplay with Teer which means tar, as it sounds similar.

The point of this is to put more emphasis on the person in your sentence. So if you use the pronoun the emphasis is more on the object (Brille). An Alternative may be repeating his name to keep the emphasis on Walter as person:

A: Der Mann da, das ist doch Walter.
B: Walter? Nee, Walter hatte doch eine Brille! 
  • 2
    Three times Walter in a short conversation sounds rather strange for me. On the other hand I know the kind of 'Spracherziehung' you are talking about: Whenever we used die for a female person, we were corrected immediately by the saying "Die steht auf'm Markt und verkauft Äppel", meaning: You may only call a girl or a woman "die" if she is a person of low degree. But even in those days the rule didn't correspond to every day language use, so we heard it quite often. Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 9:54
  • 5
    I know that there are people with the opinion described by Mark Lösche, but I strongly disagree. If you write a novel with some dirct speech in it, you might let person B just say Nee, Walter hatte doch eine Brille! and it would be fine. But with the introductory question B: Walter? this would be too much repetition (as @RalfJoerres already pointed out) and a very bad style, while using * Walter? Nee, der hatte doch eine Brille!* is IMO the only acceptable way. Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 18:02

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