The English it might translate to er/sie/es, right? So the translation of

She buys it.

might be

Sie kauft ihn/sie/es.

How can we choose the correct ihn/sie/es if we don't know what she is buying?

  • It being a pronoun, a reference to a previous sentence/paragraph is required anyway to understand the sentence . This is not different in English, so what is the problem?
    – guidot
    Dec 3 '21 at 15:12
  • 1
    This is a very clear case of "context matters", and translations don't work without it, lest word by word. Depending on context, a non-litteral, different translation might also be in order: Sie kauft es ihm/ihr ab. In the sense of believing the statements you (or another person) made. Dec 3 '21 at 17:37
  • How can we choose the correct ihn/sie/es if we don't know what she is buying? If you don't know it, why would you care/what would you try to say??
    – TaW
    Dec 4 '21 at 0:52

In both languages (English and German), a pronoun like "it" or "er/sie/es" will only be used if it's clear what it refers to. So, whenever you encounter such a sentence, there will be context.

To get the correct German translation, you have to identify the referenced object, determine its grammatical gender, and then use the appropriate German pronoun, thus resulting in one of

Sie kauft ihn. (den Stuhl / m.)
Sie kauft sie. (die Küchenmaschine / f.)
Sie kauft es.  (das Auto / n.)

And, to be exact, even the translation of the subject isn't that clear. "She" might refer to "the girl" in an earlier sentence, translated as "das Mädchen", and then the German translation should become "Es kauft ihn/sie/es".

P.S. This applies to the other direction of translation as well.

Sie liebt ihn.

can become one of

She loves him. (her boy friend)
She loves it. (her shoe)

In both directions, you need to identify the referenced object to choose the correct pronoun, according to the rules of the target language.

  • Even the word "buy" can have several meanings here; Sie glaubt es is a possible translation as well.
    – RDBury
    Dec 5 '21 at 3:48

If you don't know what she's buying, you can use an indefinite pronoun such as

Sie kauft etwas. She buys something

Even if you do not know what exactly she's buying, if it's mentioned earlier, the pronoun will take that earlier mentioned gender, i.e.

Eine Sache erweckt ihr Interesse. Sie kauft sie. One thing sparks her interest. She buys it. (since eine Sache is female)

  • 3
    The term indefinite pronoun may be helpful for further research, so I suggest to mention it in the answer.
    – guidot
    Dec 3 '21 at 15:03

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