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As a German beginner, I am really confused with the use of the word Ihr. So I was doing an exercise using Grammatik activ A1-B1 and one of the passt zusammen quizzes had this as a correct answer:

Ihr heißt Smith - In my mind this is not possible since I assume the meaning is You (guys) are (known as) Smiths which I am able to translate (with A1 German know-how) to Sie sind Smiths.

I know I am terribly wrong somewhere - please help!

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Ihr is the plural of the informal Du.

Sie (the formal way to address someone) is used in the same way in both singular and plural.

So "Ihr heißt Smith" is the informal-du way of saying "You (guys) are named Smith." The formal-Sie way would be "Sie heißen Smith".

The verb heißen is used with the singular of the name in German. It's "Ihr heißt Müller.", but "Ihr seid die Müllers."

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The verb "heißen" does not have a simple translation into English. Literally it means "to have the name". The closest you can come to that in English is "call me" or "they call me", but they aren't quite the same because the subject is not the same as in German, not to mention that they sound old fashioned or pretentious in modern English. Another, even more literal English phrasing is "to call oneself", though German does not need the extra pronoun and it's still old fashioned or pretentious. So a certain amount of rephrasing is needed; "Ich heiße Smith" becomes "My name is Smith" and vice versa. (German does have a more literal translation of "My name is Smith", namely "Mein Name ist Smith".) So, keeping in mind that "heißen" is something you do yourself when it comes to names, the full table is:

  • "Ich (I) heiße Smith."
  • "Wir (we) heißen Smtih."
  • "Du (you, fam. singular) heißt Smith."
  • "Ihr (you, fam. plural) heißt Smith."
  • "Er/sie/es (he/she/it) heißt Smith."
  • "Sie (they) heißen Smith."

Keep in mind that German has several forms of "you", including "du", "ihr" and "Sie". The "Sie" form has the same verb conjugation as "sie" meaning "they" so I didn't include it in the table above. Using the "Sie" form, "Sie heißen Smith," would not be wrong since it's the polite alternative to "Ihr heißt Smith." Which would be better would depend on the circumstances and who you're talking to. Using "sein" would not be entirely wrong either, also depending on circumstances: "Ich bin Smith", "Das ist Smith". But I think it would be unusual to use this for a plural subject.

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  • Thank you for the detailed explanation on the verb heißen. It was quite helpful!
    – Jishan
    Commented Jan 14 at 14:33
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Ihr is a second person pronoun. Sie is a third person pronoun.

So the difference between your two translation attempts is whether you address the group (second person plural) or you talk about the group to someone else (third person plural).

Let me add an Aber in the beginning so you can see the difference between sie and Sie.

Aber ihr heißt Smith. — But you (plural, familiar) are called Smith.

Aber sie heißen Smith. — But they are called Smith.

However there's a complication on top of that. In German, you can (and should) use third person plural instead of second person plural if you address an unfamiliar group. (This is often called "formal you"). And this is exactly the same for singular, so you have to guess whether it's a single person or group from context if you read such a thing.

Aber Sie heißen Smith. — But you (singular/plural, unfamiliar) are called Smith.

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