When using the formal address, both you (sing.) and you (pl.) get translated to Sie, when in nominative case, of course.

This question is more general. Are there any hints in the language (e.g. verb conjugation, declension, agreements, etc) that allows one to distinguish between the singular and the plural? I'm not restricting to the nominative case here.

  • No, there aren't any hints in the German language. "Können Sie mir sagen, ...?" is the same if you ask one or many people. Isn't it the same in English too?
    – mawimawi
    Jan 4, 2014 at 10:38
  • Hmmm I didn't think about English because it is not my native language. :-) But now I've come with an example that tells the difference in both English and German: Sie sind Arzt, versus Sie sind Ärzte. The first only makes sense with singular-Sie and the second only makes sense with plural-Sie, isn't it?
    – fdierre
    Jan 4, 2014 at 10:58
  • Yes, it is. And in English: "You are a doctor?" and "You are doctors?". The first "You" only makes sense for singular etc.
    – mawimawi
    Jan 4, 2014 at 11:16
  • possible duplicate of How to differentiate Sie (they) or Sie (you)?
    – c.p.
    Jan 4, 2014 at 21:09
  • @c.p. this is not a duplicate... OP wants to know how to differentiate between Sie (polite for you singular) and Sie (polite for ya'll)
    – Emanuel
    Jan 4, 2014 at 21:35

2 Answers 2


It is mostly done by context. Let's say a guy in a seminar says

Haben Sie eine Mind Map gemalt?

If he is addressing the group it will be clear by his looking around and not talking to anyone in particular. If he is addressing one person, then that will be clear by either his looking at the person or some conversation between the two that has been going on before. So in face-to-face situations, non-verbal signs will do the job.

Sometimes it also context. When a politician says to someone from the opposite party in a talk show

Sie haben die Steuern erhöht.

then he probably means the plural as in "you guys in your party". Because it is unlikely that one single person is to blame for the tax hike.

In some situations the speaker might feel the urge to be crystal clear. Then, he can always say

Sie alle...

to indicate the plural and some form of indication for an individual

Sie da/dort... (not very polite)

Sie, Frau Müller,...


Here are some examples in other cases

Ich verspreche Ihnen (allen), dass ich

Ich gebe Ihnen, Frau Schmidt, 10 Euro und Ihnen, Herr Müller, 20.

Ich habe Sie alle gesehen.

Ich habe Sie, Frau Schmidt, gesehen.


The difference, if done correctly, should be visible from the capitalization of the word "sie". Let's try an example:

Gehen sie heute Abend ins Kino?

Means "Do they go out to the theater tonight?".

Gehen Sie heute Abend ins Kino?

Means "Are you going to the theater tonight?".

Just because of this required difference, "Sie" in the formal address is always written with capital letter (unlike "Du" which is, according to new rules, no longer capitalized, even when in a letter or direct address). Edit: good hint above. The second can also be used to address a group of people formally. There's no way to tell that difference, but neither is in English.

Disclaimer: Freely after "Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod", I think part 2.

  • I left out the informal-plural sie for a good reason: this was already getting confusing enough... :-)
    – fdierre
    Jan 4, 2014 at 11:02
  • The informal plural would be distinctable, because the informal plural of the sentence above is Geht ihr heute abend ins Kino?
    – PMF
    Jan 4, 2014 at 11:13
  • I think this doesn't answer the question at all... OP wanted to know how to differentiate between "Gehen Sie, Frau Meier, heute ins Kino?" and "Gehen Sie, Frau Meier und Herr Meier, heute ins Kino"
    – Emanuel
    Jan 4, 2014 at 20:56
  • That was unclear im the beginning. And if you read the full answer, that case is also handled.
    – PMF
    Jan 5, 2014 at 7:16

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