German/Grammar/Pronomial possessives

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Pronomial possessives[edit | edit source]

First, the title of the section will require some explanation. Pronomial means we're talking about people or things referred to by pronouns. Possessives are words we use to talk about not the people or things themselves, but things or people they own or are closely connected with. In this section we'll be talking about how these ideas combine to form some new word types.

Terminology[edit | edit source]

Although we'll be using the word possessive here, we don't necessarily mean in sense of ownership. It can mean that, for example "my car" or "my house". But it can also mean there is a close connection, such as the bond between relatives, "my wife", "my father", or some other relationship, "my friend", "my coworker", "my boss", "my job", "my country". And it can mean being a part of, as in "my foot". Fortunately, German and English tend to agree on when this relationship is applicable. We'll use "own" in quotes for this possessive relationship rather than actual ownership.

We'll be introducing two new word types. First, possessive determiners are words that can replace articles and indicate possession. For example, in English, "my" is a possessive determiner because it can replace the articles "the" or "a(n)", and it tells you that the thing is "owned" by me. So instead of saying "The dog is brown," we can say "My dog is brown." We're restricting the discussion specifically to cases where a pronoun is used to refer to the "owner"; we might say pronomial possessive determiners but that's a mouthful. These are sometimes called possessive adjectives because they come before a noun, but since they replace an article and adjectives don't, it's more fitting to call them determiners.

Second, possessive pronouns replace the nouns themselves, as with personal pronouns, but they indicate possession as well. So, in English, while "my" and "our" are possessive determiners, "mine" and "ours" are progressive pronouns, as in "Mine is red," or "Ours is big."

Unlike like English, where there is a noticeable difference between the words used as possessive determiners and possessive pronouns, in German the differences are very minor and you must use their position in a sentence to tell them apart. Since German is a more highly inflected than English, all of these words must be declined. Fortunately, the way this is done is very logical and can be derived from the personal pronouns and articles.

Forming possessive determiners[edit | edit source]

Possessive determiners are all formed by taking a root, which is related to the "owner", and declining it according to the gender, number and case of the thing "owned". If I am the owner then the root is mein-. Note that this looks very similar to the indefinite article ein. In fact, you decline mein in the same way as for ein except that you need to include plurals. Let's decline mein in the nominative case using this principle:

  • mein – "my" (with masculine nouns)
  • meine – "my" (with feminine nouns)
  • mein – "my" (with neuter nouns)
  • meine – "my" (with plural nouns)

The last entry (in bold) does not correspond to any indefinite articles. Examples:

  • Mein Hund schläft. – "My dog is sleeping."
  • Meine Katze schläft. – "My cat is sleeping."
  • Mein Kind schläft. – "My child is sleeping."
  • Meine Kinder schlafen. – "My children are sleeping."

Possessive roots[edit | edit source]

The possessive roots are summarized in the following table:

Personal Pronouns (Nominative)
Person Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
First mein- unser-
Second (informal) dein- euer-
Second (formal) Ihr-
Third sein- ihr- sein- ihr-

The most common ending is -ein with the only alternative being -r. Also note that the beginning of each word often matches the beginning of the corresponding pronoun in the accusative case.

Possessive determiner endings[edit | edit source]

As mentioned above, the endings for the possessive determiners match the declination of ein but with an extra entry for plurals. In the nominative case, these are:

  • - – (masculine nouns)
  • -e – (feminine nouns)
  • - – (neuter nouns)
  • -e – (plural nouns)

As with ein the only difference between the nominative case and the accusative case is an -en for masculine nouns:

  • -en – (masculine nouns)
  • -e – (feminine nouns)
  • - – (neuter nouns)
  • -e – (plural nouns)

Examples[edit | edit source]

  • Unsere Kinder schlafen. – "Our children are sleeping."
  • Dein Pferd läuft. – "Your (informal) horse is running."
  • Ich sehe euren Hund. – "I see your (plural) dog."
  • Du isst meine Äpfel. – "You're eating my apples."
  • Deine Katze liebt mich. – "Your (informal) cat loves me."
  • Genießen Sie Ihren Urlaub? – "Are you (formal) enjoying your vacation?"

Contractions[edit | edit source]

The only irregularity you may encounter with this system is that the letters -ere- are often slurred in spoken German, especially in informal or colloquial speech. So, for example, you'll often hear unsern instead of unseren, and when this is recorded in writing you may see it spelled this way too. Another possibility, unsren, exists but it seems to be limited to poetry for the most part. If the e is at the end of the word then it's never dropped because it's needed to tell which inflection is being used.

Negation with kein[edit | edit source]

Before moving on to the pronouns, this is a good to introduce the remaining "ein-word", kein. In general an "ein-word" refers to a dterminer which declines as ein does. This includes ein itself, except for plurals, the posessive determiners, and kein.

As meantioned earlier, there are several forms of negation in German; we've already covered nicht but another important one is kein. You put kein in front a noun, appropriately declined of course, to say there is no such noun. It can often be be translated as "no", for example:

  • Wir haben keine Bananen. – "We have no bananas."

However, there are many situations where even though such phrasing is possible, English prefers to negate the verb instead. In German, the preference is to use kein when possible.

  • Ich habe keinen Hund. – "I don't have a dog. (lit. I have no dog.)"

When used with a plural noun, the meaning is more or less the same, though in the English translation you might add "any".

  • Ich habe keine Hunde. – "I don't have any dogs.

It's customary to replace an indefinite article with kein whenever you negate a sentence that has one. But with a definite article you still use nicht.

  • Ich habe den Hund nicht. – "I don't have the dog."

The declension pattern for kein is the same as for the possessive determiners except that the root is kein-. Some examples:

  • Keine Kinder schlafen. – "No children sleep."
  • Kein Pferd läuft. – "No horse runs."
  • Ich sehe keinen Hund. – "I don't see a dog."
  • Du isst keine Äpfel. – "You don't eat apples."
  • Keine Katze liebt mich. – "No cat loves me."
  • Genießen Sie keinen Urlaub? – "Aren't you enjoying a vacation?"

Forming possessive pronouns[edit | edit source]

Possessive pronouns are formed by the same process as forming possessive determiners. The roots are the same and there is only a slight difference in the endings. In the nominative case they are:

  • -er – (masculine nouns)
  • -e – (feminine nouns)
  • -es – (neuter nouns)
  • -e – (plural nouns)

And in the accusative case they are:

  • -en – (masculine nouns)
  • -e – (feminine nouns)
  • -es – (neuter nouns)
  • -e – (plural nouns)

The differences between these and the possessive determiners is in bold.

Whether or not the -er and -es endings are influenced by the corresponding pronouns er and es, it seems like a useful mnemonic. In the accusative, again, the only change from the nominative is for masculine, where an -en replaces the -er. As with the ere combination, the -es ending is often contracted to -s.

Examples[edit | edit source]

  • Mein Hund schläft. Deiner läuft. – "My dog is sleeping. Yours (informal) is running."
  • Eure Kinder spielen. Unsere essen. – "Your (plural) children are playing. Ours are eating."
  • Ich singe mein Lied. Du singst deines. – "I'm singing my song. You're singing yours."

Body parts[edit | edit source]

When it is clear whose body part is meant, German uses the definite article instead of a possessive determiner. This is similar to the way English works: "Ow, that hit me on the arm!" German, however, often takes this idea a bit further than English. For example "He's opening his eyes." can be translated as either Er öffnet die Augen. or Er öffnet seine Augen.


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