Saying “you” in German isn’t as easy as translating one word. As we usually recommend, it’s best to translate phrases in context.
“You” is a frequently used word in the English language, and it is equally important in German. In English, “you” can be the subject or object, and there are similar distinctions in German (though it gets slightly more complicated).
In German, however, we distinguish between a formal “you” (Sie), an informal “you” (du), and an informal “you” to address multiple people (Ihr).
You in German
You - Informal, Singular
You - Informal, Plural
You - Formal Plural and Singular. Always capitalised.
Deciding whether to call someone by the formal or the informal “you” isn’t always easy for German learners — and sometimes even natives.
In this post, you’ll get an overview of the different uses of “you” in German and learn about the difference between du, Sie, and ihr.
You might also like this guide to German manners and etiquette.
Difference Between Du, Sie and Ihr At a Glance
Choosing between the different formality levels is always a little unintuitive for people outside a culture.
When you choose which pronoun for “you” in German depends on the situation, your relative age or position, and also your personality (maybe you’re a more casual or formal person by nature).
|You in German||Use this when speaking with…|
|du||* Friends and family members|
* Young people (e.g. 25+ years younger)
(UNLESS in a formal situation, see below)
|ihr||* Several friends/family members/children/much younger people at once, e.g. meeting a similar-age couple at a party.|
|Sie||* With people similar age/situation to you that you don’t know, e.g. randoms on the street, shopkeepers, drivers|
* With people in positions of authority, e.g. a police officer, doctor
* Anyone significantly older than you, even if you know them well
There is always flexibility in each of the above situations.
And don’t be worried if a situation is unclear. Sometimes Germans find it confusing or unnatural too.
When to use du in German
The pronoun du is an informal way of addressing a single person. Conveniently, it sounds a bit like “you”! (Or “tú” in Spanish, if you’re accustomed to that.)
You use the pronoun du with friends and family members. You can also address children and anyone clearly younger than you (e.g. if you’re in your 30s and you’re talking to someone in their 20s) with du.
When you meet friends of friends you can usually safely use du as well.
The pronoun du is also used in informal environments. By that, we mean things like sports and hobbies. This includes trainers at gyms and members of sports clubs.
The practice of saying du to someone (rather than a more formal pronoun) is described with the verb duzen.
Sollen wir uns duzen?
Should we address each other with you (informal)?
The verb duzen is equivalent to tutear in Spanish or tutoyer in French.
If it’s in the middle of a sentence, you don’t need to capitalise du, unlike Sie.
When to use “ihr”
When you address several people at once in an informal way you use ihr (“you all” or “you guys” in informal English).
Wollt ihr in den Park gehen?
Do you (plural, informal) want to go to the park?
Similarly to du, you don’t need to capitalise ihr when it’s in the middle of a sentence.
When to use Sie
You use the pronoun Sie when speaking in formal contexts to one or more people.
The practice of saying Sie to someone is called siezen — similar to the French word vouvoyer.
Auf der Arbeit siezen wir uns.
At work, we use the formal “you” with each other.
A few formal settings where it would be appropriate for you to use Sie are:
- When dealing with someone in authority (e.g. you’re pulled over by a cop for speeding)
- In bureaucratic settings (e.g. you’re applying for a visa extension)
- In a formal educational setting addressing your professor
In the workplace in Germany, most people prefer the more formal Sie over the informal du. In small companies where most workers are young (e.g. a tech startup), you might address each other with du.
You use Sie with strangers, especially when they are older.
If you refer to a group of people in a formal setting, the pronoun is the same, Sie.
Note: Be careful to not confuse Sie, the formal “you” with sie, the pronoun for “they” and “she”. What’s the difference, you wonder? Sie (formal you) always starts with a capital s, and sie (they, she) doesn’t.
Take a look at some examples of Sie as the formal “you” in German.
- Wann kann ich Sie anrufen?
- Möchten Sie in ein Restaurant gehen?
- When can I call you (formal)?
- Would you (plural, formal) like to go to a restaurant?
Proper Etiquette for Using You in German
Getting the German etiquette down for using you in German is an easy way to show respect, and to avoid casually offending someone you’ve just met.
When you first meet a person it is safe to start with Sie. When a person begins addressing you with du, you can follow their lead, if you are comfortable with it, or remain with the formal pronoun Sie, if that is your preference.
Once you get to know someone better, it is probable that the person offers you the du, which is called das Du anbieten. It is expected that the older person offers the younger person the du, not the other way around.
Here is das Du anbieten used in a sentence.
Mein Chef hat mir heute das Du angeboten.
My boss offered me a “du” today.
(Note: Du is capitalised above as it’s a noun, not a pronoun.)
In the workplace, superiors use du with employees. And in the workplace, even between peers of the same age, an employee will use Sie with the one of longer tenure.
It is considered rude to address someone with du when it hasn’t been offered to you and you are a subordinate. Most companies however have a policy which they will let you know about upfront. Just a little insight in case you plan to work in Germany!
If you’re still confused, this article goes quite in-depth into when to use Sie and du.
“You” in German in other cases
If you’ve done much German study before, you will have come across other cases of German — nominative, accusative, and so on.
The above examples are all with the word “you” as the subject. But just like in English, “you” can appear in other parts of the sentence.
In English, we don’t think about cases. It’s rarely even taught. But you know intuitively that the following sentences sound weird:
- “Would you like to go to the movies with I?” (should be me)
- “What delicious sandwiches! Let’s eat they for lunch!” (should be them)
And so on.
It’s the same in German — the form of “you” changes when it’s in a different part of a sentence, typically after a preposition (like “with”), or as the object of a verb.
Here’s a summary table of “you” in German in the different cases.
I strongly suggest you learn these via examples. The reason for this is that we personally try to avoid complex grammar terminology. Memorising rules can quickly become an obstacle to fluency — learning phrases is faster.
A second reason to avoid thinking in cases at the early stage is that knowing which case to use cannot be trivially summarised. Yes, you can say “accusative = direct object, dative = indirect object”, but the reality is that you chose the case depending on the particle or the verb — and it’s not intuitive (to a non-native speaker.
Here’s the summary table anyway, but see the example sentences later.
|Formal||Both||Accusative||Sie (note: same as nominative case)|
|Formal||Both||Dative||Ihnen (note: capitalised)|
Example sentences of dir, dich, euch, Sie and Ihnen
Here are some example sentences of “you” in German in different cases.
Generally, I suggest you think of the sentences you most commonly use with “you” in them. For example
|English sentence||Grammar||German example|
|How are you?||Formal, singular/plural||Wie geht es Ihnen?|
|How are you?||Informal, singular||Wie geht es dir?|
|How are you?||Informal, singular||Wie geht es euch?|
|Can I help you?||Formal, singular/plural||Kann ich Ihnen helfen?|
|Can I help you?||Informal, singular||Kann ich dir helfen?|
|May I eat with you?||Formal, singular/plural||Darf ich mit Ihnen essen?|
|May I eat with you?||Informal, singular||Darf ich mit dir essen?|
|I’ll give you a day to think about it.||Informal, singular||Ich gebe dir einen Tag, um darüber nachzudenken.|
|May I ask you something personal?||Informal, singular||Darf ich dich etwas Persönliches fragen?|
|May I ask you a question?||Formal, singular/plural||Darf ich Sie etwas fragen?|
|I have nothing against you.||Formal, singular, plural||Ich habe nichts gegen Sie.|
|May I address you with du?||Formal, singular (from context)||Darf ich Sie duzen?|
|When can I call you?||Informal, singular||Wann kann ich dich anrufen?|
|When can I meet you all again?||Informal, plural||Wann kann ich euch alle wiedersehen?|
|She is waiting for you.||Informal, plural||Sie wartet auf euch.|
When you learn a new verb or preposition, learn a few sample sentences with pronouns around it so that you can drill the cases.
Common questions about “you” in German
How do you distinguish between “sie” and “Sie”?
This is a common question by people starting out in German.
When capitalised, Sie means “you” in plural or singular form. It also is “you” in the accusative case.
When not capitalised, sie can mean “she” or “they”.
But naturally, they’re pronounced the same, and the standalone word is the same.
The reality is that context will make it very obvious. For example, if someone is speaking to you and saying “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”, the conjugation of the verb makes it obvious they’re talking to you.
There may be some comical misunderstandings, but it’s rare for it to be a big deal.
What happens if you get a case wrong when saying “you” in German?
They’ll slap you! Just kidding…
It’s easy to get a case wrong. You might say mit Sie instead of mit Ihnen for example.
But there will rarely be a case where a person won’t understand you. They might think they’ve misheard you, or realise you’re not a native speaker (if they haven’t already).
The good news is that it won’t cause a fundamental misunderstanding, and rarely will it even slow a conversation down.
The best thing to do is to get your cases down for very common use cases — verbs and prepositions you frequently use.
What do you do if you don’t know the formality level of “you” in German?
We gave a quick guide above about how to choose between du and Sie (and less-often used ihr).
Those are by far the preferred routes. If you’re unsure of formality — opt for Sie. It’s erring on the side of caution and at worst, it’ll be mildly entertaining, but never offensive.
Above all — remember, you’re not alone. Even Germans sometimes get confused about the formality level, and friends tell us they have sometimes changed a sentence to a more convoluted one just to avoid using a pronoun at all.
Saying “you” in German the correct way can be daunting, but hopefully, the above guide has cleared it up somewhat.
Using the pronouns in the basic sense is relatively easy. Opt for Sie in most situations, then for du when it feels right. It’s more rare to address more than one younger person or peer as a learner, but once you get to that point, you’ll be comfortable enough to use ihr.
You might get a little tripped up in the cases section, e.g. saying “with you” or “for you” in German. It might come out sounding like “Do want to have lunch with I?”, which will sound wrong, but nobody will be offended — especially if you’re asking them to lunch!
But with practise, getting the pronouns in German right will come more naturally.