How to Address a German Properly

The Germans have three ways to say 'you.' Do you know when to use which one?

Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) meets Frederick George Jackson (1860-1938), 17 June 1896, Cape Flora, Franz Josef Land, engraving from a photograph of North Pole expedition of 1893-1896. Arctic, 19th century.
How to Greet a German on the North Pole. De Agostini Picture Library@getty-images

You is not always you, especially when you're speaking a foreign language. 

One thing you need to learn quickly is how to correctly use "you" in German. Modern English is the only Indo-European language that has just one form of "you." In German there are three:

1. du, the informal address

This form is only for those with whom you're on familiar or intimate terms, such as family, close friends, children, pets and in prayer.

In Germany, the word friend isn't used as liberally as in America, or at least it doesn't carry quite the same meaning. Ein Freund/eine Freundin is used more to denote what we call here "a close friend," whereas the word ein Bekannter/eine Bekannte is the preferred term used for "casual" friends and acquaintances.

2. ihr, informally addressing two or more Germans

Ihr is the plural form of du. It's the equivalent of y'all in the Southern United States. For example:

Wo seid ihr? (Where are you guys?) 

3. Sie, the formal address

This polite form implies a certain formality between people and takes into account social considerations. Sie is used for those people we address as Herr, Frau and with other formal titles. Usually, it's used for older people, professionals and shop clerks. It might also be a good strategy to address co-workers as Sie at first until they offer you the du. It's better to call someone Sie and have them correct you with du than to assume you can use the formal address and offend someone.

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Duzen and Siezen

The verb that describes using Sie to address someone is siezen. To utilize du with someone is duzen. It's best to use the Sie if you are not sure which to use. 

More About 'You' in German

Other important points about Sie, du and ihr are:

  • The formal Sie is always capitalized. There are no exceptions to this rule. The du and ihr are usually written in lower case, but some older Germans capitalize them. That was the rule about 20 years ago, before they had the Rechtschreibreform
  • Sie remains written as Sie whether you are using it in the plural or singular sense. For example, if you are formally addressing one or two Germans, you won't see a difference in writing:

    Woher kommen Sie? (Where are you from, sir/madam?)
    Woher kommen Sie?
    (Where are you from, sirs/madams?)
     
  • Sie (you, formal) takes the same verb form as sie (they)which is why in conjugation tables, you will find both words at the bottom together.

Chart of 'You' in German

In a nutshell:

SingularPluralEnglish meaning
du trinkstihr trinktyou or y'all are drinking
Sie trinkenSie trinkenyou (formal) or you (plural) are drinking

Common Problem: There Are Four Sies and Four Ihrs

Many German-language students have trouble initially with ihr. This could be because there are two ihrs. There are also multiple versions of sie, which can be complicatedTake a look at the following examples: 

  • Hey, kommt ihr heute Abend? (Are you guys coming tonight?)
  • Ist das nicht ihr neuer Freund? (Isn't that her new friend?)
  • Entschuldigen Sie. Ist das Ihr Auto vor meiner Ausfahrt? (Excuse me, sir/madam, is that your car in front of my driveway?) Note that the Ihr is capitalized as it is formal.
  • Entschuldigen Sie. Ist das Ihr Auto vor meiner Ausfahrt? (Excuse me, sirs/madams, is that your car in front of my driveway?)

    Here are three examples for sie/Sie:

    • Woher kommen Sie? ( Where are you from, sir/madam?)
    • Woher kommen Sie? ​(Where are you from, sirs/madams?)
    • Woher kommt sie? (Where is she from?)
    • Woher kommen sie? (Where are they from?)

    But Wait, There's More

    Keep in mind that like with all other pronouns, du, ihr and Sie will also have genitive, dative and accusative forms that you must memorize. To see a chart of personal pronouns in all of their grammatical cases, please click The Four German Cases.