What are indefinite pronouns in German (indefinitpronomen), and why are they important? Read on to get familiar with the most important German indefinite pronouns, improve your knowledge of German grammar, and boost your vocabulary.
Indefinitpronomen – German Grammar
Indefinitpronomen is a small group of pronouns such as anything, nobody, many, none, everything that are used to refer to individuals or objects in general without specifying who or what they are. Just like possessive pronouns and personal pronouns, they are an essential part of the language.
Some of these pronouns, such as jemand or niemand, can be declined, which means they should agree with the subject they’re defining in number and gender. The others are invariable – they do not change their form.
1. Jemand – Someone
There are two quite popular indefinite pronouns in German: jemand (someone) and niemand (no one, nobody). They are often used in spoken German without the proper case’s endings. However, the endings are added in written German, so it’s best if you get familiar with them and use declined forms when possible:
- Nominative – jemand/niemand
- Accusative – jemanden/niemanden
- Genitive – jemand(e)s/niemand(e)s
- Dative – jemandem/niemandem
Use “irgendjemand“, which is declined like “jemand“, to say “anyone/someone” or “other/another one”. The prefix “irgend-” refers to an unknown person. For example, “Does anyone know the answer?” will be translated as Kennt irgendjemand die Antwort?
Of course, here, you could use the indefinite pronoun “jemand” as well – adding “irgend-” can make the phrase more genuine and put more meaning or seriousness to it.
2. Kein – No, Nobody, Not Any, None
The indefinite pronoun keiner has the same endings as the article kein, keine, kein (except in the nominative masculine and nominative and accusative neuter forms), and can be used to refer to persons or objects.
When it comes to defining people, it means nobody, not… anybody, or none, and when it comes to things, it means not… any or none. As you can see, this pronoun is always used in a negative form.
3. Ein – One
The singular form of the indefinite pronoun “ein/e/er/es” (one) may also be used to refer to people or objects.
4. Man – One, You, They
When making statements generally about a person (no one specific), the indefinite pronoun “man” is often used. It implies that a statement does not refer to a specific individual but rather to an infinite number of people, a community, or even anyone.
Even though “man” refers to a whole group, it is used singularly. The declension of this indefinite pronoun is identical to that of er/sie/es.
In English, there’s no actual translation for this word. You can use “you,” “one,” or even “they/their,” as in “If one wanted to get better, one would have to learn more” where the word “one” could be replaced with “you” as well (Wenn man besser werden will, muss man mehr lernen).
Germans often use that word to criticize politely, making it general, so it doesn’t seem like pointing fingers. For example, “Wenn man immer nur wartet, bis man Hunger hat, isst man oft Fast-Food. Man sollte besser schon vorher Essen zubereiten” means: “If you wait until you’re hungry you tend to eat fast food. You should better prepare food beforehand.”
Making it a general statement is politer because it gives the “you” in the sentence a feeling of “you’re not the only one doing that, I don’t blame you, just saying.”
Man vs. Mann
There’s a huge difference between the impersonal pronoun man and the noun Mann. The word man has one n and is the indefinite pronoun as described above. “Der Mann,” however, is the translation of the English word “the man.”
Note that the German word “man” (= you, one) is NOT pronounced like the English word “man.” “Man” in German is pronounced like /mun/ (similar to “bun”) in English.
5. Viel – Much, Many, A Lot Of
The word “viel” can serve as an adjective, an adverb, or an indefinite pronoun, depending on how it’s being used. The indefinite pronoun “viel” works as a replacement of an article, other pronouns, or determiners.
“Ich sehe die vielen Menschen dort” – I can see all those many people over there.
“Ich habe viel mehr Geld als du” – I’ve got much more money than you.
“Wer schon viel hat, will oft noch mehr” – Someone who has a lot often ends up wanting more.
How to Determine What Does Viel Mean in a Sentence
The indefinite pronoun: “viel” (much) is also followed by uncountable nouns most of the time, and it is not declined.
The adjective: “viel(e)” (many) is followed by countable nouns.
The opposite of the indefinite pronoun “viel” is “nothing” – “nichts,” which is also an indefinite pronoun.
Remember that the indefinite pronouns for the first person singular or second person singular, when the sentence starts with “ich bin,” “ich will,” or “sie hat,” are never conjugated.
Ich will nichts machen.
I don’t want to do anything.
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