Essential German Grammar – Formal and Informal Speech

There is a distinction in German between formal and informal speech, depending on the person you are addressing and how polite you are. The German language is known for its politeness and so it’s best to be polite and use the language in the right way when addressing a German person.

Furthermore, to use the correct formal pronoun, you must know that the German language distinguishes between four cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. The personal pronoun du (you) is used in the nominative case, when you refer to the sentence’s subject; the personal pronoun (you) changes for the cases dative (dir); and accusative (dich), when you refer to the sentence’s object.

Example:

Du hast schöne Augen  | You have beautiful eyes. (nominative)
Ich gebe dir das Buch. | I give the book to you. (dative)
Ich mag dich. | I like you. (accusative)

Informal Speech:

You address your conversational partner in informal conversations by referring to him or her as du, like the English pronoun “you.” The informal plural is used by saying ihr, which is the personal pronoun “you” in a plural form.

Example:

Wo wohnst du, Tim? | Where do you live, Tim?
Wo geht ihr hin, Max und Hanna? | Where do you go, Max and Hanna?

Formal Speech:

There are two different ways of expressing politeness when you address a person formally. You must use the formal form when talking to a stranger, a person in a higher position (mostly job related) or a person who is older than you. Unless a person has offered you the informal way of addressing him, you must address him by using the polite and formal way.
One way of addressing a person formally is to use the third-person singular female pronoun Sie, and capitalizing the first letter. This is the nominative case of the personal pronoun and is used when asking the person, who is the subject of the sentence, something.

Example:

Möchten Sie etwas trinken, Herr Meier? | Do you want something to drink, Mr. Meier?

Another way of expressing politeness when talking to a person is using the word Ihnen, which has the same meaning, but is used when referring to the object of the sentence.

Example:

Darf ich Ihnen etwas zu Essen anbieten? | May I offer you something to eat?

German-language speakers ask themselves questions when determining which of the two formal pronouns is used in which context.
Nominative:   Wer/Was? (Who?) Asking for a person/the subject of the sentence
Dative: Wem? (Whom?) Asking for the object of the sentence
Accusative: Wen/Was? (Who?)  Asking for the object of the sentence

Example:

Ich gebe dir das Buch. (I give the book to you.) → dative
Question: Wem gebe ich das Buch? → To whom do I give the book?
Answer: Dir → To you.

Ich mag dich. (I like you.) → accusative
Question: Wen mag ich? → Whom do I like?
Answer: Dich → You.

Here are some more examples:

German English Formal vs. informal
Wie geht es dir? How are you? Informal singular
Was spielt ihr? What do you play? Informal plural
Wie geht es Ihnen? How are you? Formal, dative
Gehört das Ihnen? Is this yours? Formal, dative
Ich kenne Sie nicht. I don’t know you. Formal, nominative
Das ist für Sie. That is for you. Formal, nominative