Sie and sie are personal pronouns that we use very often. They have different meanings depending on the context and wether the world is capitalized or not.
1. The pronoun is not capitalized
This personal pronoun has the following 4 different meanings:
- “she” (nominative feminine singular),
- “they” (nominative plural, no distinction between masculine and feminine),
- “her” (accusative singular) for a female person (or “it” in English for a feminine thing in German),
- “them” (accusative plural, no distinction between masculine and feminine).
Talking about the subject (nominative) there will never be confusion between “she” and “they” because the verb following sie is always conjugated differently:
- sie kommt morgen → komm-t = singular → “she”
- sie kommen morgen → komm-en = plural → “they”
But, when used as direct object (accusative) or with accusative prepositions, sie can mean either “her” (referring to someone/something feminine) or “they” (referring to more than one person/thing):
Ich sehe sie. (I see her [or “it”]/them.)
In this case, the solution is going back to the preceding sentence in order to search what the object pronoun refers to:
- to a female person in singular (i.e. meine Schwester) → “her” (or to a feminine thing in singular [i.e. die Tasche] → “it”),
- to two or more people or things (i.e. die Taschen, meine Schwestern, die Autos, viele Leute, etc.) → “them“.
2. The pronoun is capitalized
When this word has a capital letter, its meaning changes completely, being a pronoun that doesn’t exist exactly in English: the courtesy pronoun.
We use the courtesy form when we don’t know the other person (meaning in a formal relationship) and combine it with Frau/Herr + last name:
Was möchten Sie, Frau Zimmermann? (What would you like, Mrs. Zimmermann?)
It corresponds to the Spanish usted/ustedes or the French vous. Just like in French, in German there is no difference between singular and plural in the courtesy form, you always talk in plural (see example above).
As in point one, this personal pronoun is both subject (nominative) and direct object (accusative):
Ich sehe Sie. (I see you.)
In sum, there are clearly defined meanings of Sie and sie and good strategies to distinguish them (conjugation, capitalization).
There is just one situation where you cannot distinguish without a given context whether the sentence refers to people or things (“they”) or to the courtesy form: This happens when sie (normally not capitalized) is the first word of a sentence.
Sie kommen aus Berlin.
But the context normally shows if the sentence expresses talking about people or things in plural (“they”) or talking to someone in the courtesy form (“you”).
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