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Neuter Relative Pronouns: das or was?

Putting it in the simplest possible terms, a relative pronoun is a specific word in a sentence that has a relative clause. It's much easier to understand when you see an example: 

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The book that I read is quite old.

 

This sentence is dependent upon "that I read" because without these words, it would not be clear which book is meant. The word "that" is the relative pronoun in the sentence. 

 

In the German language, the relative pronoun is dependent upon the gender of the subject noun: 

 

Das Buch, das ich gelesen habe, ist ganz alt. 
Der Mann, den ich gesehen habe, war ganz alt. 
Die Frau, die ich gesehen habe, war ganz alt.

 

As you can see, the definite articles in the nominative case must take on the accusative case as relative pronouns: das/das, der/den, die/die.

 

But in the case of neuter nominatives, the German word was (usually translated as "what") is also used as a relative pronoun. The use of was as a relative pronoun is generally restricted to two usages, one of which is for neuter substantivized superlatives (nouns based upon adjectives), such as das Beste or das Schönste:

 

Das Schönste, was ich gelesen habe, war ein Buch von Goethe.

 

The German word was is also used as a relative pronoun with neuter demonstrative and indefinite pronouns, such as das, dasjenige, dasselbe; alles, einiges, nichts, vieles, manches, weniges, etwas, and so forth.

 

Das, was Sie hören, ist Musik von Mozart.
Es gibt einiges, was ich noch lernen sollte.

 

It is incorrect to use the relative pronoun das in the three examples above. 

 

Further Learning
Here are some examples featuring relative pronouns on Yabla German. See if you can fill in the missing relative pronoun with either das or was:

 

Gab's etwas,          nicht so gut war?

Was there something that wasn't so good?

Caption 30, Deutschkurs in Tübingen - Weil oder obwohl? - Part 2

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Das Mädchen,            am Spielfeldrand niedlich zu den Jungs hinsah...

The girl who, on the edge of the playing field, looked sweetly at the boys

Captions 2-3, Olli Schulz - Spielerfrau

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Als wäre das Leben,           hier einmal war, verbraucht.

As if the life that once was here were used up

Caption 8, Christina Stürmer - Millionen Lichter

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Er ärgert sich auch über manches,           über ihn geschrieben wird.

he also gets angry about some of what is written about him.

Caption 19, Thomas D - Ärgernisse

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Aspirin ist ein Medikament,           ich nehme, wenn ich Kopfschmerzen habe.

Aspirin is a medication that I take if I have a headache.

Captions 13-14, Deutschkurs in Blaubeuren - Der Relativsatz - Part 16

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Das ist das Beste,           es gibt auf der Welt.

That's the best thing that there is in the world

Caption 36, Monsters of Liedermaching - Ein Pferd

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Milch ist ein Getränk,           ich nicht mag.

Milk is a drink that I do not like.

Caption 29, Deutschkurs in Blaubeuren - Der Relativsatz - Part 16

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Alles,           mit Kommunikation und Sprache zu tun hat.

Everything that has to do with communication and language.

Caption 26, Anja Polzer - Interview - Part 1

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Deinen Namen zu nennen ist wohl das Schönste,           ich sage.

Naming your name is absolutely the most beautiful thing that I say

Caption 35, Xavier Naidoo - Ich kenne nichts (das so schön ist wie du)

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Es gibt am Flughafen wohl nichts,           es nicht gibt.

Indeed, there's nothing that you won't find at the airport.

Caption 42, Flugreisen - Was mache ich, wenn...

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Click on the video links to see if your choices were correct!

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Don't feel bad if this seems hard—even native speakers sometimes get it wrong by accident or as slang usage. The full title of the song above by Xavier Naidoo is "Ich kenne nichts (das so schön ist wie du)." According to grammar rules, the das should have been was. It's also a common mistake among native speakers to say or write things like Das Buch, was ich gelesen habe and Das Buch, dass ich gelesen habe. Luckily, we now know the correct way to write it!

Upper Case in German: Adjectives

Capitalizing words in German is, for the most part, easier than English. In German, all nouns are capitalized, and most pronouns (except for the formal and "royal we" cases) are written in lower case. Unlike English, most German adjectives (including nationality) are written lower case.

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Der Unterschied zwischen deutschen Texten und englischen Texten...

The difference between German lyrics and English lyrics...

Caption 34, Frida Gold - Interview - Part 2

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Nor are adjectives capitalized, unlike the English title case in headlines or names of films, songs, etc. For book and film titles, only the first word and nouns (or nominative cases) are in upper case.
 

Deswegen gucken wir jetzt einfach mal rein in „Das heimliche Geräusch“.

Therefore we'll now simply take a look at "The Secret Noise."

Caption 10, Kurzfilm-Festival - Shorts at moonlight - Part 1

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The only exceptions are if the adjective is part of a proper name, such as of a species, a legal or historical term, or a place name, or titles of books, films, etc.
 

Nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg wurde Berlin in vier Sektoren unterteilt:

After the Second World War, Berlin was divided into four sectors:

Caption 1, Berlin - der alte amerikanische Sektor

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Nominalized adjectives are adjectives that are used as nouns, and in German these too are written in upper case. Generally, an adjective that has the definite article before it (derdie oder das) is a nominalized adjective: 
 

Das ist das Beste, was es gibt auf der Welt

That's the best thing that there is in the world

Caption 36, Monsters of Liedermaching - Ein Pferd

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A possibly confusing exception are superlative adjectives, usually preceded by am and written in lower case:
 

Was hat dir am besten gefallen?

What did you like best?

Caption 33, Umweltlernen - Propellerpflanzen am Kräutertag

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Sometimes too, adjectives are written apart from the noun they are modifying and may at first appear to be nominalized. As you see in the following, schönsten actually modifies the preceding noun Auswärtssiege
 

Am Samstag, da wir eh alle nach Kaiserslautern fahren und Auswärtssiege die schönsten sind, muss [sic, müssen] auf jeden Fall drei Punkte her.

On Saturday, since we are all already driving to Kaiserslautern and away wins are the most beautiful, three points are definitely a must.

Captions 54-56, Fußball - Eintracht-Fan gewinnt Wimpel

 Play Caption

 

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Further Learning
Find some nominalized adjectives from this list, then search for them on Yabla German to see them used in a real world context.

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