As you learn German, have you ever noticed how the German language doesn't have a one-word equivalent for “a,” or “the?”
Maybe you've noticed a variety of possibilities to translate “a” such as ein, eine, einer, einen, or einem. It gets even more complicated when translating “the.” When do you use der, die, das, den, or dem?
The German cases may seem intimidating at first. But there are a few rules that can help you along the way.
In this article you'll learn what the different cases are and when to use them. By the end of this post, you'll have a clear understanding of the German case system.
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In the meantime, back to the subject at hand…
So let's dive into everything you'll ever need to know to understand the cases in German.
1. German Nouns Have Genders
The first thing to know about German nouns is that they have genders. For native English speakers, this is an entirely new concept.
- the dog: der Hund
- the cat: die Katze
- the horse: das Pferd
As you can see, German nouns can have one of three genders:
- der (masculine form of “the”)
- die (feminine form of “the”)
- das (neuter form of “the”)
Tip – when you learn new German vocabulary, try to learn the gender as well. Knowing the gender of a word will help you choose the correct case and endings.
In addition to having a gender, a noun's article changes depending on if it's a subject, object, direct object, or indirect object. The four German cases are nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive.
- The nominative case is used for sentence subjects. The subject is the person or thing that does the action. For example, in the sentence, “the girl kicks the ball”, “the girl” is the subject.
- The accusative case is for direct objects. The direct object is the person or thing that receives the action. So in “the girl kicks the ball”, “the ball” is the direct object.
- The dative case is for indirect objects. The indirect object is the person or thing who “gets” the direct object. So in the sentence “The girl kicks the ball to the boy”, “the boy” is the indirect object.
- The genitive case is used to express possession. In English, we show possession with an apostrophe + s “the girl's ball”.
Let's look at each case in more detail.
2. The Nominative Case (Der Nominativ)
The nominative case answers the question, “wer?” or “who?”
In both German and English, the nominative case describes the subject of a sentence. Masculine, feminine, and neuter articles appear as follows:
You can see the nominative in context in these examples:
- Die (Eine) Frau lebt in Deutschland. (The (a) woman lives in Germany.) In this example, Die Frau, or the woman, is the subject of the sentence.
- Der (ein) Mann arbeitet in der Bäckerei. (The (a) man works in the bakery.) The man is the subject of this sentence and takes the nominative case.
- Das (ein) Kind geht in die Schule. (The (a) child goes to school.) The subject, the child, takes the nominative case.
3. The Accusative Case (Der Akkusativ)
The accusative case, known as the objective case in English, answers the question “wen?” or “whom?” and describes the direct object of a sentence.
Let's see how the masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns change in the accusative case.
As you probably noticed, only the masculine articles change in the accusative case. Let's look at a few simple examples:
- Das Kind isst einen Apfel. (The child eats an apple). In this sentence, einen Apfel is the direct object in the accusative case. Das Kind is the subject and takes the nominative case.
- Der Mann liebt die Frau. (The man loves the woman). Here, die Frau is the direct object in the accusative case. Der Mann is the subject in the nominative case.
- Die Frau liebt den Mann. (The woman loves the man). Den Mann is the direct object in this sentence and takes the accusative case. Die Frau is the subject and takes the nominative case.
There are also a few prepositions that always take the accusative case:
- durch (through)
- bis (until)
- für (for)
- ohne (without)
- entlang (along)
- gegen (against)
- um (around)
A Quick Note On Word Order
In English, we use word order to clarify which nouns are subjects, objects, and indirect objects. But German allows for more freedom of word placement, as long as we use the correct case.
Following are a few examples of the accusative case:
- Der Mann streichelt den Hund. (The man pets the dog.)
- Er streichelt ihn. (He pets him, the dog.)
- Den Hund streichelt der Mann. (The man pets the dog.)
- Streichelt der Mann den Hund? (Is the man petting the dog?)
- Streichelt den Hund der Mann? (Is the man petting the dog?)
As you can see, the meaning of the sentence is derived from the case, rather than the word order. This concept is somewhat different in English, so it can take some practice to get used to.
4. The Dative Case (Der Dativ)
The dative case describes the indirect object of a sentence in German and English and answers the question, “wem?” (whom), or “was?” (what).
The dative case is slightly more complicated than the accusative. Take a look at the dative article forms to see if you can spot the differences:
Typically, we use the dative case for indirect objects, which usually receive an action from the direct object (in the accusative case). As with the other cases, word order is flexible, as long as you use the correct case. For example:
- Ich (subject) schenke dir (dative indirect object) eine Blume (accusative direct object).
- Eine Blume (accusative direct object) schenke ich (subject) dir (dative indirect object).
- I'm (subject) giving you (indirect object) a flower (direct object).
Several prepositions take the dative case:
- aus (out)
- auβer (besides)
- bei (next to)
- mit (with)
- nach (after)
- seit (since)
- von (from)
- zu (to)
- gegenüber (opposite)
And some German verbs always take the dative case. These verbs are:
- antworten (to answer)
- danken (to thank)
- glauben (to believe)
- helfen (to help)
- gehören (belong to)
- gefallen (to like)
5. The Genitive Case (Der Genitiv)
The genitive case indicates possession and answers the question “wessen?” or “whose?” You'll see the genitive case most often in written German. In spoken German, you'll hear von (from)and the dative case instead of the genitive case.
- Das Haus meines Vaters (My father's house). The genitive case is common in written German.
- Das Haus von meinem Vater (My father's house). The dative case often replaces the genitive case in spoken German.
Below are the definite and indefinite article changes for the genitive case.
The masculine and neuter forms require either an -s or -es ending. Single syllable words take an -es ending, while words with multiple syllables take an -s ending. Here are a few examples.
- Der Koffer des Mannes (The man's suitcase)
- Die Spielzeuge des Kindes (The child's toys)
- Das Buch meines Bruders (My brother's book)
- Das Auto meiner Schwesters (My sister's car)
Just as the dative case, certain prepositions always take the genitive case:
- anstatt (instead of)
- außerhalb (outside of)
- innerhalb (inside of)
- trotz (despite)
- während (during)
- wegen (because of)
But in spoken German, Germans sometimes use the dative case with these genitive prepositions.
Overview Of The German Cases
It's easier to choose the correct case when you're familiar with the changes of the definite (der, die, das) and indefinite articles (ein, eine, ein). I've created these charts to remind you of the different changes you've seen so far.
Just as the definite and indefinite articles change, so do personal pronouns. However, this is also the same in English, as “I” changes to “me” or “my”. For example:
- Ich bin genervt (I am annoyed)
- Das nervt mich (That annoys me)
The following chart makes it simple to decline German pronouns in all four cases.
Once you become familiar with the articles and noun endings of different cases, you'll be able to clearly identify the subject, object, and direct object of a sentence.
The flexibility of the German language allows you to change the word order in sentences without changing the meaning.
German Cases Explained: The Not So Strange Case Of The German Cases
A few final tips will make it easy to remember all the German case rules. Ask yourself the following questions to figure out which case to use:
- What gender does the noun have? Is it masculine, feminine, or neuter?
- Is the noun part of a prepositional phrase? If so, is the preposition accusative, dative, or genitive? If not, examine the function of the noun. Which noun is the subject, object, direct object, and indirect object?
- Which article corresponds to the case in question? If you're not sure in the beginning, use a case table like the ones in this post to choose the correct article form.
You don't need to memorise all the different article forms for each case or each specific preposition in the beginning.
Begin with the basics and gradually build up your understanding through practice and exposure. And make sure you're listening to or reading lots of German to expose yourself to the different cases in context.
Every German language learner has difficulty with the cases at first.
But, with practice, you'll find it becomes second nature in no time at all.
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Over to you – has this post helped you to better understand how to learn and use the German cases? Which other aspects of German grammar do you find tricky? Let's continue the conversation below in the comments.