German Cases

This lesson will focus on the four German cases: nominative, accusative, genitive and dative case. It will provide you with a simple overview of the cases and how to use them with examples. 

There are important links at the end of this lesson to additional lessons on the individual cases.

I won't lie to you, this is where German grammar becomes rather more difficult to digest. I remember sitting in my German A-Level lessons and getting all hot and bothered as I tried to get my head around the German cases. So, take your time and follow my tips. As in all my other lessons, I will try to keep things as simple as possible.

Before we start: are you familiar with German nouns? If not, I highly recommend you read my German nouns lesson now, otherwise things will get confusing. Don't worry, I'll wait! ;)

Back so soon - brilliant! Let's start learning the German cases.

German Cases

First of all, what is a case?

No, it's not a suitcase, or any other kind of 'case' as you know it! A grammatical case is simply a way to show which role each noun (a person, thing or object) plays in a sentence.

German nouns appear in four cases, depending on their function in a sentence. The four German cases are called the: nominative case, accusative case, genitive case and dative case.

Are you wondering: 'Do I really have to learn all about these pesky German cases?' Or maybe: 'Why are they so important?'

Quite simply you must find time to learn the German cases if you are serious about learning German properly, because certain German words change their form - the official word is 'decline' - depending on which case is being used, an example in English would be 'she' to 'her'.

In German there are a whole host of different forms for 'the' and 'a', for example, depending on which case is being used and, of course, the gender of the noun.

Even adjectives (descriptive words such as 'beautiful' for example) are declined differently in German depending on the case, but let's look at that in another lesson.

Enough chat. Let's take a look at the four German cases and find out how to work out which case is which.

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Nominative case

The subject of a sentence is always in the nominative case. The subject is normally the person or thing performing the action of a verb.

For example:

Thomas fährt das Auto. (Thomas drives the car)
Thomas is the subject as he is driving the car. He is performing the action of the verb: the driving and is thusin the nominative case.

Accusative case

The direct object is always in the accusative case. A direct object is the person or thing which directly receives the action of the verb. Tip: You can ask: 'what?' or 'whom?' of the verb to identify the direct object.

A couple of examples:
1.) Thomas fährt ein Auto. (Thomas drives a car) 
'A car' is the direct object as that is 'what' is being driven and thus 'a car' takes the accusative case.

2.) Wir wissen die Antwort. (We know the answer)
'The answer' is the direct object as that is 'what' is known.

So why is it important to know what the direct object of a sentence is?

Because in German, the article (definite article = the / indefinite article = a/an) of a masculine noun in the accusative case changes, for example, from 'der' to 'den' and 'ein' to 'einen'. This change will be demonstrated towards the end of this lesson in a German case table.

Dative case

The dative case identifies the indirect object of a sentence. The indirect object is the thing indirectly affected by the action of the verb. 

A good way to identify the indirect object if you are not sure is by asking 'to whom' or 'for whom' with the subject and verb of a particular sentence.

A couple of examples:

1.) Ich habe dem Mann ein Geschenk gekauft. 
(I bought the man a present)
For whom did I buy the present? 'The man' is the indirect object.

2.) Ich habe dem Baby die Rassel gegeben. 
(I gave the baby a rattle)
To whom did I give the rattle? 'The baby' is the indirect object.

So why is it important to know what the indirect object of a sentence is?

Because in German, the articles (definite article = the / indefinite article = a/an) of all nouns (feminine / masculine / neuter / plural) change. These changes will be demonstrated in a table towards the end of this lesson.

Genitive case

The primary function of the genitive case is to demonstrate possession. The person or thing that possesses, i.e. the 'possessor', is in the genitive case. It is very similar to the 's' or 'of' in English.

Let's look at some examples:

1.) Das ist die Tasche des Lehrers. (That is the teacher's bag) 
The bag is possessed by 'the teacher', therefore, 'the teacher' is in the genitive case.

2.) Das ist das Auto des Nachbarns. (That is the neighbour's car)
The car is possessed by 'the neighbour', therefore, 'the neighbour' is in the genitive case.

You will notice that the possessed person or object comes first followed by the possessor.

Why is the genitive case important to learn? 
Because the definite and the indefinite articles of all nouns will change form in the genitive case, as demonstrated in the tables below.

Grammatical Tables - The German Cases

Some of the most important aspects of German grammar are detailed in the three tables right below and can be seen as a summary of this lesson so far.

Tip of the entire lesson: make it a priority to learn the content of these three tables off by heart - it will help you so much in so many ways and is core to many other elements of German grammar.

The first table will list the various words for 'the' in all four German cases. The second table will detail the words for 'a' / 'an' in German and the third table will detail personal pronouns in German in the various cases, such as 'I', 'you', 'he' and 'she'.

By the way, personal pronouns are simply small words which replace nouns i.e. 'it', instead of 'the car'.

Table 1 - Definite articles by case 
(i.e. the various ways of saying 'the' in German depending on the case / gender of noun)

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative der die das die
Accusative den die das die
Dative dem der dem den
Genitive des der des der

Table 2 - Indefinite articles by case 
(i.e. the various ways of saying 'a' and 'an' in German depending on the case / gender of noun)

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative ein eine ein
Accusative einen eine ein
Dative einem einer einem
Genitive eines einer eines

Table 3 - Personal pronouns by case 
(The small words which replace nouns i.e. 'it', 'she', 'he' depending on the case)

Nominative Accusative Dative English translation
ich mich mir I / me / to me
du dich dir you / you / to you (informal singular*)
er ihn ihm he / him / to him
sie sie ihr she / her / to her
es es ihm it / it / to it
wir uns uns we / us / to us
ihr euch euch you / you / to you (informal plural**)
Sie Sie Ihnen you / you / to you (formal singular or plural***)
sie sie ihnen they / them / to them

* By singular I mean when addressing just one person.

** By plural I mean when addressing more than one person.

*** You will notice there is no distinction made in German when addressing one person 'formally' or several people 'formally'. At least that makes life a little easier!

Unsure of what I mean by formal and informal?  Please visit my German greetings lesson for an explanation.

Lesson Wrap-up

So, there you have it, my summary of the four German cases. I hope you have been able to follow this lesson and are now ready to find out a little more about each of the individual cases. These final parts of the German cases lesson will hopefully clarify any further questions you may have.

Go directly to the Nominative Case in German lesson. 

Go directly to the Accusative Case in German lesson. 

Go directly to the Dative Case in German lesson. 

Go directly to the Genitive Case in German lesson. 

By the way, I've partnered with the Rocket German Learning System.

I know you're interested in accomplishing your goal of speaking German fluently sooner rather than later.

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