Confused about der, die, das? An explanation of the German cases

Many German students get frustrated about the four German cases and how to use the articles. Learn how to use the "der, die, das" here.

Cases represent the function that a noun performs in a given sentence. A simple sentence usually consists of a subject (also known as "Nominativ"), a verb and a direct object ("Akkusativ"), e.g. Ich (NOM) kaufe ein Buch (AKK). If someone or something is benefitting from the action that the verb represents, then an indirect object can be added after the verb in order to express this, e.g. Ich kaufe dem Freund (DAT) ein Buch (AKK). Finally, if you want to express that there is a possessive relationship between two consecutive nouns, you can add a Genitiv after the noun that is being owned, i.e. in someone’s possession, e.g. Die Tasche der Frau (GEN). Cases are therefore adding layers of complexity to a sentence. From the most basic unit (subject+ verb+ direct object) to a sentence containing all four cases, which is rare. What is more common is that sentences contain a subject, a verb, a direct object and either a dative (put after the verb and before the accusative normally) or a genitive. So native speakers tend to add either a dative or a genitive, depending on what they want to communicate. Otherwise, the sentence is too complex.

In order to use the German cases correctly, bear in mind where in a German sentence you normally find the subject and the objects. So word order provides you with important clues with regard to the case of a noun. Let's look at some examples of the German cases:

Other examples of the German cases in a sentence are:

Der Hund (NOM) beißt den Mann (AKK)

(The dog bites the man)

Den Mann (AKK) beißt der Hund (NOM) - inverted due to emphasis on Den Mann

(The dog (still) bites the man; in English, only the passive voice would represent the word order of the above, e.g. the man got bitten by the dog)

NB Here, the subject is in third position after the verb. The only two situations where the subject is not third is in a yes-no- question (e.g. spielt der Hund im Garten?) and in a subordinate clause where the subject follows the subordinate clause conjunction (e.g. Der Mann (NOM) öffnet dem Hund (DAT) die Tür (AKK) zum Garten, weil der Hund (NOM) mit seinem Ball spielen möchte)

Der Mann gibt dem Hund (DAT) einen Knochen (AKK)

(The man gives a bone to the dog)

Das ist der Hund (NOM) des Mannes (GEN)

(This is the dog of the man/ this is the man's dog)

The easiest way to figure out the difference between dative and accusative is to start with the verb. When verbs imply a giving to/doing for (that is, when the action of the verb can be done for a person or pet), you can expect there to be a dative and an accusative in your sentence, where the dative represents the recipient of the accusative case, e.g. Ich schenke meiner Mutter Blumen. Whenever the verb doesn't imply a giving to/doing for, you can normally expect that there is just an accusative in your sentence, e.g. Ich kenne den Mann. There are two exceptions to this giving to/doing for rule, though- prepositions which follow their own rules, and dative only verbs which need to be treated as special verbs that just need to be memorised.

With regard to word order, the dative case almost always comes before the accusative case, unless the accusative is represented by a pronoun. So if the previous sentence reads "Ich schenke der Frau ein Auto", then your second sentence could drop "Auto" and replace it with the pronoun "es", e.g. Ich habe es ihr bei einem bekannten Autohaus gekauft.

Articles – Cases

In order to memorise the articles, remember the following pattern: For the masculine, you need to look at the question words that go with a particular case (see “wer?”, “wen?”, “wem?”, “wessen?” above), and replace the “w” with a “d”, e.g. wer-> der etc. For the feminine, there are always two repetitions, which produce a very robotic sound. The neuter is a combination of masculine and feminine. From the feminine it takes the fact that nominative and accusative are the same; from the masculine it takes the same articles for dative and genitive. In the plural, there is only one set of articles for all three genders, and here the pattern is that they are the same as the feminine singular, except for the dative. If you are struggling to remember the datives, bear in mind that the dative is the “drama” case, sing “demderdemden”.

Once you have mastered the logic of the German cases, it is important to learn the most useful gender rules in German.

Contact me with comments and questions. Once you have given the cases some practice, you might want to learn about German pronouns and adjectival endings in German as they build on the cases. Students usually find the difference between mir and mich in German particularly confusing, so I wrote a separate post on the topic.

If you want to learn more about other grammar topics in the language, on my blog you will find a post on German prepositions with the accusative and dative case, accusative only prepositions in German , dative prepositions in German, and genitive only prepositions in the language. I also explain German word order rules, give our top 5 tips on how to improve your German and tell you how to avoid the most common mistakes in the German language. In addition, there is a fun way to learn German with the best German songs.

And if you want to read articles on the topic of language learning more generally, I have written a post on the difference between a1, a2, b1, b2, c1, and c2 and on online dictionaries Linguee, dict.leo, and Collins.

You might also be interested in my Ultimate Guide to Learning German. Check it out to learn how to learn German fast. Happy reading!

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