Many German students get frustrated about the four cases in German cases and are confused about the articles in the language. In this blog post, I explain everything you need to know about the case and how to use them correctly.
This is an explanation of the four cases in German that combines a discussion of the logic of the cases with their position in sentence in terms of German word order. Considering the two together is, in my experience, the best strategy to learn the articles in a grammatically correct way. We will discuss the cases in the order in which they should be learned in German. The order is determined by the likelihood that you will encounter the cases in a German sentence.
The Nominative Case (100%)
Cases represent the function that a noun performs in a given sentence. The nominative case is the subject in a sentence. A very short sentence that students learn in our beginner German courses just has a subject, a conjugated verb and maybe an adverb, e.g.
Ich (nominative) lese gern
(I like to read)
The subject is the doer of the action and the noun or pronoun that the sentence revolves around. It also agrees with the verb because the ending of the verb (here, "e") is determined by the subject ("ich"). In the example, I am the person who likes to read, so "Ich" is in the nominative case. Every sentence needs a subject, so there must be a nominative case in your German sentence. With regard to word order, the subject is normally first or third, so either before or after the conjugated verb. The subject is after the verb when, for reasons of emphasis, an adverb such as the time or location or an object is placed at the start of the sentence.
Abends lese ich (nominative) gern
(In the evenings, I like to read)
The only two situations in which the subject is not third is in a yes-no- question and in a subordinate clause where the subject follows after the subordinate clause conjunction.
Spielt der Hund (nominative) im Garten?
(Does the dog play in the garden)
Ja, der Hund spielt im Garten, weil der Garten (nominative) groß genug ist.
(Yes, the dog plays in the garden because the garden is large enough)
The Accusative Case (80-90%)
Ich (nominative) kaufe ein Buch (accusative).
(I buy a book)
The direct object is a noun to which the action of the verb is being done. In the example, "Ich" does the buying and is thus the subject or Nominative. The action of buying is being done to the "Buch", which means that the latter is the direct object or Accusative. To reiterate, the subject is usually at the start of a sentence or in third position after the conjugated verb. The direct object is usually towards the end or at the end of a sentence, if there is no main verb
that finishes a sentence.
Der Hund (nominative) beißt den Mann (accusative).
(The dog bites the man)
Den Mann (accusative) beißt der Hund (nominative).
The meaning of the sentence hasn't changed. The dog still bites the man, but the position of subject and direct object has been inverted for reasons of emphasis. In English, only the passive voice would represent the word order of the above, e.g. the man got bitten by the dog.
The Dative Case (50-60%)
If someone or something is benefitting from the action that the verb represents, then an indirect object is added after the verb in order to express this, e.g.
Ich (nominative) kaufe dem Freund (dative) ein Buch (accusative).
(I buy a book for the friend)
In the example, the action of buying is still done to the book. However, the book is bought for the friend and so the friend is in the dative case. 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. Examples of giving to/doing for verbs other than "kaufen" that lend themselves to both the dative and the accusative case are "geben" (to give)", "schenken"(to gift), "zeigen" (to show). You'll find a helpful infographic that lists the most common German verbs with the dative and accusative case on my blog. Let' consider two other examples to clarify this further.
Ich (nominative) schenke meiner Mutter (dative) Blumen (accusative).
(I gift flowers to my mother).
"Mutter" is in the the dative case because she receives the flowers.
Der Mann (nominative) gibt dem Hund (dative) einen Knochen (accusative)
(The man gives a bone to the dog)
The bone is given to the dog, which means the dog must be in the dative case.
With regard to word order, the dative case almost always follows the conjugated verb in third position and comes before the accusative case, unless the accusative is represented by a pronoun. So if the previous sentence reads
Ich schenke meiner Mutter (dative) Blumen (accusative)
(I gifted flowers to my mother)
Then your second sentence could drop "Blumen" and replace it with the pronoun "sie", so
Ich habe sie (accusative) meiner Mutter (dative) geschenkt.
(I gifted them to my mother)
German pronouns follow the same logic of the cases.
Whenever a 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 (accusative)
(I know the man)
There are two exceptions to this giving to/doing for rule, though- prepositions in German, which follow their own rules, and dative only verbs that should be be treated as special verbs that just need to be memorised.
In colloquial German, many native speakers avoid the dative case by using the accusative preposition für.
Ich kaufe ein Buch für den Freund
(I buy a book for the friend)
While this would make the German sentence a mirror image of the English one, it is not good German.
The Genitive Case (Less than 30%)
Finally, if you want to express that there is a possessive relationship between two consecutive nouns, you can add a genitive case that represents the owner, e.g.
Die Tasche der Frau (genitive)
(The bag of the woman or The woman's bag)
As the example shows, the genitive case usually comes after the thing that is being owned. So if English is your mother tongue, you need to think in terms of the "of" genitive in English in order to get the word order right. Crucially, the genitive is the only case that is disconnected from the verb. It can be added after any of the other cases and there are even situations when you can use a double genitive.
Nominative Genitive Dative Genitive Accusative Genitive Genitive Genitive
Der Mann (der Schwester) gibt der Mutter (der Schwester) den Schlüssel (der Schwester) des Hauses (der Schwester)
(The man (of the sister) gives the mother (of the sister) the key (of the sister) of the house (of the sister)
However, it is very rare to find sentences with all cases. It is more common to have two or three cases in one sentence where native speakers alternate between using the dative and genitive case.
In colloquial German, people often replace the genitive case with the dative preposition von. So much so that one author entitled his book that laments the demise of the genitive "Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod" (The dative is the genitive's death).
Das ist die Tasche von der Frau
(This is the bag from the woman)
I don't think I need to say how bad this sentence is, do I?
Cases therefore add 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 since that would make the sentence 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 and a brief summary of the rules.
Subject (doer of the action/what the sentence revolves around) Normally, in first or third position in a sentence, i.e. before or after the verb.
Wer? (Who)/ Was? (What)
Wer/Was macht etwas? (Who/what does something) Der Mann spielt Tennis (The man plays tennis). Das Auto fährt schnell. (The car drives fast)
Direct object (has the action of the verb being done to it) Normally towards the end of a sentence and after the dative case, if there is one.
Wen? (Whom)/Was? (What)
Wen sehe ich? (Whom do I see) Ich sehe den Mann. (I see the man) Was kauft die Frau? (What does the woman buy) Die Frau kauft ein Auto. (The woman buys a car)
Indirect object (recipient of the accusative; normally a person or a pet to whom something is given or for whom something is being done) Normally, directly after the conjugated verb in third position and before the accusative.
Wem? (To Whom/For Whom)
Wem gebe ich etwas? (To whom do I give something) Ich gebe dem Mädchen einen Bleistift. (I give a pencil to the girl) Wem kauft die Frau ein Auto? (For whom does the woman buy a car) Die Frau kauft der Schwester ein Auto. (The woman buys a car for the sister)
Possession (possessive relationship between two consecutive nouns) Anywhere in a sentence but normally after the noun that is being owned, except for named owners (proper nouns) which come before.
Wessen Hund ist das? (Whose dog is it) Das ist der Hund des Mannes. (That is the dog of the man) Das ist Peters Hund (That is Peter's dog)
How To Learn The German Articles
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 (so “wer?”, “wen?”, “wem?”, “wessen?” above) and replace the “w” with a “d”, e.g.
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”.
Let's look at the definite articles table now. In my experience, it is important that students learn the table from the top going down. Why? There are two reasons. The first is that you always have to know the gender of the noun before you consider the case. So you may want to learn the German gender rules. The second reason is that our brain is wired in such away that if you learned the table horizontally going across rather than vertically, it would take you significantly longer to get to the dative, let alone genitive plural article.
DEFINITE ARTICLES (THE)
den (+n) Männern
des (+es/es) Mannes
des (+s/es) Autos
The colours visualise the pattern of articles that get repeated. As you can see from the table, masculine and neuter genitive add an -s or -es to the non, while most dative plurals add an -n. If we now turn to the indefinite articles, you will see the same pattern of articles again. In the table below, I wrote down both indefinite articles and their negations in German.
INDEFINITE ARTICLES (A)
ein Mann kein Mann
eine Frau keine Frau
ein Auto kein Auto
einen Mann keinen Mann
eine Frau keine Frau
ein Auto kein Auto
einem Mann keinem Mann
einer Frau keiner Frau
einem Auto keinem Auto
eines Mannes keines Mannes
einer Frau keiner Frau
eines Autos keines Autos
The plurals of German nouns need to learned in terms of patterns as well.
Bear in mind that, even though the articles seem to be omnipresent in the language, there are instances when articles should not be used. Once you have mastered the logic of the German cases, it is important to learn how possessive pronouns in German need to be used 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.
Contact me with comments and questions. I hope you found this blog post helpful. You'll find more information about my German lessons below.
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, dict.cc 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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