Defeating enemies: Conquer the German grammatical cases

classic By classic, 22nd Aug 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Languages

For many German students, understanding cases is the hardest part of learning the language since they are so different to English. This page will hopefully help you to overcome this grizzly grammatical enemy and to come out triumphant in speaking and writing German.

So what's a 'case'?

The hardest part about getting the German cases right is understanding what they are actually for. But let me give you an example, in English, of the difference between cases.

I chased the dog.
The dog chased me.

In the first sentence, ‘I’ does the chasing. In the second, it is ‘the dog’ that does the chasing and it chases ‘me’. ‘I’ changes to ‘me’ when it goes from being the chaser to the chased. The one doing the action is called the subject of the verb, and the one being directly affected by the action (i.e., getting chased) is the direct object. In English we mark this difference in most of our personal pronouns: I > me, he > him, we > us, and so on. The subject is in the nominative case and the direct object goes into the accusative case (I’ll call it that because then it’s the same as in German).

This can allow us (but usually only in poetry) to switch around the order of the words, but it sounds pretty old fashioned.

In German, however, it’s not just the pronouns that change case. Oh no! The articles, pronouns, adjectives and sometimes the nouns change their endings. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? And it gets better: In English we have just the two cases (and arguably a third in words like whose). In German they have four of the lovely things.

The nominative case

This acts like the English nominative. It’s for the subject of the sentence, that is, the doer of the action. You also use it when the person/thing after the verb is the same as the person/thing before the verb (this is called the complement). E.g.:

Ich bin müde. = I am tired.
Alex hat drei Bananen gegessen. = Alex ate three bananas.
Sie ist eine nette Frau. = She is a nice woman. (Note how ‘sie’ and ‘eine nette Frau’ are both in the nominative case, because they refer to the same person)

The accusative case

This is for direct objects, i.e. things directly affected by the action of a verb, and after many prepositions (often ones with an idea of movement). E.g.:

Alex hat drei Bananen gegessen. = Alex ate three bananas.
Wir sind ins (in das) Kino gegangen. = We went into the cinema. (Preposition with movement)
Wem sahst du? = Who did you see? (Or more properly, 'Whom did you see?')

The dative case

This is for indirect objects. This means a kind of third person/thing in the sentence which also gets affected by the verb. It is often a recipient or someone benefits from an action. It is also used after some verbs which seem odd to English-speakers (just got the learn them, I’m afraid!) and prepositions, often to do with position.

Alex hat mir drei Bananenschalen gegeben! = Alex gave me three banana skins!
Jetzt sind wir im (in dem) Kino. = Now we are in the cinema. (No movement)
Ich will dir helfen. = I want to help you. (Note that the verb ‘helfen’ takes the dative. I suppose this is because of some kind of beneficiary relationship between the helper and the helped)

The genitive case

This is probably the funkiest case. You occasionally get some prepositions that take the genitive (usually ones that used to mean something non-grammatical and have taken on a more grammatical function). This case also shows possesion (kind of like the English ‘s).

Alexs Bananenschalen gefallen mir nicht. = I don't like Alex's banana skins.
Wegen des Filmes sind wir nicht in die Bierhalle gegangen. = Because of the film, we didn't go into the beer hall.
Der Tod des Genitivs ist schrecklich. = The death of the genitive is terrible.

Other things to note

Because of the more elaborate cases, German word order can get a little bit funkier. E.g.:

Den Hund hat die Katze gesehen.
= The cat saw the dog
Der Hund hat die Katze gesehen. = The dog saw the cat

Just one little letter different changes the whole meaning of the sentence. The second sentence is a more normal word order whereas the first emphasises the direct object – that it was the dog that the cat saw and nothing else. Also be aware that only the masculine singular looks any different in the nominative and accusative.

Also, some nouns like to change with the cases. These are sometimes called n-class nouns because they grow an n. Words that are masculine but look feminine, like Junge and Pole as well as other words like Herr add –n in cases that are not the nominative.


Cases, Difficult, Easy, German, German Cases, Grammar, Language Learning

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A student of classics and purveyor of the fine things in life; cooking, music, tomato ketchup, linguistics... Also interested in the other things, like politics, Latin, economics, useful languages, philosophy, and positivity. Oh, and grammar.

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