There are four cases in the German language: nominative, genitive, dative and accusative. These cases are an important part of German grammar and many students find them confusing.
In this article, I will explain two of the most commonly used cases: accusative and dative. I’ve decided not to include boring tables and charts for you to memorize, but rather I will explain the logic behind each of the cases in context.
Before we start, I’d like to explain some basic grammatical terms that will help you to better understand when and how these cases are applied.
The word order in a typical German sentence is subject – verb – object. The subject performs the action, the verb is the action and the object is affected by the action. Let’s take a look at an example:
- Der Mann parkt das Auto (The man parks the car).
“The man” (the subject) performs the action, “parks” (the verb) is the action and “the car” (the object) is affected by the action. The accusative or dative is applied to the object of a sentence. In this example, it’s an accusative object, which is also referred to as a direct object.
But what does the accusative case actually do?
The Accusative Case
The accusative case changes the masculine definite (der), indefinite (ein) and possessive (mein) articles. Feminine, neuter and plural forms are not affected.
Let’s start with the definite article (the): der becomes den.
- Ich sehe den Mann (I see the man).
- here we use den Mann instead of der Mann because the man is masculine and sehen is a verb that requires the accusative case.
- Ich sehe die Frau (I see the woman).
- here there is no change because the woman is feminine.
- Ich sehe das Kind (I see the child)
- here there is no change because the child is neuter.
Here are some examples using the indefinite article (a, an): ein becomes einen.
- Du kaufst einen Computer (You buy a computer).
- here we use einen Computer instead of ein Computer because the computer is masculine and kaufen is a verb that requires the accusative case.
- Du kaufst eine Lampe (You buy a lamp).
- here there is no change because the lamp is feminine.
- Du kaufst ein Auto (You buy a car).
- here there is no change because the car is neuter.
And, finally, this is how possessive articles (my, your, his, etc.) change: mein becomes meinen, dein becomes deinen, sein becomes seinen, and so on.
- Er liest meinen Artikel (He reads my article).
- here we use meinen Artikel instead of mein Artikel because the article is masculine and lesen is a verb that requires the accusative case.
- Er liest meine Zeitung (He reads my newspaper).
- here there is no change because the newspaper is feminine.
- Er liest mein Buch (He reads my book).
- here there is no change because the book is neuter.
To sum up simply, we can say that the accusative is used when you have a sentence with the structure “I (verb) something.” That something is in the accusative case. Now let’s take a closer look at the dative case.
The Dative Case
The dative object is also called the indirect object and is the thing or person on the receiving end of an action.
This scenario is actually very broad, and we have to take it as an abstract concept rather than a literal one. It also exists in English and is often indicated by “to.” For example: “I gave it to him” or “The car belongs to me.”
In addition, there are some very commonly used prepositions that require the use of the dative case. For example:
- mit (with)
- bei (at)
- seit (since)
Whatever follows these prepositions is in the dative.
The dative changes all three forms: masculine, feminine and neuter. Let’s start again with the definite article (the):
- Das Buch gehört dem Mann (The book belongs to the man).
- here we use dem Mann instead of der Mann because gehören is a verb that requires the dative case.
- Das Buch gehört der Frau (The book belongs to the woman).
- here die Frau becomes der Frau.
- Das Buch gehört dem Kind (The book belongs to the child).
- here das Kind becomes dem Kind.
The indefinite article (a, an) is also affected by the dative case:
- Du wohnst seit einem Monat in Berlin (You’ve lived in Berlin for a month).
- here we use einem Monat instead of ein Monat because seit is a preposition that requires the dative case.
- Du wohnst seit einer Woche in Berlin (You’ve lived in Berlin for a week).
- here eine Woche becomes einer Woche.
- Du wohnst seit einem Jahr in Berlin (You’ve lived in Berlin for a month).
- here ein Jahr becomes einem Jahr.
Finally, this is how the possessive article (my) looks when the dative case is used:
- Ich fahre mit meinem Bruder nach München (I’m going to Munich with my brother).
- here we use meinem Bruder instead of mein Bruder because mit is a preposition that requires the dative case.
- Ich fahre mit meiner Schwester nach München (I’m going to Munich with my sister).
- here meine Schwester becomes meiner Schwester.
- Ich fahre mit meinem Sohn nach München (I’m going to Munich with my son).
- here mein Sohn becomes meinem Sohn.
The Difference Between the Dative and the Accusative
Now, you might ask: “OK I get it, but how do I know when to use the dative and the accusative?”
Well, the bad news is that you need to learn which verbs and prepositions are followed by the accusative case and which ones are followed by the dative case. My recommendation is to always learn new vocabulary in context. It makes it easier to remember and gives you a lot of useful information.
Let’s take the example Ich schreibe einen Brief (I’m writing a letter). When you learn the whole sentence rather than the individual words, you will remember that schreiben requires the accusative case, because it’s einen Brief. In addition, you now know that Brief is masculine, because if it were feminine or neuter, the accusative case wouldn’t have changed the article.
The good news is that most verbs are followed by the accusative. So, when in doubt, go for the accusative and chances are that it will turn out to be correct.
Another useful tip to remember is that in sentences with several objects, the dative object is usually a person, whereas the accusative object is usually a thing. So, when you say “I (verb) something to someone,” that something is in the accusative case and that someone is in the dative case.
In German, the word order is normally “I (verb) to someone something.” Let’s have a look at an example:
- Peter schreibt seinem Freund einen Brief (Peter is writing a letter to his friend).
- Peter is the subject (he performs the action).
- schreibt is the verb (the action).
- seinem Freund (a person, the dative object).
- einen Brief (a thing, the accusative object).
And, I think that’s it!
I hope that this article makes the accusative and dative cases a bit clearer. Don’t worry if it’s confusing in the beginning; even if you make mistakes, German speakers will understand you. There is a certain logic in the case system and the longer you learn the language, the more it will make sense.
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