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A case of German cases

A brief introduction to the Nominative, Accusative, and Dative cases

  • Every full sentence needs a verb and this is true for questions as well.

  • Every verb has a person or a thing that is ‘doing’ the verb. This person/thing is called the subjectof the sentence, also called the nominative case.

  • Not always but usually, there is someone else on the receiving end of the verb, and he/she/it is the direct object of the sentence, also called the accusative case.

In English, some words change to reflect these situations, but some don’t.

For example, if ‘you’ are doing the action, or if ‘you’ are on the receiving end of the action, the word is always just ‘you’.

However, if ‘I’ do the action, or if someone else does the action to ‘me’, the word changes. (I à me).

The same thing happens with

· he --- him

· she --- her

· they --- them

…but ‘it’ stays the same in both cases.

· I like it. --- It likes me

This should help us understand what happens in German. In all the example sentences, anything in the nominative case is shown in green, the accusative case is shown in blue, and when we come to it, the dative in red.

Ich sehe dich I see you

Ich kann dich sehen I can see you

Siehst du mich? Do you see me?

Kannst du mich sehen? Can you see me?

“The” in German is not an easy word!

There are about ten different words for ‘the’ in German. This seems unbelievable for us English speakers – we only have one word, but as well as the masculine, feminine and neuter variations (der / die / das) these can also change depending on the case (nom / acc / dat) so it starts to get crazy-complicated.

Man and dog are both masculine nouns in German: der Mann / der Hund.

When you learn a new word in German, you should always learn which gender it is.

The word for ‘the’ changes depending on whether it shows the subject or the object of the sentence:

Der Hund beisst den Mann The dog bites the man Der Mann beisst den Hund The man bites the dog

What if you played around with the word order? Would this still make sense?

Den Mann beisst der Hund The dog bites the man The man is bitten by the dog Den Hund beisst der Mann The man bites the dog The dog is bitten by the man

The answer is yes! The one advantage of the complicated system of changing the words depending on the case is that you are free to mess around with the order of the words, because the grammar is strong enough to show exactly who is doing what to whom.

To me, to you

There is, I am afraid, a third case that we need to mention: the dative case, which is applied to the indirect object of the sentence.

Ich habe eine SMS gesendet. I sent a text

In this sentence we just have the person who sent the text (the subject/nominative) and the thing that was being sent (the object/accusative). Clear so far. But…

Ich habe meiner Freundin eine SMS gesendet I sent a text to my (female) friend.

In this sentence we have a third component: the person that the text was being sent to

You weren’t sending your friend! You were sending a message to your friend. This is the distinction between the direct object (accusative) and the indirect object (dative).

As I mentioned, it is not just people, but also any kind of thing that can be in the nominative, accusative or dative:

Bäume bieten vielen Vögeln und Insekten Schutz.

Trees provide shelter to lots of birds and insects.

The trees are doing the providing (subject / nominative)

Shelter is the thing begin provided (direct object/accusative)

The birds and insects are the things to whom shelter is being provided (indirect object /dative)

It is fair to say that most verbs take the accusative case, but there is a significant shortlist of verbs that always go with the dative. Here are just a few:

antworten to answer

Ich antworte dir Morgen. I’ll answer you tomorrow

folgen to follow

Ich folge ihm. I follow him.

gefallen to please

Es gefällt mir. It pleases me / I like it

helfen to help

Kann ich dir helfen? Can I help you?

sagen to say

Was haben Sie ihnen gesagt? What did you tell them?

Andrew Wenger, SameSky Languages

Ideally, lesson time is devoted more to conversation practice than heavy grammar, but sometimes it's necessary to explain the hows and whys. If you are interested in joining a German class, please contact me via this link. There is definitely space in the advanced group, possibly one more spot in the intermediate group before I start a waiting list, but the priority is to set up a brand new beginners' German class. If you or anyone you know is interested...

(We also offer French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese)

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