In German there are four cases, namely the nominative, the accusative, the dative and the genitive.

This article introduces you to the main differences and uses of these German cases. Some details have been left out to avoid overcomplication, but the article should give you a better understanding on German cases generally.

 German case system

Each case will be discussed separately. Let´s start with the nominative case.

German Nominative Case

We will be discussing the use of the German nominative case shortly.

For now however note that the German nominative case uses the following words for “the” and “a/an”:

German nominative case words for the a an

When is the German Nominative Case used?

 The German nominative case is used for the subject of a sentence. The subject is the person, animal (or object) doing the action. See the following examples:

  • Der Junge hat einen Hund. = The boy owns a dog.
    • Here the boy is the subject, as he is the one 'owning'.
  • Die Frau ist klein. = The woman is short.
    • The woman is the subject, as she is the one who is short.
  • Das Buch ist interessant. = The book is interesting.
    • The book is the subject, as it is the one which is interesting.
  • Ein Mann wohnt hier. = A man lives here.
    • The man is the subject, as he is the one doing the action of living.
  • Eine Frau hat eine Katze. = A woman has a cat.
    • The woman is the subject, as she is the one doing the action of owning.

Almost every German sentence with a verb in it has the nominative in it somewhere. In German (just like in English) the subject usually is at (or towards) the start of the sentence in German sentences.

The reality is the nominative is replacing a subject pronoun i.e. one of the following:

German subject pronouns nominative

 

German Accusative Case

We will shortly be discussing the accusative case, but for now note that the accusative case uses the following words for “the” and “a/an” in German:

German accusative case the a an

If you compare the accusative case to the nominative case (discussed above) you will see the differences between the two are:

• the word “der” becomes “den” in the accusative case; and
• the word “ein” when masculine only becomes “einen” in the accusative case

When exactly is the Accusative Case used in German?

Before we were talking about the nominative being the subject of a sentence (i.e the person, thing, etc. doing the action).

By contrast, the German accusative case is used:

  • Firstly, for what is known as the direct object of a sentence.
  • Secondly, after some prepositions.

We will discuss each situation separately.

Situation one: Direct object

The direct object is the person or thing the verb is directly affected by. Let´s take some examples:

  • Der Junge will einen Hund. = The boy wants a dog.
    • Here the boy is the subject, as he is the one doing the action of 'wanting'.
    • By contrast, the dog is the direct object of the sentence, as it is 'being wanted'. The dog is therefore in the accusative case in German.
  • Die Frau sieht den Mann.= The woman sees the man.
    • Here the woman is the subject, as she is the one doing the action of 'seeing'. By contrast, the man is the direct object of the sentence, as he is the one 'being seen'. The man is therefore in the accusative case in German.
  •  Ich habe ein Auto. = I own a car.
    • Here 'I' is the subject of the sentence, as he/she is the one 'owning'. By contrast, 'a car' is the direct object of the sentence, as it is the thing 'being owned'.

 Be careful of sentences using the verbs sein (to be) and werden (to become), because often there is only one subject, for example:

  • Er ist mein Mann. = He is my husband.
    • Essentially 'Er' and 'mein Mann' are both in the nominative case in German, as they are one and the same thing.

Second two: German Accusative Case after Prepositions

As mentioned previously, the second situation where the accusative is used is after certain prepositions. These fall into two groups:

• A group of prepositions which always use the accusative case
• A second group of prepositions which use the accusative ONLY where there is movement

 

Prepositions which always use the accusative case

The following prepositions must always be followed by the accusative case in German:

  • bis = until
  • durch = through
  • für = for
  • gegen = against
  • ohne = without
  • um = around

Prepositions which use the accusative case ONLY with movement

By contrast, the following prepositions ONLY use the accusative case in German if there is movement:

  • an*= at/on/onto
  • auf**= on/onto/to
  • entlang***= along
  • hinter = behind
  • in = in/into/to
  • neben = next to
  • über = over/about
  • unter = under
  • vor = in front of
  • zwischen = between

* ´an´ is usually used with vertical places (e.g. the wall)
** ´auf´is usually used with horizontal places (e.g. the street, the town square, etc.)
*** Unlike English, ‘entlang’ goes after the noun.

Let´s look at some examples:

  • Das Geschenk ist für den Hund. = The present is for the dog.
    • After "für" the accusative is always used and "Hund" is masculine singular, so the word for "the" is "den".
  • Sie geht in den Supermarkt.  = She is going  into the supermarket.
    • After "in" where there is movement the accusative follows. "Der Supermarkt" therefore becomes "Den Supermarkt".
  • Ich gehe in das Kino. = I am going into the cinema.
    • Again, after "in" the accusative follows if there is movement. As "Kino" is neuter in German "das" does not change.
  • Sie geht in die Bank. = She goes to the bank.
    • Again, after "in" the accusative follows if there is movement. As "Bank" is feminine in German "die" does not change.

German Dative Case

Firstly, note the German words for “the” and “a/an” in the German dative case which are as follows:

German dative case the a an
 

Now let´s look at the usage in the German dative case.

The dative is used in the following ways:

  • Firstly, after certain verbs, to show that an action is being done to a person
  • Secondly, after some prepositions

Dative Case after certain verbs

Let´s look at the first situation, namely the situation where the dative may follow certain verbs. The main verbs are as follows:

  • geben = to give (to)
    • The person (or animal) to whom something is given is in the Dative case. 
    • Any items being given are however in the Accusative case.
  • folgen = to follow
    • The thing, person, etc being followed is named in the Dative case.
  • erzählen = to tell (to)
    • The person (or animal) to whom something is told is in the Dative case.
    • The thing being said (i.e. the information) however is in the Accusative case.

  • gehören = to belong (to)
    • The person to whom something belongs is in the Dative case.
    • The thing being claimed as belonging to the person is the subject of the sentence (i.e. doing the action of belonging).
  • glauben = to believe
    • If a person is being believed, the person is named in the Dative case.
  • helfen = to help
    • If a person (or animal) is being helped, that person (or animal) is named in the Dative case.
  • sagen = to say (to)
    • The person (or animal) to whom something is said is in the Dative case.
    • The thing being said (i.e. the information) is in the Accusative case.
  • vertrauen = to trust
    • The person, thing (e.g. information) being trusted is named in the Dative case.
  • zeigen = to show (to)
    • The person (or animal) to whom something is shown is in the Dative case.
    • The thing being show is in the Accusative case.

Examples:

  • Ich sagte dem Mann, dass.… = I said to the man that….
  • Er zeigt der Frau.… = He shows to the woman....
  • Das Buch gehört dem Junge… = The book belongs to the boy....
  • Ich vertraue der Frau. = I trust the woman.
  • Sie hilft dem Mann. =She helps the man.

German Dative Case after certain prepositions

The other situation where the dative may be used is after certain prepositions.

Earlier it was said that the following prepositions take the accusative case where there is movement:

  • an = at/on/onto
  • auf = on/onto/to
  • entlang = along
  • hinter = behind
  • in = in/into/to
  • neben = next to
  • über = over/about
  • unter = under
  • vor = in front of
  • zwischen = between 

Where however there is no movement the dative follows these prepositions, for example:

  • Sie ist in dem Supermarkt. = She is in the supermarket.
    • After "in" where there is non-movement the dative follows. "Der Supermarkt" therefore becomes "Dem Supermarkt".
  • Ich bin in dem Kino. = I am in the cinema.
    • Again, after "in" the dative follows if there is non-movement. As "Kino" is neuter in German "das" changes to "dem".
  • Sie ist in der Bank. = She is in the bank.
    • Again, after "in" the dative follows if there is non-movement. As "Bank" is feminine in German "die" changes to "der".

Prepositions which MUST use the dative case

Some other prepositions must always take the dative case afterwards. These are as follows:

  • aus = out of/from
  • bei = at the house of/with
  • gegenüber = opposite
  • mit = with
  • nach = after/to
  • seit = since
  • von = from
  • zu = to

Examples:

  • Ich fahre zu dem Kino. = I go to the cinema/I am going to the cinema.
  • Er ist mit dem Hund. = He is with the dog.
  • Ich wohne seit einem Jahr in Berlin. = I have lived in Berlin for a year. (literally: I live since a year in Berlin)

German Genitive Case

You will already have looked at the Nominative, Accusative and Dative cases in German. Now let’s look at the German genitive case!

Firstly, let’s look at how the genitive case is formed:

German genitive case the a an

You will see that masculine singular and neuter singular both use des/eines, feminine singular der/einer and plural der.

You will also see that the singular in the masculine and neuter singular forms also add s or es to the noun (depending really on which is easier to pronounce). There is no concrete rule as such, but as a rule of thumb:

  • nouns which end in s (or nouns with a similar sounding ending e.g. ß, z, sch) add es; and
  • longer words or words with more than one syllable add s.

With the exception of words which end in s etc. which inevitably will end in es because of the sound, you should really try s first and if it sounds good, then it is probably fine. If not, try es. If in any doubt check your dictionary, as it should show you whether s or es is used for your specific noun in the genitive case.

When to use the German genitive case

Now that you have looked at how to form the genitive case, let’s now consider when to use the genitive case.

The traditional use of the genitive is to show ownership of something, for example:

  • Das Haus des Vaters. = The house of the father/The father´s house.

However, von (followed by the Dative case) is much more popular to show ownership, particularly when spoken, for example:

  • Das Haus von dem Vater. = The father’s house. (literally: The house of the father)

Prepositions which use the German Genitive Case

On a separate point, a number of prepositions trigger the genitive case as follows:

  • (an)statt = instead (of)
  • außerhalb = outside of
  • innerhalb = within
  • laut = according to
  • trotz = in spite of/despite
  • während = during
  • wegen= because of

For example:

  • Während der Woche… = During the weekend
  • Statt eines Hund(e)s… = Instead of a dog

There are also some verbs which may require the genitive case, but these have been deliberately left out here. Why? If you are reading this article, you are likely to be beginning to look at the German case system. In this situation, you probably would be better off avoiding going into too much detail at this stage and learn the main points.

Adjective Endings/Summary

So far you have looked at the German words for "the" and "a/an" in the various German cases. Where these words change, any adjective endings also change (when immediately in front of a noun).

Below is a summary of the case changes for "the" and "a/an" in German. It also should help you to see which adjective ending to use in each German case:

German case summary including adjective endings

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This article has hopefully helped you to understand some key differences between the German cases.

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