tom bh
#Digital Nomad

German Grammar Cases

What are cases?

If you are an English speaker and don’t speak any other languages, then grammatical cases are likely to be unknown to you. Their raison d’être is actually pretty useful, they mark the structure of sentences; like subject and object.

I (the subject, or the subjective case) love (just a verb) them (the object, or objective case).

I picked that example on purpose because it’s an example of where English changes the word depending on the case. Eg;

They love me

See how the same people are given different words now that they refer to different parts of the sentence; I becomes me and them becomes they. But normally English doesn’t mark this difference;

The dog loves the bird
The bird loves the dog

Now, let’s pretend that English marked cases in the same way that German does, by using the German word for ‘the’, der;

Der dog loves den bird
Der bird loves den dog

Theoretically, although I don’t think it happens much (except in jokes and poetry), you can change the order of the sentences and the meaning of the sentence can still be deciphered. Whereas in English, changing word order fundamentally changes the meaning of the sentence.

Nominative, Dative, Accusative and Genitive

In German there are 4 cases you must know about;

Nominative and Accusative
Conveniently I’ve already introduced 2 of the German cases, the nominative (which I referred to as the subjective) and the accusative (which I referred to as the objective).

The nominative loves the accusative
Der nominative loves den accusative

The dative is another kind of objective noun, it’s the one you get when you give something to someone;

The nominative gives the accusative to the dative
The father gives the key to the son
Der father gives den key dem son

Notice how we can just use dem instead of ‘to dem’ because it is already implied in the dative case. One thing to note here is that German and English verbs don’t always agree on when you’re ‘giving’ something. For sure a lot are the same, like you send, gift, etc things to other things. But for instance in German you ‘help to someone’, whereas in English it’s just ‘help someone’. So you need to know about all the unusual dative verbs.

And another useful thing to remember is that whenever you use any of; aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu then you can automatically assume the dative case for the associated noun!

The genitive I think is actually very similar in English;

The car’s key
Der key des cars

Des, and therefore the genitive case, can basically be translated as ‘of the’, similarly to how ‘to the’ replaces ‘dem’. And there is also the pleasing symmetry of how English, like German, uses an ‘s’ at the end of the genitive noun. To give a concrete example;

Der Auto (the car), der Schlüssel (the key)
Der Schlüssel des Autos (the car’s key)

All the cases for der (the)

      Nom  Dat  Acc  Gen
Masc  der  dem  den  des¹
Neut  das  dem  das  des¹
Fem   die  der  die  der
Plu   die  den² die  der

This innocent-looking table is by far the hardest thing I struggle with. In the examples I’ve given up to now, I’ve only been using the masculine gender! But there are 2 other genders in German and plurals. And each combination has its own form, with very little rhyme or reason.

You will notice that there are 16 possible combinations, but only 6 available words. So there is a lot of potentially confusing reuse. In fact there is no unambiguous instance, they all require knowing the original gender and/or the context of the sentence to know exactly which case they refer to. Of course this brings up the point that — before you can even begin with cases, you need a solid foundation in gender, which, for a native English speaker, doesn’t come easily.

Sometimes I feel that for as much as marked cases promise to offer, the German use of them confuses more than it elucidates. But of course, this is living and natural German and you’d sound weird if you didn’t follow the conventions.

Germans, why do them not speak like I!?


Changes to nouns

  • 1 Masc. and Neyt. genitive nouns append -(e)s, eg; des Mannes
  • 2 Plural dative nouns append –n, eg; den Kindern

Other articles and pronouns

  • Assuming you know that ein = der or das, and eine = die, then the indefinite article and pronouns (eg; mein/dieser) follow the same rules, therefore;
    • die and das = eine = meine = diese
    • der = einer = meiner = dieser
    • dem = einem = meinem = diesem
    • den = einen = meinen = diesen
    • des = eines = meines = dieses
  • However, there is one exception for the nominative masculine case. The indefinite article ein and possessive pronouns like ‘my’, ‘his’ and ‘our’ (mein/sein/unser) do not append -er to their base. So you know that if you see or hear an -er ending (only on ein or a possessive pronoun) then it is definitely not in the nominative case. Therefore;
    • der (when used for nominative masculine) = ein = mein.
    • der (when used for feminine dative) = einer = meiner.