Case Review

Courtesy of Dr. Carla Lowrey


The following case review gives you an overview of the forms and uses of the various cases in German.

General Overview

Nominative Case

Accusative Case

Dative Case

To practice the forms of individual cases, click on the links below.

Case Review:  Exercises

Find the Subject

Nominative vs. Accusative

Nominative, Accusative, Dative

General Overview of Cases

In English, the meaning of a sentence is generally dependent on word order:  the subject in a statement always precedes the verb. In fact, the normal sequence Subject-Verb-Object is so crucial to the meaning of the statement that any change in word order leads to confusion and misunderstanding.  In the sentence "The dog is afraid of the man," it is clear who is afraid of whom only because "the dog" precedes the verb "is afraid of."  (Of course, since sentences like this do not occur in a vacuum, the meaning is also understood through the context.)  Change the word order to "The man is afraid of the dog," and the meaning is changed.

One of the most significant differences between German and English grammatical structures is that in German, unlike English, word order does not determine the meaning of a German sentence.  Instead, case markers (the definite or indefinite article) show what's what in the sentence.  Look what happens if you translate the above sentences into German.  "Der Hund fürchtet den Mann" and "Den Mann fürchtet der Hund" have the same meaning because of the case markers.  The only way to change the meaning to "The man is afraid of the dog" would be to change the den of den Mann to der, and the der of der Hund to den:  "Der Mann fürchtet den Hund" or "Den Hund fürchtet der Mann."  In other words, the case markers der (Subject case) and den (Object case) show who is doing the action and who is being acted upon.  Word order is immaterial to the basic meaning of the sentence.

German has four cases:  the nominative, accusative, dative and genitive.  These are the names for the case forms, which are shown by the "marker":  the definite article (der, die, das, etc.), indefinite article (ein, eine, etc.), and certain other words.

The following pages summarize the use of case in German. The case forms are not logical and must be learned.  And additional problem for students of German is the fact of grammatical gender.  Whether a noun is masculine, feminine or neuter has nothing to do with biology;  the article der, die , das must be learned along with the noun.

Uses and Forms of the Nominative Case

1.  As Subjects of a Sentence

When you see a word in your vocabulary list or in the dictionary, it is given in the Nominative Case.  The Nominative Case is used in German for the subject of the sentence.  The subject is the person or thing that is doing the action of the sentence (expressed by the verb).  Unlike in English, the subject in German many come after the verb.

     MODELLE: Nächste Woche kaufen meine Eltern ein neues Auto.
   Next week my parents are buying a new car.

   Samstags spielt meine Freundin immer Tennis.
   On Saturdays my girlfriend always plays tennis.

2.  As Predicate Nominatives

The other use for the Nominative Case is for the "predicate nominative".  A predicate nominative is a noun or pronoun which comes after the verb and renames the subject.  The only verbs which can have a predicate nominative are the verbs "to be" (sein), "to become" (werden), "to be called" (heißen).  You can think of these verbs as an "equals sign", since they indicate the subject and predicate nominative are the same person, place, or thing.

  Dieses Gebäude ist eine Fabrik.  (This building is a factory.)
  Sie will Ärztin werden.  (She wants to become a doctor.)
  Er heißt Robert.  (He is called Robert.)


The difference between a predicate nominative and a direct object is not immediately obvious in English because our nouns and articles do not show case.  The only way to tell the difference is by looking at the verb and the meaning of the entire sentence.  If the verb--remember that with modal verbs and perfect tense, the operative verb comes at the end of the clause!--is a form of "be" or if it indicates equality between what is on either side of the verb, there will be no direct object in the sentence.

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Forms and Uses of the Accusative Case

The accusative case is the name of the case form used in German for the direct object and the object of certain prepositions.  In English, we have such case forms only for some pronouns.  For example, "I" is used for the subject," "me" for the direct object;  "we" is the subject, "us" for the direct object.  In German, certain case forms are shown by the "case marker" (the definite or indefinite article).

In German, the case marker is the same in the singular nominative and accusative for Neuter, Feminine and Plural nouns.  Only masculine noun markers show the change to accusative:  the nominative der becomes den, and ein becomes einen.

1.  As Direct Objects

The direct object in a sentence is the noun or pronoun that the subject is acting upon.  In other words, the subject is doing the action to the direct object.  A simple way of finding the direct object in a sentence is to say the subject and verb, then ask who or what.  The logical answer to the question is the direct object.

  Er trifft seinen Vetter heute abend. (He is meeting his cousin this evening.)
  Hast du einen Hund?  --  Ja, einen Schäferhund.
  (Do you have a dog? -- Yes, a German shepherd.)

Because the direct object is placed in a direct relationship with the subject, a good way to determine whether a noun or pronoun is the direct object is to look at the verb.  Direct objects are often used with verbs indicating possession (haben, besitzen), desire to possess (wollen, möchten), and sensory verbs (sehen, hören).

  Sie möchte so gern ein Haus besitzen.  (She would really like to own a house.)
  Hörst du deinen Vater? --  Ja, ich höre ihn.
  (Do you hear your father?  -- Yes, I hear him.)

2.  As Object of An Accusative Preposition:

The accusative case is also used as the object of certain prepositions.  A preposition is a word that links its object (a noun or pronoun) to the rest of the sentence.  The preposition plus its object is called a prepositional phrase.  Some examples of prepositions in English are:  in, for, over, by, through, with.

Not all prepositions in German use the accusative for their objects; some use other cases.  You must learn which prepositions use which case.  The following prepositions always take the accusative:

durch (through), für (for), gegen (against), ohne (without), um (around)

     MODELLE:  Ich gehe gern durch den Park spazieren.  (I like to go walking through the park.)
  Was hast du gegen meinen Freund?  (What do you have against my friend?)

3.  As the Object of a Two-Way Preposition

The accusative case is also used with the "two-way" (dative/accusative) prepositions, when these prepositions show direction toward a goal.  The two-way prepositions are:

an (on, at) auf ((on top of) hinter (behind) in (in) neben (near, next to)

über (above) unter (under)  vor (before, in front of) zwischen (between)

     MODELLE:  Wir gehen heute abend ins Kino.  (We are going to the movies.)
  Ich muß morgen auf die Bank gehen.  (I have to go to the bank tomorrow.)

  Wo ist das Taxi?  --  Es fährt gerade vor das Haus.
  (Where is the taxi? -- It's just driving up to the front of the house.)

4.  In Time Expressions

The accusative case is used in expressions of time if there is no preposition.

 Ich muß heute den ganzen Tag arbeiten.  (I have to work the entire day.)
 Letzten Sommer war ich in Deutschland.  (Last summer I was in Germany.)

5.  With the expression:   es gibt  (there is, there are)

"es gibt" is roughly equivalent to the English:  "there is" or "there are".  It is always followed by the accusative case.

  Gibt es einen guten Arzt hier in der Nähe?  (Is there a good doctor in the vicinity?)
  Es gibt ein Schwimmbad in der Stadt.  (There is a swimming pool in the city.)

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Forms and Uses of the Dative Case

Learning to use the dative and when to use the accusative case in German is challenging to English speakers because English does not distinguish between different types of objects in a sentence.  In the following sentences, the word father is used first as a direct object, then as an indirect object:

     Direct Object:   She is meeting her father in the restaurant.  (Sie trifft ihren Vater im Restaurant.)
     Indirect Object:  She is giving her father a book.   (Sie gibt ihrem Vater ein Buch.)

Even pronouns, which in English do sometimes show a change of case, do not distinguish between direct and indirect objects.  In the following sentences, the word him is used first as a direct object, then as an indirect object:

     Direct Object:   Are you seeing him tonight?  (Siehst du ihn heute abend?)
     Indirect Object:  Jürgen's parents are buying him a car.  (Jürgens Eltern geben ihm ein Auto.)

As you can see, the German case system requires different forms for different types of objects.

The dative case is used for the indirect object of a sentence, with certain verbs, and as the object of certain prepositions.

1.  As an Indirect Object

While many verbs take a direct object, only a few can have an indirect object.  An indirect object is almost always a person and usually receives the direct object.  Often the indirect object benefits in some way from the action described in the sentence.  Some English verbs which often have indirect objects are give, buy, write, tell and send.

 I'm giving my mother a blouse.  (Ich schenke meiner Mutter eine Bluse.)
 His parents bought him a new car.  (Seine Eltern kauften ihm ein neues Auto.)
 Whom will you give those flowers?  (Wem geben Sie die Blumen?)

Some of the more common verbs in German that take both a dative and an accusative object are verbs indicating telling, giving, showing:  empfehlen (to recommend), erzählen (to tell, narrate), erklären (to explain), sagen (to say), geben (to give), schenken (to give as a gift), leihen (to loan), zeigen (to show).

 Ich erklärte meiner Mutter meine Sommerpläne.  (I explained my summer plans to my mother.)
 Leihst du mir bitte dein Deutschbuch?  (Would you please loan me your German book?)
 Er zeigte uns seine Dias aus der Schweiz.  (He showed us his slides of Switzerland.)

2.  With Dative Verbs

Some verbs in German require a dative instead of an accusative object, even when the same sentence in English would have a direct object.  These are informally referred to as "dative verbs."  While this seems strange to the English speaker, it is a fairly common occurrence in German.  When you learn a verb in this group (which is fortunately fairly small), you must learn that it takes a dative instead of an accusative object.  Some of the more common dative verbs are:  antworten (to answer),  danken (to thank), dienen (to serve), folgen (to follow), helfen (to help), gefallen (to please, be pleasing to), gehören (to belong to), passen (to fit), fehlen (to be missing),  schmecken  (to taste good).

 Die Kellnerin diente dem Minister.  (The waitress served the minister.)
 Wem gehört dieses Buch?  (To whom does this book belong?)
 Heinz, kannst du mir mit dem Schrank helfen?  (Heinz, can you help me with the closet?)

If you have a modal verb, be sure to check the dependent infinitive to find out if it is a dative verb!

3.  As the Object of A Dative Preposition

Some prepositions can only take the dative case.  The following prepositions always require the dative:

 aus (out of) außer (except for) bei (at the home of) mit (with)
 nach( after) seit (since)  von (from)  zu (to)

 Sie kommt aus dem Haus.  (She is coming out of the house.)
 Wir wohnen im Sommer bei meiner Tante.  (In the summer we stay at my aunt's house.)

4.  As the Object of a Two-Way [Dative/Accusative] Preposition

The dative case is used with the "two-way" (dative/accusative) prepositions when they show the location of an object.  (The accusative case indicates a direction towards a goal.)  The two-way prepositions are:  an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen.

 Wo ist Vati? --  In der Küche.  (Where is Daddy?  -- In the kitchen.)
 Ich treffe meine Freunde auf der Party.  (I'm meeting my friends at the party.)
 Die Kinder spielen hinter dem Haus.  (The children are playing behind the house.)

Again, the verb in the sentence is going to help you decide whether or not the two-way preposition takes an accusative or dative case.  The verbs above do not describe motion towards anything, but rather what happens in a specific location.

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