Accusative and Dative explained

german-cases-2Hallo ihr lieben

and welcome to the second part of our Mini Series on German cases, fitting called

F.R.I.E.N.D.S

Nah, kidding, German cases aren’t fun, but they’re not THAT “unfun”.
The series if of course just called

German Cases Explained

In part 1
(which you can find here: German Cases Explained – part 1 ) we wasted some time with an introduction and then we talked about the cases nobody really cares about.
The Nominative, which marks the subject, but it’s also kind of the factory setting of nouns and pronouns, so it comes preinstalled.
And the Genitive which is at its core about possession, but which isn’t really used much for that, at least not in spoken German.

Today, we’ll look at the cases that are actually interesting – Accusative and Dative.
So if you’re ready to jump in, then let’s gooo….

And just to make sure, here’s a little disclaimer again:

!! NOTHING of what we learn today has ANYTHING to do with cases that come after prepositions. !!

The cases are the same, of course, but the rules for picking them are two completely separate systems. Please keep that in mind! We will talk about cases and prepositions in a separate article.
Cool, so with that out of the way, let’s get to our first case today… the Accusative.

Accusative

We’ve learned in part one that cases are basically a way to “mark” what role an element has in a sentence.
The Accusative marks the role of a direct object.
And even though direct object is one of the more well known grammar terms, I think it’s worth taking a look at what that actually is.

You see, there are different kinds of activities.
First of, there are activities that you just do… like sleeping, napping, dozing or scrolling.
It’s just you and the activity.
And the core for such a sentence looks pretty much like this:

  • I verb.

We can put in all kinds of elements/boxes with additional information

  • I verb     [when][where][why][with whom][despite what fact]...

… but we don’t have to.
Then, there are activities that besides ourselves (the subject) need another element to be complete. And the most “basic” element is the direct object.
And in terms of questions, this element answers to

“Who or what do I verb?”

Here are a few examples…Watching a movie, moving a chair, chairing a meeting, meeting a friend, befriending a squirrel, uh… … squirrelling… uh..you get the idea.

In English, these direct objects are put in what’s called the objective case. Because yes… English kind of sort of has cases too, it’s just very subtle about it.
For nouns and articles you don’t really see it, but you do see it with some pronouns. 

  • You see me.

Why is it me and not I? Well, that’s because here, English actually chose to mark the role of element with the objective case.
Now, does that mean that the objective case is like the German Accusative?
NO!
The objective case is more like a “not the subject” case and it can also correspond to German Dative.

What matters here is the idea of “direct object” because that is what’ll get marked with Accusative in German.
Or in other words, the element that answers to “Who or what am I verbing?”… chances are very high that you’ll need Accusative for it.
Let’s do test…

  • I’m drinking a coffee.

The coffee is the answer to “What am I drinking?” so that’s the direct object in English. And indeed it’ll be Accusative in German

  • Ich trinke einen Kaffee.

And another one…

  • I give you a book.

Here, we have three elements – I, you and book.
I answers the question “Who is doing the giving?”, so that’s the subject.
But which of the other two is the direct object?
Well, let’s just try it out

  • Who or what am I giving? – You…. uh, what?
  • Who or what am I giving? – The book.

Clearly, only the second one makes sense, so the book is the direct object and it will be Accusative in German.
And you probably have a hunch already that you will be Dative in German then, and we’ll get to that in a second, but first, let’s talk about … exceptions.

Yeah… I know.
It would be great if every direct object in English would just be Accusative in German and vice versa. But the languages do not line up perfectly, and there are German verbs (particularly the more advanced, fancy ones) that just happens to “want” a different case, even though it might be a direct object in English.
A good example is to trust.

  • I trust you.

In English, you is the direct object (Who do I trust? You!). And yet, the German word vertrauen goes with Dative.

  • Ich vertraue dich (Accusative) … NOPE
  • Ich vertraue dir (Dative)… yeah

Now, we could make an argument how Dative actually makes sense because this and that and blah blah blah, but that doesn’t really help.
It’s better to accept that some verbs just use different structures in German and English and pick them up along the way, one by one.
The good news is that most of the verbs do line up, especially those that we need on the daily.

  • I see/hear/buy/write/want/have/love/eat/count/send/getsomething or someone.
  • Ich sehe/höre/schreibe/will/habe/liebe/esse/zähle/schicke/bekomme… etwas oder jemanden.

or boiled down to a schema…

I verb [someone/something]. = Ich verbe [Akkusativ].

That should get you at least 80% of the way, and that’s pretty good, I think.
Cool.
So now there’s only one case missing and that is… the Dative.

Dative

And Dative is what we need whenever we have a structure like this:

  • I verb someone something.

or rephrased…

  • I “verb” something to someone.

Because at its core, the Dative marks a “recipient”.

Many verbs come to mind that fit this pattern… to give, to explain, to say... and the underlying idea is a transfer. Not transfer as in I move somewhere but something is being moved from one entity to another entity.
And whenever we are looking at a situation like this, in German the thing being transferred is in Accusative and the receiver is in Dative.

  • Ich gebe dir ein Buch.
  • I send you a book.
  • Er schickt mir eine Mail.
  • He sends me an email.
  • Ich sage ihr meinen Namen.
  • I tell her my name.

Note that in English both entities, the item being transferred and the receiver are just in objective case. What matters are the roles. And Dative is the receiver. That is its core. Receiving something. Dative receives. That’s also the name of a famous Goethe poem (he wrote it when he was a student of German as a Native language)

Dative receives.
Every Day,
Margarete.
Every day
Dative… I get it.

So nice.
Now, of course there doesn’t have to be a physical object or an abstract object like a name. We can also transfer pieces of information… so there is not always a direct object there.

  • Ich sage dir, wie es mir geht.
  • I tell you how I am.

Now, this transfer scenario is actually very broad and we have to take it as an abstract concept rather than a literal one if we want it to help us.
For one thing, it can also be used for kind of negative transfers.

  • Ich klaue dir einen Stift.
  • I steal a pen from you.

In a way, the “receiver” receives -1 pen here, if that helps :). And to give you a more abstract example…

  • Ich glaube dir etwas.
  • I believe you something (lit)

It might be hard to see a transfer here, but if you say “I am buying that from you” it becomes clear :). I take that from you as truth.
But there doesn’t even have to be a actual transfer going on…

  • Ich garantiere dir etwas.
  • I guarantee you something.
  • Ich lese dir etwas vor.
  • I read something out to you.
  • Ich präsentiere dir mein neues Fahrrad.
  • I present my new bike to you.

The Dative isn’t really receiving a thing here… it is more like an audience for something. But still I think the idea of transfer shines through. By the way… this idea of being and receiving-audience nicely explains a few very common uses of Dative without the Accusative. For example

  • Mir ist kalt.

You are not cold yourself as in a cold person. You’re an audience to your environment and you perceive it as cold. You “receive” cold in a very very abstract way… and receive, perceive… there definitely ceive involved :). And there are more examples.

  • Mir ist heute etwas lustiges passiert.
  • Today, something funny happened to me.
  • Berlin gefällt mir.
  • I like Berlin (Berlin is pleasing to me as an audience)
  • Mir scheint, als ob es bald regnet.
  • To me it seems as if it is going to rain soon.
  • Ist dir meine neue Frisur aufgefallen?
  • Has my new hairdo made an impression on you (kind of lit.)
  • Have you noticed my new hair do?

So… this is the basic idea of Dative… it is marks the receiver or audience of something.
Now, I am sure quite a few have been silently asking themselves “So mir is like to me… why doesn’t he just say that.”Well, that is not wrong… if you use that to help you remember Dative that’s fine. But Dative can also express for you and from you and even more importantly, not every to you is automatically a dir.

  • I have to talk to you.
  • Ich muss dir reden…. WRONG
  • Ich muss mit dir reden.
  • I come to you.
  • Ich komme dir…. WRONG super WRONG
  • Ich komme zu dir.

Simply translation to someone as Dative will help you nothing. Dative marks the receiver of in a (possibly abstract) transfer: Someone gives/shows someone something. That is just not the case for those verbs. I can “tell you something” but I can’t “talk you something” just as I can’t “come you something”.
All right.
That was a lot of talking and I have already forgotten half of it and counting. So let’s maybe try and condense this down into a few easy to follow guidelines and then list the exceptions :)

Cases – a rough guide and exceptions.

We can boil down our findings as follows. The Accusative is the next best case besides Nominative. It means nothing and it works for this pattern:

  • I “verb” something or someone  (+ all kinds of preposition stuff).

This covers many of our basic activities like seeing, eating, reading and so on…. and there are only about 50 exceptions in total. Hooray… so we could also say: just use Accusative if you have no reason to use something else.

Whenever your verb wants, accepts or has 2 objects one will be Accusative and one will be Dative. And with a little fantasy we’ll find that we’re usually looking at some kind of transfer.

  • I “verb” you (Dat.) something (Acc.).

And, since it is a common source of confusion… of course you can also be the receiver yourself.

  • I “verb”myself something.

That ought to help you pick the correct cases for verbs that look like this in the dictionary

  • sich etwas “verben”

Being a receiver or audience is also the main idea of the Dative. That’s what the case expresses even if you see it outside of this transfer-structure.

And sadly… there are exceptions to all of that. One really big and mean one is the verb fragen. It has 2 objects, it fits the pattern “I verb you something, there is even kind of a negative transfer going on and yet.. it is double Accusative.

  • Ich frage dich etwas.

This is a really really huge exception. There are close to NO situations in which you’ll see a double Accusative. It is always one Dative, one Accusative…r except for fragen. Don’t ask me why.
And then there is the rule that something in “I verb something.”needs Accusative. It does. For many basic every day verbs. But there are verb that you can’t fully understand.  Some verbs just aren’t looking for anything logical, like rules. They can’t be predicted, explained or negotiated with. Some verbs just want to watch the world learn…

  • I trust you.
  • Ich vertraue dir.

It is totally understandable if someone chooses Accusative. You is the direct object, it is the only object in the sentence, it fits the “I verb someone”-pattern, there is no one receiving anything. And still it is Dative.Is it annoying? Certainly. Does it make sense? No.

  • I need your help.
  • Ich bedarf deiner Hilfe. (rare)
  • Ich brauche deine Hilfe.

The second example is even better because it shows that content has NOTHING to do with the case sometimes. Both verbs mean the same, heck 99% percent of all be-verbs take Accusative in German and yet, it is Genitive. There is no reason why bedürfen wants Genitive and brauchen wants Accusative.
And those are verbs you’ll just have to accept. You don’t have to sit down and learn them all. Just pick them up along the way, like beautiful flowers… or like stinking piles of dog poo. The way you look at it will be the way it feels :)

And I think that’s it. That was my attempt at an explanation for the two German cases that cause most of the problems. The Accusative means nothing, it’s pure function and the Dative marks a receiver.  That and the two sentence patterns, and you should be able to get about 80% of all case picks correct… which will help you very little because you also need to know the gender, but hey. Who cares. Getting a case wrong is not that big of a deal after all and people will always understand you. So take your time. It’ll grow on you like the hair on my should… wait … too much information.
I want to add an exercise here at some point but I don’t have enough time at the moment. So if anyone knows a good quiz online… please share. And if you have any other questions (which I am sure you have) or if you’re like “What? That’s it? That’s your explanation? I didn not learn a single new Thing you fraud”  as always just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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Maggie
Maggie
5 months ago

‘….So why is it then that she got a restraining order against m…. oh wait… that doesn’t belong here I guess….’ You guessed right.

Veen
Veen
6 months ago

es gibt Redewendungen in Deutsch, die den Dativ verwenden, wo im Englischen normalerweise das Possessivpronomen verwendet wird. Dies sind für mich schwer zu verstehen. Vielleicht hast du eine Logik?

zB Es liegt mir auf der Zunge ( it is on the tip of my tongue )

Ich weiß, dass die beide dasselbe bedeuten, aber ich will wissen warum Deutsch ihn so formulieren

Maggie
Maggie
7 months ago

FYI, the ‘Next Lesson’ button at the bottom loops back to top of this page instead of next lesson.

Veen
Veen
7 months ago

But there are verb that you can’t fully understand. Some verbs just aren’t looking for anything logical, like rules. They can’t be predicted, explained or negotiated with. Some verbs just want to watch the world learn…

Gratulieren, du musst sehr stolz sein

Quang
Quang
8 months ago

I found the sentences, “ich liebe dich”
but not “ich liebe dir”,since the one who being loved is receiver
Because the verb “liebe” require Accusative,make so much sense after read this post
Danke !!!

Tim
Tim
8 months ago

Hallo Emanuel –

Schöne Zusammenfassung des Akkusativs und Dativs. Diese Vorstellung, dass der Dativ die Handlung des Verbs “empfängt” – passiert das in diesem Satz? ….Wenn ja, ist das in diesem Satz übertrieben?

Schau mal, mir ist die Naht an meiner Hose aufgegangen. So ein Mist!

Es scheint, dass der Empfänger bereits durch das Possessivpronomen identifiziert wird.

Vielen Dank!

belle
belle
9 months ago

Hi Emanuel, I always find your articles very very helpful. I do have a question about dative case.

I understand pretty much about the dative being the receiver most likely.

Like
Ich gebe der Frau einen Apfel – I give the woman an apple/I give an apple to the woman.

My question is can we use zu instead? I know that using zu is not really necessary here because placing the woman in the position of the dative already indicates that it’s the receiver of the direct object.

I just want to understand if it’s possible.

Ich gebe einen Apfel zur Frau(Ich gebe der Frau einen Apfel.
Ich sende einen Brief zu meinem Vater(Ich sende meinem Vater einen Brief)

belle
belle
9 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thank you so much you are really responsive. Do you give trainings or classes online? aside from the subscription to this site?

belle
belle
9 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Schade. Thank you again

MBowers
MBowers
10 months ago

Hi Emanuel, I know you say this article doesn’t include prepositions, but I can’t find the article that does, so I’m posting this question here anyway. I *thought* a German teacher once said the indirect object is always dative, but maybe I dreamt it? For instance “I washed the clothes without the detergent.” I think the clothes are the direct object and the detergent is the indirect object & without is an accusative preposition, soooo does the detergent get dative or accusative case? Danke.

MBowers
MBowers
10 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thank you for the response—I think it helps. Prepositions trump all, so in this case, the detergent (das Waschmittel?) takes the accusative. Richtig?

MBowers
MBowers
10 months ago
Reply to  MBowers

Oh, and one more question (for now): Is it irrelevant whether we’re talking about the direct object or the indirect object? The same rules regarding case apply to both?

MBowers
MBowers
10 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I might be struggling with my grammar understanding in general, but I see these types of statements a lot on the internet: “The accusative case describes the direct object of a sentence” and “The dative case describes an indirect object“. So when I was trying to determine the correct article of a noun, I used to start by asking myself if the noun in question was the direct or indirect object. But really, both the direct and indirect object can receive dative or accusative. So now I’m thinking I shouldn’t focus on whether the noun is direct or indirect, but rather focus on the rules that govern the case. Does this make sense? If not, I can drop my question for now and keep studying.

MBowers
MBowers
10 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Don’t stress about German. Ha, ha, that’s hilarious.
I appreciate your web site and your responses. Thank you.

Anonymous
Anonymous
10 months ago

Your writting is confusing, please don’t wander about.

Alex
Alex
11 months ago

Can an inanimate object be in the dative case (not when using prositions)?

and can we say that, when using a dative verb with an inanimate object and a person/animal, the inanimate object stands in the nominative and the person/animal is in the dative (some sources say that dative when it’s in normally used (not with a preposition) is for persons and animals), like because a person is the audience/beneficiary? like in the verb schmecken and passen…

Alex
Alex
11 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

That helped a ton! Thank you

super Doberstein
super Doberstein
1 year ago

Thanks for this it realy helped

Starbuck
Starbuck
1 year ago

These three articles about cases make perfect sense to me, but I have already been learning German for nearly a year, and already have a pretty good idea of how they work.

I think the concepts and the way you’ve described them are really good, and I think it’s helpful that you have acknowledged how useless the “wer, wen, wem, wessen” thing is because I’m starting to get a little annoyed when I talk about which case to use and a German speaker is like “but you’re asking “wen?” so it must be akkusativ” and I’m like “in order to know it’s “wen” i would have to already know it’s akkusativ so that is absolutely useless thank you”

However, I think it would probably be helpful for beginners if you say what changes you actually make to form the cases. Maybe it’s just how my mind works but I find it so much easier to remember how to form Akkusativ/Dativ/Genetiv articles when I think about their location in the case/gender table.

You’ve said how to use the cases and how to pick the correct one, but I don’t think you’ve said at any point what actual words one would need to use in each case, which feels like a bit of a big hole in the explanation.

Francesca
Francesca
1 year ago

Hi,

First of all, many thanks for this explanation!

I’m trying to teach German to a friend of mine (nice Accusative/Dative situation there), and am looking for ways to make cases easier for her. Frankly, I admire you guys for learning German… if it wasn’t my native language, I could never be bothered with this ;-)

I have a question tho: from what I remember from my own German lessons, Dative also marks location: Ich stehe vor dem Haus, Der Dativ kommt nach dem Akkusativ, etc.

Whereas Accusative marks a direction in the sense of: Ich gehe in die Schule, ich stelle mich (Dative) zwischen euch, ich kämpfe gegen dich, and so on.

What to make of this? Location is not really the same as transfer, so would this be a second situation in which one generally uses Dative?

Many thanks!

Pat
Pat
1 year ago

The experiences of being seen and heard indirectly may be subtle and perhaps even exist only on an unconscious level as a possibility, a feeling, or maybe some form of habitual self-consciousness… But that does not mean it is not a part of the experience occuring within the described space-time. In fact, their obliviousness or uncertainty towards being observed IS the exact way in which they are being acted upon in your examples.

Mischa
Mischa
1 year ago

Hi!
A correction to my post of yesterday: “gratulieren” is about congratulating somebody, not about gratitude. :-)

Mischa
Mischa
1 year ago

Hi, Emanuel!
I enjoy your articles very much. They are really helpful.
Just wanted to say something about some verbs that require Dative, although it is not obvious why, like: “Ich vertraue dir.” or “Ich gratuliere dir.”.
I think there is a logic behind. It has to do with the meaning of the verb, at least this is how I learn it. When I say “Ich vertraue dir.”, it means that I give my trust to you. For the second example, I give my gratitude to you. So, it kind of makes sense to use Dative, at least, to me.
My native language is one of the Romance languages (Romanian) and in my own language we use Accusative after the two verbs given as example, so I had to make an effort to learn to use Dative after them.
But, as soon as I saw the logic behind, it became easier.
Keep up the good work!
Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

jake.blatchford
jake.blatchford
2 years ago

Haha that was a quality Batman reference, I don’t think I’ll ever forget today’s lesson.
Vielen Dank,
Jake

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Hi E,
 
I just came across your website and it is going really well so far.
I have a question on that Goethe poem you wrote
 
is it real?? I can’t find instances of it anywhere in German at all
 
Dative receives.
Every Day,
Margarete.
Every day
Dative… I get it.
 

ASSH@119198
ASSH@119198
4 years ago

hii , finally , now i understood myself , where i am feeling uncomfortable , please explain as much as you can , if possible .

(Q) when do germans use (OR) for what kind of actions germans use ( dativ and akkusativ ) objects instead of genitiv in a senten ce ??

(1) Klara hat ihrer Freundin den alten Computer gekauft . ( klara pursched the old computer for her friend )

(2) Klara hat ihrer Freundin das Treffen abgesagt . ( Klara cancelled her friend’s appointment)

now one of my doubt is WHY can’t we think , the meaning of (2) sentence as like this (( klara cancelled the appointment for her freiend)) .what made ( i mean which element of the sentence made ) , us to think in this way only ( Klara cancelled her friend’s appointment)

ASSH@119198
ASSH@119198
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I think , every bit of your reply was useful to me , at last , I have written an example based on your last reply can u please correct it .

(1) kannst du mir die Hunde Im waschraum waschen ( can you wash the dogs in the washroom for me )

ASSH@119198
ASSH@119198
4 years ago

hiii , can you please correct this sentense for me .

(1) sie wäscht ihrer Mutter die hände ( she wasched the hands of her mother / her mother’s hands )

(2) Sie hat ihrer Mutter ihre hände gewaschen ( she washed her hands for her mother) ( i mean ,she donot like to wash her hand but she did it for her mother )

(3) Klara hat ihrem Bruder das Treffen abgesagt. ( klara canceled her brothers appointment )

(4) Klara hat ihrem Bruder ihr Treffen abgesagt. ( klarla cancled her appointment for her brother ) ( the listner know , what kind of appointment is that )

if point number (2) and (3) are correct , then really ,. this kind of structured sentences with the meaninf of FOR are used by germans ???

Kompanie
Kompanie
4 years ago

Pretty similar for Russian speaker’s mother tongue, easier than for English one imo. Thanks!

Kompanie
Kompanie
4 years ago
Reply to  Kompanie

similar to*