Hallo ihr lieben
and welcome to the second part of our Mini Series on German cases, fitting called
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.
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?
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/get… something 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.
So now there’s only one case missing and that is… the Dative.
And Dative is what we need whenever we have a structure like this:
- I verb someone something.
- 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… I get it.
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”.
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.