German Cases Explained – part 2

german-cases-2Hallo ihr lieben

and welcome to the second part of our German is Easy Mini Series

German Cases Explained – part 2

In part 1, which you can find here:

German Cases Explained – part 1

we wasted time with an introduction and then we talked about the cases nobody really cares about. The Nominative, which is the default case that every language kind of has, and Genitive which expresses possession for the most part. By the way, in the comments on that we were talking a bit about when to use real Genitive and there are some interesting points there. I’ll add them to the post when the lazyness wears off… if. Oh will it ever.

Today, we’ll look at Accusative and Dative and we’ll find that  Accusative doesn’t really mean much and Dative is “receiving”.
*spoile.. oh wait… should have said that first.
And to avoid legal issues, here’s a little warning:

We will NOT talk about Accusative and Dative after prepositions
 Anything you learn about cases and their idea today does NOT 
apply to cases after prepositions. Drawing connections can lead
 to deep frustration and headache. Do it at your own risk. 

All right. So last time we’ve seen that there are two ways we can put things or persons into a sentence… either directly or by using a preposition. This is a pretty universal thing and is true for most if not all languages. But which elements are put in in which way is totally open. Quite a few language put in their local information directly. Finnish even has a distinct case for going to, being there and coming from. Sounds complicated but it is actually quite practical. Prepositions can be quite an annoyance. Is it zur Schule, in die Schule or an die Schule? I remember very well the problems I had back then when I was a kid…

“Sooo, how was school today?”
“I don’t now *sobb*… I didn’t know where to go, I went an but it wasn’t there…”
“Awww… don’t cry honey, mommy will drive you there tomorrow okay?”

But anyway… so languages do things differently. Some use cases where others use prepositions and vice versa. But there is one element (aside from the subject) for which almost all languages use the direct way. I am talking about the direct object. And that is closely related to Accusative.

Accusative

You see, there are different kinds of activities. First of, there are activities that you just do… like sleeping, napping, dozing or Nike. The underlying pattern is the most basic pattern for a sentence in German and English

  • I verb.

I can put in all kinds of  boxes with additional information  but I don’t have to.

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

Then, there are activities you do to something.… like watching a movie,moving a chair, chairing a meeting, meeting a friend… or…  uhm…   befriending a squirrel or… uh.. erm… and so on and so on.
The general pattern goes like this:

  • I verb [something or someone]

This blue box is the answer to “What do I verb?”, English calls it the direct object and in English it is put in what is called the objective case. What? Objective case? So Accusative is like the objective case? Well… no. Genitive aside, English has two cases. The subjective case is like the German Nominative and it is used for the subject. The objective case  is used for all other things that are in a sentence, be they behind a preposition or not.

  • I saw him with her behind them.

I is the subject, all the others – him, her and them  – are not so they are in objective case, but only him is the direct object here. So, objective case is NOT Accusative. So… what IS the Accusative then? Well…  it is kind of the German case for the direct object. Whatever is the direct object in English will be in Accusative in German. Not always. But we’ll get to that later.

Now,  I know everybody is always looking to find out what the cases mean, like… what their core idea is. But to be frank, I don’t think that it makes much sense for Accusative. Sure… it is pretty close to the direct object of English or the Romance language. So we could assume that the function is the same. And it is. But what is this function, anyway?  Sometimes you can read, that the direct object “experiences” the action. English Wikipedia says the direct object is “the one acted upon”. Okay. But how exactly is a woman who changes her dress experiencing anything if I watch her from afar? How does that affect her? Exactly. Not a bit. So why is it then that she got a restraining order against m…. oh wait… that doesn’t belong here I guess. Let me use a different example… how does a radio host experience your hearing him?  Or let’s take another example. A philosopher explains the sense of life to you… who’s the one making an experience? You? Well, grammatically, it is the sense of life. It is the one experiencing the explaining. Sense of life is the direct object.
What I am trying to say is that all those terms like “experiencer” or “acted upon” make sense in the grammar world, they are helpful, but I totally understand  how they can be confusing if you take them as real world terms. If it works for you, then fine, but if not let’s just settle for the very basic explanation that the function of the direct object is simply the object in sentences with the following basic pattern

  • I verb something or someone.

Now, that doesn’t really make for a catchy core idea of Accusative.  And as I said before… I really think it there is one. There is no core concept of accusative that would make sense in just the real world without any grammatical abstraction. The way I see it, Accusative is just the next best case.  Nominative is the preset. Like… you take a word out of the dictionary and  bamm… it is in Nominative. And then, if Nominative is already taken and you have no reason to do otherwise… well.. just use Accusative then. It’ll probably be correct. Like the English objective case  the Accusative is much grammar and very little content.

  • I see he.

We can understand that. There is no doubt as to what this means. Using the objective case in English adds precisely nothing other than correct grammar.

  • I see him.

Same for Accusative. It doesn’t mean much in real world terms. Genitive expresses possession… and we’ll soon see that Dative does express something. But Accusative… not really.
It’s like this standard boring beer you can get anywhere. Sure, there are different reasons imaginable for drinking it… to get drunk, to have something to sip while talking or because you have to order something in a bar. But the reasons are not really relevant. They are boring. No one will be like

“Oh, I see you’re drinking PBR, what an interesting choice. How come?”

It’s just normal . You can’t drink nothing (that would be Nominative) because it’s a bar but you have no specific idea what to drink either and so you go for the standard…  like random house wine or said PBR.
And this is Accusative. You have to have a case but you have no special content to communicate. Sure, this isn’t exactly linguistically sound but if you want to spare yourself delving too deep into grammatical functions and definitions it works just fine.

So… Accusative is the way to go for all those basic verbs that have a direct object in English. And other than not being Nominative it doesn’t convey much real meaning.

  • 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.

Now… does that always work?
Of course it doesn’t. There are in total about 50 verbs  for which it doesn’t work. Not too bad I’d say. You could just learn those and use Accusative for the rest. But let’s take a look at Dative first before we get to the exceptions.
As of now we’ll go with this: Accusative doesn’t mean much and is just pure grammar and we use it whenever we have a sentences based on this pattern.

  • I “verb” something     (+preposition stuff).
  • Ich “verbe” etwas      (+ prep stuff).

Dative

Now, Accusative has been quite a disappointment. There is no deeper secret to it, no catchy idea. This is different for Dative and to find that out it makes sense to look at another basic pattern for sentences. We already had:

  • I “verb”.

which needs no case, and

  • I “verb” something.

which usually uses Accusative. The third one is

  • I “verb” something to someone.

or better yet, the rephrased version

  • I verb someone something.

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.

for members :)

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Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

I’m lucky that my mother tongue has dative that is very similar to the German one. I dunno what I would do otherwise, but I can imagine how frustrating this must be for native English speakers:-)

Pap
Pap

Worst would be for a Chinese person like my maternal side. Chinese has absolutely no cases, tenses, conjugations, gender, plurals, articles,
root changes, etc. Completely reliant on word order, helping words, particles, and good ole context.
Same with Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, Hawaiian, or any ultra-mega-analytic language. Direct English is heading in several centuries hence.
Don’t be mistaken, they have there own way; I even read a guy who said “Chinesisch hat keine grammatik.” Very wrong.

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

That was me above, sorry :-P

Lucius
Lucius

Guten Tag Emmanuel, vielen Dank for this post. A common and mehrwertig Wort in german is leisten. Es würde very nice if you could write a post about it. Lucius

Native
Native

Hey,
I saw in some of your posts that you’re writing about “spoken past”… it’s just another tense (“Perfekt”).
You’re using the “Perfekt” tense very often. :D

I don’t know if you ever post an explanation about all German tenses with examples.
You could/should do it. :D

The tenses are:

– Gegenwart
– Vergangenheit
– Perfekt
– Plusquamperfekt
– Futur 1
– Futur 2

Pap
Pap

What about them ultra perfekts? When I was young I thought they were possible but they weren’t but they may be possible in German as I have heard.

Kenzie
Kenzie

Oh my gosh, I have been studying German in school for nearly 2 1/2 years and this is the first time I really understand the cases. I mean, I have an AMAZING German teacher (he’s an awesome guy and great at teaching) but the way he taught the cases didn’t totally make sense to me. I kind of understood it, but not enough to really understand when to use what case. Aside from the exceptions (because of course all languages feel the need to throw in unnecessary exceptions), I feel a lot more confident in knowing which case to use when.
Thank you!!

Boyan
Boyan

Happy Neues Jahr! :)
Thank you for the both useful and amusing explanations! I’ve studied German for 10 years, aber habe die Scprache sehr gut vergessen. Now i’m in a process of recollecting knowledge, and this here is a wonderful start fro these ‘basics’. Vielen Dank!

As for the language comparisons, i’m a Bulgarian – my language has all the grammatical package – tenses, genders, plurals, prepositions, conjugations, cases, word/sentence order… However, most Bulgarians (not me) find German grammar an impossible disaster. I guess it’s because In our language the cases for example are there, but they almost do not affect the other words, much like in English.

Corina
Corina

This has been enlightening! Thanks a lot for explaining it all so clear.

You say that it doesn’t make sense using Dative in “Ich vertraue dir” (I trust you), but I think it does because a transfer is implied. Although not mentioned, “trust” is transferred from me to you, sort of. “I trust you” might also mean “I give you my trust”. That’s how I see it anyway :)

Greenland
Greenland

Having spoken Afrikaans since I was a wee lad, I find a lot of German grammar relatively simple since the principles are often similar or the same between Afrikaans and German. Like “Mir” is similar to the Afrikaans “Met”.

leunamcrowley

“I trust you” may not make dative sense in a English, but in Spanish it is ” yo confio en ti”; lit, it’d be “i trust in (towards) you” . that way it makes perfect sense. I’m realizing that it seems to be easier to understand many conflictive German grammar stuff from the Spanish perspective, whereas English seems to introduce nothing but confusion. Is a shame this blog is not in Spanish :(

jiexi00
jiexi00

This is awesome! thanks!

ESL
ESL

Hi, I have been researching for good material for my students and I came across this post (including part 1)
Just a quick comment for your information. English still has 3 cases and they are used frequently.
1. Nominative case (in modern English also called Subjective case)
2. Possessive case (would equal the German Genitive case, but easier) eg: I like my mum’s car. (mum= Nom, but mum’s=Pos.)
3. Objective case (made up from dative and accusative case = direct and indirect object) both DO and IO formation is the same and modern English has summarised this in the Objective case, there are however still 2 cases (dative & accusative) within the Objective case.
Here you go, German and English are very similar. If you can take apart a sentence in English as well as in German, cases are not problem at all and the only problem left is the learning the endings and adjustments.
You also referred to the “Erfragung des Falles” using questions like Wer? oder Was?, Wem?… I fully agree that this is no way helpful to a basic or intermediate learner, however advanced students should learn, know and use this method in order to pass exams.
Anyway, as I said… just a quick note which you might find interesting.
NB: I’m a teacher of English (ESL) and German (DaF) (native in both languages) :-)

Anonymous
Anonymous

I think you may have just saved my degree. Thank you!

Albrecht Von Der Lieth

Good explanation – one question, though: Why do you limit Dativ to the notion of receiving? It seems to me that if you broadened it to the notion of transfering, you can incorporate pretty much all of your examples without having to jump through hoops of “negative transfers” and the like.

And one quibble with the notion of negative transfer: I don’t think “Ich klaue Dir einen Stift.” is a good example. This sentence is ambiguous in German – it can both mean I steal a pen from you, as well as for you. Arguably, the “actual” meaning is “I steal a pen for you”, while the “I steal from you”-sense being is the colloquial version that ommitted the clarifying “von”.

Albrecht Von Der Lieth

Why is it too broad? Wouldn’t that only be problematic if it coincided with (at least parts of) the notion of one of the other cases? Yet if Nominative is “the default”, Accusative is “much grammatical smoke for little semantical fire”, Genitive “that possessive thingy”, then Dativ as “indicating a transfer of some sort” doesn’t seem to be overlapping with any of these in any significant way. I don’t quite see how “Ich sage Dir etwas.” or “Ich schreibe Dir einen Brief.” carries the notion of receiving more pronounced than the notion of transferring. In the latter example, it is not even implied that you ever receive the letter?

Albrecht Von Der Lieth

As an aside: Entwenden would be a better verb for that Klauen-example. “Ich entwende Dir einen Stift” is unambiguous.
And also leaving aside sentences such as “Ich überweise Dich an den Facharzt”, which seem to fit the pattern but requires Akkusative…

You pretty much phrased it similar to how I’d do it: “Dative is used to indicate the process of transferring someone/something … to/from someone/something”. Conceptually, it’s kind of convenient that you’re emphasizing the fact that verbs do, in fact, denote processes, whereas the receiver-solution tries to explain the usage of certain verbs by reference to objects (the receivers).

So “Ich entwende Dir die Freundin.” Entwenden indicates a process of transfer of some sort to/from someone; that relation is indicated by Dative. The thing being transferred can’t stand in Nominative (since it’s not the Subject), hence it stands in “the next best thing”, which is Accusative.

Albrecht Von Der Lieth

Put crudely, that object gets the Dative that is needed to establish the process as one of transferring and clarify its direction. So keeping with the example of stealing: “Ich stehle Dir den Stift.”, it is not the pen that indicates that something is being transferred, nor the direction of the transfer. You could substitute “Gute Laune” (a state of affairs) for Stift (an object) without any changes to the grammar: “Die Vorstellung stielt/raubt Dir die gute Laune”. That stehlen/rauben establish a relation between Ich and Du (Dir), however, do establish the transfer. So those get Nominative and Dative, respectively, the pen/the gute Laune, as the object being transferred, get the Akkusative.

Derek
Derek

You’ve lost me I’m afraid way over my head. Why not write a fairly long paragraph and highlight the words within the paragraph in black that are cases.

Then write the same.paragraph again only this time highlight the cases in their various colours.

Would this help me identify what cases actually are and what the verb does to them and would patterns appear in the paragraph ?

Many thanks.

Derek
Derek

Or what are the comparisons ?

Ich vertraue dir in the text is dative.

What would it look like if it was accusitive so that I can get my head around the difference ?

Derek
Derek

Ah, Wiki hepled me out…

The Case is the THE part of the noun and it changes depending on what is being said

der Seemann (nominative) “the sailor” [as a subject] (e.g. Der Seemann steht da – the sailor is standing there)
den Seemann (accusative) “the sailor” [as a direct object] (e.g. Ich sah den Seemann” – I saw the sailor)
des Seemannes (genitive) “the sailor’s / [of] the sailor” (e.g. Der Name des Seemannes ist Otto – the sailor’s name is Otto)
dem Seemann(e) (dative) “[to/for] the sailor” [as an indirect object] (e.g. Ich gab dem Seemann ein Geschenk – I gave a present to the sailor)

Is it always der, den, des and dem when the nominative is der ? What would the accusitive,genetive and dative of the nominative Das boot change to for example ?

Also do the pronouns change ?

I, me, mine, myself, she, her, hers,he,him,his herself, we, us, ours and ourselves. What would these change to.

So Ich vertraue dir could have been misinterpreted as ich vertraue dich, du, ihr, euch, Sie or Ihnen ?

Am I getting a better understanding of it ?

Many Thanks.

pratik zanzad
pratik zanzad

Hi,

Thank you again for such a wonderful explanation. But I would like to criticize that compared to your other blogs, I would say this one does not live up to the expectation. I hope you take this in a positive sense.

Also I have a question regarding double accusative.
I understood the verb fragen takes double accusative. What about the verb stellen? I am confused in following two examples

1. Der Stift liegt auf dem Tisch.
2. Ich stelle den Stift auf den Tisch.

I understand why the Tisch in 1st sentence is in dativ
I understand that Stift should be in accusative in the second sentence because action is being performed on the Stift. But why the Tisch is not in dativ case but in accusative? Does stellen also take double accusativ?