Accusative and Dative explained

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.


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).


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,
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.

4.8 43 votes
Article Rating

for members :)

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments