and welcome to another episode of our German is Easy Learn German online course. And today is a big day because we’ll take on:
So the question most learners have about cases is
“How can I know which case to use? It’s soo confusing.”
The solution however is really really simple. Just check out the question. If you’d ask “Wen?” then it’s going to be Accusative or as we also call it … “wen-Fall”. If you’d ask “wem?” then it’s Dative (or Wem-Fall), for Genitive it’s wessen? and for Nominative it’s wer? Let’s do an example.
- I forgive him.
To forgive is vergeben (away-idea of the ver-prefix, anyone?). Now which case do we have to use this time. Well… let’s look at the question and find out.
- Wem vergebe ich?
SHA – BAAAAAMS. It’s Dative. Now, is that a kick ass system or what?
“But, Emanuel, I don’t know which question to ask in the fir…”
No,no,no… stop being so overly negative. It is really simple.
Okay… of course I am kidding. This approach works for German kids when they have to determine the case of a thing in school. Because they are native speakers and they KNOW what case to use, they just don’t know the name.
For a German learner however, this “explanation” makes NO SENSE at all.
Why am I bringing it up then?
Well, some Germans might try and use that to explain cases to you which is normal because for them it works and they are not teachers. Just tell ’em it doesn’t work or, if they insist that it is simple, just nod and say “Ach so” “Aha:”. But if a teacher ever does it… well… have a nap. Or check your Facebook. Or ask your neighbor out on a date. Lot’s of options. Feeling stupid is not one of them.
Now, can cases be explained in a way that actually makes sense. Hell yes.
And while we wait for the perfect explanation to come out, let’s see how close we can get to that here :)
We have already talked about cases in general – what they are and how they work in different languages so if you want to check this out first to get some background then go here.
Today, we’ll look at the lame cases, Nominative and Genitive, and save the really interesting ones, Accusative and Dative, for part two. And we’ll start with some essentials.
When do we use cases… like… in general
A German sentence basically consists of an action, represented by one or a bunch of verbs and a number of what I call boxes. The “box-model” is a really helpful tool for understanding sentence structure and word order. We’ve talked about it in detail in this article, but I#ll tell you the basic idea real quick.
A box is basically a container that contains the answer to one specific question about the action… like why?, when?, what? and of course who?
Inside such a box can be just one word or a full side sentence. A when-box for example could contain just the word yesterday but also the phrase after I got home from a long, exhausting day at the office.
The next thing to understand is that there are different kinds of words. One group are the words that stand for things or persons. Tree is such a word, and so is wish. But also I, you, he or it, because they stand for some entity (thing or person) from the real world.
And now comes the crucial point: those words for things and persons – whenever you want to put them into your sentence, into a box, you have to put them in a case.
“To put it in a box you have to put it in a case”
Box, case.. that kind of fits :). What this sentence basically means is that EVERYTHING is in a case. Something can not NOT be in a case. Ugh, so annoying.
Now, luckily German (and most case-languages, I believe) cuts us some slack. Because one case comes pre-installed – the nominative.
Nominative is like the default factory setting of a word. Words in the dictionary are in nominative case.
- der Tisch, die Wand, die Studenten, ich, du
Those are not in “no case”. Those are in Nominative case. You don’t really “put” a word into nominative case, you just leave it as it is.
Now, when can we do that? When can we leave things in Nominative?
Well, ONLY the items in one box are allowed to stay in Nominative … the who-box, or in German wer-box. That’s the box that ans.. hey what’s so funny back there? Why are you laughing…. What?… what about full moon and being careful?… oh… wer-box like wer-wolfe, huh? How funny. Please, you’re distracting the rest of the people with that nonsense.
So, the wer-box is the box that answers the question who? as in who does it?
And I think many of you will be with the grammatical term for it: the subject. The subject stays in Nominative case. Anything that isn’t the subject, doesn’t. Let’s look at a sentence with lots of stuff in it.
- [Meine Schwester] hat [ich] an [der Montag] [der Stift] auf [der Tisch] gelegt.
- On [Monday], my sister put [the pen] on [the table] for [I].
All the words that represent things or persons from the real world are in  and they are all in the default nominative case. However, my sister is the only one that can stay in Nominative, because she is the subject. She does the laying down. All the rest has to be put in some other case. Which one? We’ll get to that later.
Let’s do some mroe examples. All the stuff is in nominative but only the subject is rightfully so…. (so the red stuff is WRONG.)
- [Ich] schlafe [der ganze Tag]. (I do the sleeping)
- [I] sleep all day.
- [Die Frau] geht an [das Wochenende] gern mit [ihre Freunde] tanzen.
- [The woman] likes to go dancing [with friends] [on weekends].
- [Das Fahrrad] hat [ein Platter].
- [The bike] has [a flat tire]
Now of course there can be more than one thing acting as subject.
- [Thomas und seine Freundin] essen [Thunfisch].
There is still only one subject box and the persons and things in that box remain in Nominative.
All right. Now what about this…
- [Steve] ist [ein Idiot].
Steve (a completely random name chosen for example purposes) is clearly the subject here, so he can be in Nominative. Idiot certainly is a word for something from the real world but it is NOT the subject so based on what we’ve learned so far it should change into a different case. And yet, it is in Nominative too. This is a curiosity that often trips up students. It’s true demon name is Prädikatsnomi___ but we must not utter it in full lest it come for us. The true name has the power to summon it, you know. So we’ll just call it. .. weird assignment thing.
The verb isn’t really about what Steve does. Maybe he does nothing but sit in the office and scratches his belly. It is about what he is. Maybe he’s the fraternity buddy of some network executive, or just an idiot. Either way, the sentence is just an assignment… kind of like an equation. Steve = idiot.
In fact, in Arabian you wouldn’t even necessarily say a verb there. You would just say
But anyway,so for these sort of equations, German uses Nominative for both sides and that is also true for a few verbs that kind of group around to be…
- Maria wird mal eine gute Mutter.
- Maria will be a good mother.
- Thomas bleibt ein guter Sänger.
- Thomas remains/stays/will always be a good singer.
There are a couple more (sich fühlen als – to feel as, sich erweisen als to turn out as) but sein, werden and bleiben are really the important ones.
Now, I don’t really know why it is that way. I works the other way, too as we can see in English. In fact, English is kind of in the midst of figuring out what it wants.
Predicate nominative, no predicate nominative… there is heated debate about that :)
- It was I/me who stole the eggs.
Some people will claim that I is correct and me is heresy because it is predicate nominative here. Other people will say that this “It was I” -stuff was invented by some 18th century Latin-hugging grammarians and that English doesn’t have a predicate nominative at all. I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong but German goes all out on its predicate nominative. In German we say all of the following things:
- You become I.
- He was I.
- She am taller than I.
And never would anyone say me(mich) … ever. And it doesn’t matter what the role is in a second part of the sentence. German keeps its activities separated by commas and the grammar for one activity solely depends on the activity itself… not on other parts of the sentence. And using a mich or mir instead of I would make the whole phrase almost not understandable. It is really really a huge ass mistake.
- It was me whom you’ve seen.
- Es war mich, den du gesehen hast… WRONG!!
- Es war ich, den du gesehen hast.
- It was I whom you’ve seen.(lit.)
Basically… whenever there is an assignment like this going on… German uses double the predicate you know who.
All right.And that’s it for the Nominative. It is the default case and it’s reserved for the subject of a sentence, the box that answers to “Who does it?”.
The rest has to dress up in a different case as soon as it want to be part of a sentence. It might be Accusative, it might be Dative and it might be Genitive although the Genitive is a bit special and not all that useful for a beginner,
“…and even less for someone who isn’t learning German at all”…
Oh hey Cpt. Obvious, nice to see you again.
“I have my name because I say things that are obvious.”
Yes, thanks, we know that. Can you also tell us an obvious method to pick the right case for all the stuff that is not allowed to remain in Nominative? Cpt. Obvious? I asked you a question? Hmm… he’s gone.
How to pick the right case – one HUGE distinction
Let’s take the sentence we had earlier… the one with lots of stuff in it.
- [Meine Schwester] hat [ich] an [der Montag] [der Stift] auf [der Tisch] gelegt.
- On [Monday], my sister put [the pen] on [the table] for [I].
We already know that sister is fine in Nominative because she is the subject and we also know that all the [rest] has to be in some other cases. Now, if we want to find that out we need to distinguish between two cases…. I mean… situations. That there are two ways in which those words that stand for things or person can be put into a sentence, or better a box… some can be put in directly or by using a preposition that connects it…. you know… little words like at, to or for. Which way works when for which element depends on the verb. It has nothing to do with the real world roles.
- I am awaiting a tea.
- I am waiting for a tea.
So… those are the 2 ways. They exist in English as well as in German but sometimes English uses the prep-way when German uses the direct way and vice versa.
Now, which way is used in German makes a tremendous difference how a thing or person is put in.
Because there are 2 distinct set of case-rules for each way, heck, Dative and Accusative even have a distinct core idea for each way and those rules and ideas have NOTHING to do with each other. They are actually contradictory in part. So the first thing you need to do is ask yourself this: Is there a preposition involved. If so, you check the preposition rules. If no, go for the other rules. And don’t try to find a common ground. You will fail. There is one aspect in which the 2 ways are really 100% contradictory. But we’ll get to that.
Now, the preposition rule set has its difficulties but for the most part, it is just brute force rules.
- mit, bei, von, zu, aus, seit, ab (and 1652 rare ones) – always Dative
- bis, durch, für, gegen, ohne, um (and 543 rare ones) – always Accusative
And always means always. No questions asked. No deeper meaning. No underlying logic. There is none. Just learn it and use it. There are also some that need Genitive but those are kind of rare… I couldn’t even get a hold of one for an example.
The tricky part about this set of rules are the prepositions that work with both, Accusative and Dative. There is some logic and a core idea for each case behind that but you have to think really abstract sometimes. But it would be too much to get into that today so let’s just move on.
The other set is for the stuff that is put in directly. And that is what we’ll focus on for the rest of this. We will ignore all the stuff that is behind prepositions.
- Meine Schwester hat [ich???] a[m Montag] [ein Stift???] auf [den Tisch] gelegt.
We ignore Monday and table because they are preceded by a preposition. We care about the case of the stuff put in directly. And that depends… surprise surprise … mainly on the verb or what it stands for. But… for Genitive it is really just the verb.
The Genitive case exists in English too and it is pretty obvious by its s.
- Mom’s pancakes’ taste’s complexity is unparalleled.
That is Genitive of mom, pancakes and taste... not of complexity.
Genitive expresses possession. But not everything indicating possession is automatically a Genitive.
- my car
My indicates possession but it is not Genitive. My is a possessive pronoun and it doesn’t have a Genitive form in English. In German, it does.
- mein Auto – Nominative
- meines Autos – Genitive
German and English Genitive share the same idea but the don’t share the same mechanics. English marks the noun, German marks noun AND article. The German Genitive element, so the person or thing who owns something can be put before and after the possessed thing.
- meines Fahrrads Rad…
- my bike’s tire…
- das Rad meines Fahrrads
- the tire of my bike…
And while the first version is totally okay in English most of the time, it sounds super ancient and poetic in German. No one talks like that anymore.
- My IPhone’s battery sucks.
- Meines IPhones Akku ist scheiße…. mein König.
This is just funny … unless you need to make a call.
- Der Akku meines Iphones…
This is okay. But for daily purposes even this is a bit too fancy. German has come up with quite a number of alternatives one of which pretty much resembles the English of-approach.
- Der Akku von meinem Iphone…
- (Mein IPhone sein Akku)….
The second version is highly colloquial, grammatically wrong and funny but the first one is super common and accepted in daily speech. Some people have even given it a new case name (as a joke) … the Vonative. You might want to drop that in German class… like.. “Oh yeah, that’s a Vonnativ.”You’re teacher might be really confused but then he or she will find it funny and make you pass the exam.
And you should go with the Vonnativ. It is a save bet. It always works and in quite a few occasions a real Genitive would sound a little scripted. And what about the pan cake example? Can I really use 3 Vonnatives in a row?
- Die Komplexität von dem Geschmack von den Pfannkuchen von meiner Mutter …
Well, it is maybe stylistically not the most beautiful thing ever said but 3 pure Genitives in a row is a little heavy too.
- Die Komplexität des Geschmacks der Pfannkuchen meiner Mutter ist…
Now that is true Genitive… it hurts the eye as much as it hurts the brain to build it. Seriously, the Genitive is the most difficult case of all in German. Not the most difficult when it comes to understanding the concept but the most difficult when it comes to putting it in practice. The endings are the most complex,many nouns will carry endings and above all … you never know if it is even idiomatic to use it.
Some say that Genitive is dying out. That is not true. Genitive just gradually switches jobs. It is a fancy case and it doesn’t want to bother with the every day crap like “my dog’s poo”… let the Vonnative do it… or some other weird ways.
Genitive focuses on higher things. Newspapers and books are full of it. It connects important sounding nouns and whenever a new preposition is born… Genitive will be its nanny for the first few decades until Dative takes over. I am not kidding. That happened to wegen. And it will happen to anstatt.
If you want to write proper German you will have to learn the Genitive eventually. But for a beginner it is definitely a waste of time. The Vonnative.. oh god, I keep calling it that, please… don’t forget, it’s just a joke name… so … the von-way can express all you need to express about possession without making you sound stupid. So go for that and let the Genitive slowly trickle into your system while you deal with more important stuff.
Now, the one thing the von-way can’t help you with is when the verb demands Genitive. What? Verbs do that? Yes. Some do. For instance harren… or sich entsinnen. Never heard of them? That’s because they are rare. I can’t think of one verb you would REALLY need in your active, daily vocabulary that wants Genitive.
And if you have one… well, you’ll just have to learn the case with it. It is not just sich entsinnen but sich einer Sache entsinnen... which is a kind of remembering by the way. There is no deeper sense why it is Genitive and not a different case. It just grew that way.
All right… and that’s it for today. We’ll save the other two for next time. I told you it would only be the boring stuff, didn’t I :).
If you have any questions or suggestions about what we’ve said so far, go ahead and leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time. Either with part 2 or with noch... your call.
Wanna read right on about Dative and Accusative?
To give you a little inside into crazy German… here’s the pancake example again … this time with the highly colloquial alternative for Genitive. It looks random but it is correct within its wrongness. Goethe would have cried.
- Meine Mutter ihr seine Pfannkuchen den ihr Geschmack ihm seine Komplexität ist unerreicht.