and welcome to another episode of our German is Easy Learn German online course, specifically, the module on everyone’s favorite aspects of German grammar:
And just in case you came through Google… of course nothing has changed about them in 2023.
Just used this headline as clickbait :).
But be happy, because this site is actually a goldmine of information, not just on German cases, but on all kind of things German.
We already took a more general look at what cases are and how they work in different languages in the first article in this module.
It’s a bit theoretical, but I really recommend reading it, because having this background helps a LOT and cases are less intimidating.
So if you want to check that out, you can find it here:
In a nutshell, cases are a way to mark the function or role of an element in a sentence. You can theoretically mark all kinds of roles, like “time” or “destination” or “reason” and so on.
“Understanding” German cases means knowing what role they each usually mark in a sentence, and that’ll get you the correct case about 80% of the time. The rest being “Meeeh… it’s just idiomatic that way.”
Now, technically, there are four cases in German. Here they are together with their old Indian tribe names, because they actually knew what’s up:
- the Nominative (aka “He who does things”)
- the Accusative (aka “He who’s the second best choice”)
- the Dative (aka “He who gets things”)
- the Genitive (aka “He who owns things”)
Now, four sounds quite a lot, but in as you’ll see, it’s really only two.
Because as we’ll see the Nominative is the default case anyway, and the Genitive… well, it’s kind of useless, at least for beginners.
The real challenging ones are Accusative and Dative, but that’s really not that bad.
In this series, we’ll look at the role of each case and ALSO we’ll talk about some differences between German and English with how it uses ITS own cases, or whatever is left of them.
But before we start look, there is one CRUCIAL distinction we need to learn.
Picking Cases – The Two Different Systems
As sentence consists of two main ingredients… the action (represented by the verbs) and entities (beings, things) that are involved in the action.
Entities can be represented by nouns (with their articles) or names or pronouns.
- Do you see the tree?
Yes, I see it.
All the words in bold represent an entity.
Now, in German (and also in English), if you want to insert a word for an entity into a sentence, there are two ways to do that… you can put it in directly, or you can connect it using a preposition.
- Thomas puts the book on the table.
Either of the two ways comes with “case requirements” in German. So you need to pick a case if you put in the element directly, and you need a case if you connect the element via preposition.
But the rules for which case to pick are COMPLETELY INDEPENENDENT for these two ways.
So the rules what case to use after a preposition have NOTHING(!!!!) to do with the rules we use when putting in stuff directly.
It is absolutely crucial that you understand this.
Let’s take the example we just had and put in German
- Thomas legt das Buch auf den Tisch.
Both, das Buch and den Tisch are Accusative but the reasoning for the choices have ZERO to do with each other.
So we’ll discuss the two “worlds” separate from each other, and this article focuses completely on the direct branch, that DOESN’T involve prepositions, and deal with the prepositions in a separate article.
So anything you learn here… it does NOT apply to elements with a preposition.
And with that out of the way, let’s get to the cases, and we’ll start with the most basic one of them … the Boringative…oh… I mean Nominative.
Nominative – The Doer of Things
And the Nominative is actually kind of like the default factory setting of a word.
Words in the dictionary are ALREADY in nominative case.
- der Tisch
- die Wand
So in a way, you don’t really have to put words into Nominative, as they’re already in it. You can just leave them as they are.
But of course the big question is still when we can leave the words as they are.
What role does the Nominative mark?
Well… the Nominative is for the element that answers the question:
“Who or what is doing XYZ?”
Or in grammatical terms… the subject.
Let’s do an example
- [I] sleep [the entire day].
- [Ich] schlafe [den ganzen Tag].
This one is really easy but let’s do it anyway. There are two elements in the sentence besides the verb: I and the entire day.
to find the subject, we ask the question “Who or what is sleeping?”
And the answer is clearly “ich/I”, so that’s the subject and we need Nominative. And mind you… we do NOT need to change anything because Nominative is the factory setting anyway.
Here’s another one:
- [On the weekend], [the woman] goes dancing [with her friends].
- [Am Wochenende] geht [die Frau][mit ihren Freunden] tanzen.
Here, we have a few elements, actually. But only one of them answers the question “Who or what is going dancing?” – the woman. So that’s the subject and in German it is in Nominative.
This is pretty clear so far, I think, and it’s usually not a problem to find the subject of a sentence.
But there are a couple of noteworthy differences between German and English.
Nominative – What to watch out for
First up, word order.
In English, in the vast majority of instances, the subject comes right before the verb.
That is NOT the case in German, so you can NOT use word order to identify it.
- Yesterday, I went to the store.
- Gestern bin ich zum Laden gegangen.
Here, the subject in German comes AFTER the verb, and while many textbooks call this “iNvErSiOn”, making it sound like it’s just a slight modification of how it works in English, that is NOT how German really works. The subject in German tends to be somewhat close to the verb, but it absolutely doesn’t have to be.
- Den Film hat mir vor drei Wochen schon meine Schwester empfohlen.
- My sister recommended this movie to me already three weeks ago.
The subject here, the one doing the recommending, is my sister and as you can see it’s in a completely different spot than in English.
Extremes like this are not the norm, but they do exist and people do write and talk that way in German. Why that works and what exactly is achieved with such an order is too much for us today. If you’re interested in it, you can check out my series on Word Order… that’ll be quite the eye opener, I promise you :).
But yeah… don’t figure out the subject based on where it is. Stick with the “who or what is doing XYZ” question.
The other thing that’s notably different between German and English is how the languages treat stuff like this
- You are taller than I/me.
- You’re slowly becoming me.
- It is I/me.
Two elements connected by the verb to be.
English is very much undecided about this stuff. In spoken there is an undeniable tendency toward using “me”, which basically amounts to using a case. But there are also loads of people arguing it should be “It is I” because that’s proper grammar, to which the other side then responds by saying they’re just Latin fanboys who want English to have grammar aspects that it doesn’t really have.
I don’t know who’s right (and I don’t care), but German absolutely uses Nominative for both elements.
- Du bist größer als ich.
- You’re taller than me.
I know that it’s tempting for English native speaker to use mich here in German, simply because it sounds similar to English but it is REALLY wrong. Like… for real. It sounds really really confusing.
And unlike English, German is really consistent with this, and doesn’t only use this “Nominative on both sides” for the verb sein but also for werden (to become) and bleiben (to stay).
- 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
So in these examples, we have TWO elements in Nominative. Which is great, because remember… you don’t really have to “put” something into Nominative. Using Nominative just means leaving things as they are.
Let’s do a little test…
- That was my favorite song.
What case do we need for “that” and for “favorite song” in German?
Exactly… Nominative for both. Because that’s just how German deals with these “labels”.
- It is I/me.
English is still debating what to use here, but German is clear about it… do you need mich or ich?
Exactly, ich… because both sides are in Nominative.
Oh and now that I mentioned this example… that’s actually kind of a special case in German, because in German it would be
- It’s me.
- Ich bin es. (or “Ich bin’s” for short)
Es ist ich… NOPE!
It’s a bit too much for beginners maybe, so if you feel a little overwhelmed don’t worry about it.
The main two takeaways are that Nominative marks the subject, the element that answers to “Who or what does XYZ?”.
And it’s also the default case, so anything in a dictionary has Nominative form already.
So now let’s move on to the next case on our list – the Genitive. Which is even less interesting and less useful than Nominative, especially for a beginner.
“…and even less less for someone who isn’t learning German at all.”
Uh… yeah… hey Cpt. Obvious, nice to see you again.
I have my name because I say things that are obvious.”
Yes, thanks, we know that.
So, Genitive next, but before we get to that, let’s actually recap what we learned so far with a little quiz :)
And now, it’s time for… the owner of things.
Genitive – The owner of Things
The Genitive case kind of exists in English too, and its signature “move” is the famous ‘s.
- Maria’s pancakes’ taste sucks (no offense Maria, just my opinion).
And of course the role or function that Genitive marks is possession.
It’s not the ONLY way to indicate possession, though.
- my bike
This expresses possession but it is NOT done by Genitive but instead by the possessive pronoun my.
Genitive is added to nouns in English to express that they’re the “owner” of something.
- my bike’s tire
THIS is a Genitive of “bike” and it marks that bike is “owner” of tire. Not really, of course, but you get the idea.
Now, the German Genitive is ALSO about possession, so in that regard German and English are the same.
However, the mechanics AND also the use in practice are different!
As we’ve seen, English marks the noun.
German marks noun AND article.
- my bike – my bike’s tire
- mein Fahrrad – meines Fahrrads Rad
And here we can see the first difference – German Genitive does NOT use an apostrophe.
- my bike‘s
- meines Fahrrads
This is really just a spelling convention but I believe English actually does it because it also marks the plural with s. German has… a few more options for the plural, let’s put it that way :).
Now, the apostrophe is not the only difference.
German Genitive is more flexible in terms of word order.
- meines Fahrrads Rad (my bike’s tire)
- das Rad meines Fahrrads (the tire of my bike)
In version two, English does NOT use Genitive anymore but instead uses a different method of expressing possession – the of-way.
But in German, version two is completely fine and in fact, it’s WAY more idiomatic than the first one.
The first one actually sounds super ancient and poetic in German and no one talks like that anymore.
- My phone’s battery sucks.
- Meines Handys Akku ist scheiße…. mein König.
This really is not idiomatic at all.
- Der Akku meines Telefons ist scheiße.
This one is better, but it STILL sounds fairly stilted.
Because in daily life, German doesn’t use the Genitive much at all.
Instead, the far more common way to express possession is the equivalent of the English of-approach. Which in German is done with von.
- Der Akku von meinem Handy…
Now, in colloquial speech there are a few more alternatives like
- Mein Handy sein Akku ist scheiße.
or this gem
- Mein Handy ihm sein Akku ist scheiße.
But that is REALLY colloquial. Like… do NOT use it because it will make you sound stupid. I do use it for fun… but you really should not.
Anyway, the version with von is super idiomatic and some people have even given it a new case name (as a joke): the Vonative. If you want you could drop that in German class some day like “Oh yeah, that’s a Vonnativ.”
Your teacher might be really confused but then he or she will find it funny and make you pass the exam.
Seriously though… this von-way is MUCH more common than the actual Genitive and a lot of times where English would use the Genitive ‘s, German would use von in daily life.
- My bike’s tire…
- The tire of my bike..
Both are idiomatic in English, but in German it’s different.
- Meines Fahrrads Rad…
- Das Rad meines Fahrrads…
- Das Rad von meinem Fahrrad…
The first version, which is the one that seems closest to English, sounds absolutely theatrical and no one talks that way.
The second version sounds quite formal and stiff, and the third version is what most people would use.
So, you really won’t need the Genitive all that much, at least not until you’re B2 and start using fancy prepositions that want it.
And that’s a good thing, actually, because the Genitive is the most difficult case of all in German. Not in terms of understanding the concept but in terms of putting it in practice.
The endings are the most complex, most annoying to pronounce (at least for Germans) and many nouns will carry endings, too.
Now, some Germans say that the Genitive is on its way out. There’s actually a somewhat famous book that has that idea in the title. I’m not gonna name it because I don’t like the work of Sebastian Sick. He’s a prescriptionist who likes telling people how to talk and I do not like that. I’m more on the “Let language evolve”-camp.
But anyway… what about the Genitive? Is it really dying out and being replaced by Dative?
Is Genitive disappearing
I would say… NO!
Genitive is not disappearing, it is just gradually switching jobs. Or let’s say… departments.
It is a fancy case now and it doesn’t want to bother with the every day crap like “my dog’s poo”… let “von” do that.
Genitive focuses on “higher” things. Newspapers and books are actually full of it. There, 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 (for more on that one, check the links below).
And it will happen to anstatt, which is currently still kind of demanding Genitive but cracks are appearing and Dative starts creeping in.
If you want to write proper German you WILL have to deal with the Genitive eventually.
But for a beginner it is definitely a waste of time.
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.
The only time when the von-way really can’t help you is for the verbs that WANT to go with Genitive.
But those are fancy verbs like harren or sich entsinnen. As I said… you’ll need it in B2. But NOT in A2.
So… skip the Genitive, cut the column from the tables, and focus all your energy on the two cases that REALLY matter… the Dative and the Accusative. Which is what we’ll talk about in part two :)
As usual, 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.
Wanna read right on about Dative and Accusative? Just go here:
Oh and 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.
- The box model – a gate to German sentence structure
- Two Way Prepositions Explained
- wegen – Genitive or Dative