What Are Grammatical Cases?

Today we're going to learn about German cases. Just in CASE you were wondering what a case is and what it has to do with German, this article is for you. Travelers have suitcases 🧳, business people have briefcases 💼, the police have cold cases 👮‍♀️, and you, lucky German learner, you have grammatical cases 😉.

Have you ever wondered what a case is and what it has to do with German? Then this is the right post for you! Grammatical cases can be a tough topic for many learners, but don't be afraid! The grammar fairy ("die Grammatik-Fee") is here to teach you all of them...

Puppy with a fairy costume

Unsere deutsche Grammatik-Fee bringt dir die 4 deutschen Fälle bei.  
(Our German grammar fairy will teach you the 4 German cases.)  

So... What is a grammatical case?

grammatical case tells us what a word, or group of words does in a sentence.

And, by using fancy words like Nominative, Genitive, Dative and Accusative, we are referring to certain cases. 

Before we get lost in details, I’ll give you a few examples of what I mean by “the role a word plays in a sentence.” 

  1. Der Mann ist groß. (The man is tall.) - Nominative case 
  2. Ich sehe den Mann. (I see the man.) - Accusative case 
  3. Ich helfe dem Mann. (I'm helping the man.) - Dative case 
  4. Ich füttere den Hund des Mannes. (I feed the man's dog.) - Genitive case


As you can see, we have the noun “Mann” in each of the sentences, but we use different cases because the man has different functions ("plays different roles") in the examples. It can be:

  • the subject of the sentence
  • the Accusative object of the sentence (often the "direct" object in an English sentence)
  • the Dative object of the sentence (often the "indirect" object in an English sentence)
  • the possessor of a thing or a characteristic


Don't worry if that doesn't make everything clear yet. In this post, we're going to learn what all of the cases mean, and how to use each one. But first...

Why Do We Need Cases In German?

Cases distinguish the individual words or parts of a sentence from each other, so we can understand their functions and how they relate to each other. It's one of those things that seems unnecessarily difficult from the outside, but is useful once you've gotten used to it. 

If you try to say a sentence in German without applying any grammatical cases, it will be more difficult to understand. So, keep in mind: 

Cases are a necessary part of the German language.

Let’s try it:

Without cases

  • Ich geben die Frau der Schlüssel mein Vater. (I give the woman the key my father.)


With cases

  • Ich gebe der Frau den Schlüssel meines Vaters. (I give my father’s key to the woman.) 

Makes more sense with the grammatical cases, right?


What Are The German Cases?

The four cases are:

If we look at our last example about “father’s key,” we can analyze the sentence and mark all 4 German cases like this:

Illustration of German grammar cases and their uses
A woman is given the keys of a car illustrating the four German cases: Nominative, Dative, Accusative and Genitive.

Ich gebe der Frau den Schlüssel ihres Wagens.

(I'm giving the woman the key of her car.)


Here is what each of the 4 German cases does:

Nominative

This is something like our base camp. All the nouns we find in the dictionary are in the Nominative case. The subject of a sentence is always in the Nominative case. It's the person or thing which performs the action. 

The subject could be a noun, a group of nouns or a pronoun. 

There are magic questions connected to every case. In the Nominative case we ask  Wer” / “Was (who or what) because we want to know who or what is performing the action. Alright, let's try pointing out the subject with a question:

  • Der Junge wirft den Ball. (The boy is throwing the ball.) 

→ Wer wirft den Ball? Der Junge wirft den Ball. (Who's throwing the ball? The boy is throwing the ball.)

  • Der Ball rollt. (The ball rolls.)

Was rollt? Der Ball rollt. (What rolls? The ball rolls.) 

  • Die Mutter holt ihn ab. (The mother picks him up.)

→ Wer holt ihn ab? Die Mutter holt ihn ab. (Who picks him up? The mother picks him up.)

Alright, next step! The Nominative is also easy to determine by looking at the definite and indefinite articles, which don't change at all in this first case of ours. Lucky you!

Let's summarize:

  • The subject of the sentence performs the action and is always in the Nominative case.
  • The definite and indefinite articles don't change in the Nominative case.


Quick suggestion: Always learn new nouns with the respective articles, because with the remaining cases it'll get trickier!

Nominative Case After Certain Verbs

When we talk about German cases, we notice that they are connected to certain verbs. The most important and easiest one to remember is the verb "sein" (to be). This verb will always be followed by something in the Nominative case!

  • Das ist eine Banane. (This is a banana.) 
  • Das ist meine Großmutter. (This is my grandmother.)


There are also other verbs that require the Nominative case. Let's look at a few examples:

  • bleiben (to stay): Ein Hund bleibt immer dein Freund. (A dog stays your friend forever.)
  • werden (to become): Sie wird eine reiche Ärztin werden. (She will become a rich doctor.)
  • heißen (to be called): Das heißt süßer Apfel” auf Deutsch. (This is called “süßer Apfel” in German). 
  • scheinen (to seem): Sie scheint eine gute Lehrerin zu sein. (She seems to be a good teacher.)
Someone biting into a sweet apple, illustrating the use of Nominative adjective ending in "süßer" (sweet) after the German verb "heißen".

Lecker, das scheint ein süßer Apfel zu sein!

(Yummy, that seems to be a sweet apple!)


We use the Nominative case after certain verbs.


The Nominative Case With Adjectives

German cases also affect the adjective endings. Let's look at the table and then check out the individual adjectives step by step.


grid showing the German declension of adjectives in the Nominative case after definite article, indefinite artice, negative and possessive article


  • Er ist ein netter Vater. (He's a nice father.)

→ You see that the adjective has the same ending as the masculine definite article der. Cool, isn't it?

  • Stefanie ist eine gute Mutter. (Stefanie is a good mother.)

→ Here we also have the same ending in the adjective as the feminine article die

  • Das ist ein nettes Kind. (This is a nice child.)

→ And as you can see, the adjective has the ending "-s" just like the article das.

  • Das sind nette Eltern. (These are nice parents.) 

→ This adjective ending is the same as the plural definite article die.

Want to learn even more about the Nominative case? You can also check out Anja's video below:


Accusative

The object in the Accusative case is often the same as the "direct object" in an English sentence. But most of us don't remember what that means, even if we covered it in English class. There's an easier way to remember when to use the Accusative case and that is to know the verbs and prepositions that are followed by this case

Before we jump to the verbs and prepositions, take a look at the articles to see how they change from the Nominative to the Accusative case. 

grid showing declination of definite and indefinite articles with their corresponding nouns in the German Nominative and Accusative cases

Verbs That Need The Accusative

The good news is that almost all verbs followed by an object take them in the Accusative case. That simplifies things a little, but let's take one step at a time.

Let's practice some verbs with the Accusative. For this exercise we'll take a masculine noun der Apfel (the apple), as only the masculine articles change in the Accusative

  • sehen (to see): Ich sehe einen Apfel. (I see an apple.)
  • kaufen (to buy): Ich kaufe den Apfel. (I'm buying the apple.)
  • haben (to have): Ich habe den Apfel. (I have the apple.) 
  • essen (to eat): Ich esse den Apfel. (I'm eating the apple.)


Watch this video to learn the most common German verbs followed by the Accusative case. Enjoy!


Prepositions That Take The Accusative

Some prepositions are followed by the Accusative case only. You can use the funny acronym DOGFUB to remember them. 

  • durch (through): Wir fahren durch den Tunnel. (We drive through the tunnel.) 
  • ohne (without): Ich gehe ohne dich. (I go without you.)
  • gegen (against): Sie lehnt sich gegen den Baum. (She leans against the tree.)
  • für (for): Die Kerze ist für dich. (The candle is for you.)
  • um (around): Sie läuft um den Baum. (She walks around the tree.)
  • bis (until): Bis nächsten Sonntag! (See you next Sunday!)


Dog running around a tree, illustrating the use of Accusative case after the preposition "um" (around).

Mein Hund rennt um einen Baum.

(My dog is running around a tree.)


So far so good. Let's now turn to the so-called Wechselpräpositionen (Two-Way Prepositions), that sometimes need the Accusative and sometimes need the Dative case. 

overview of prepositions showing all prep that are followed by the German Accusative on the left, by the German Dative on the right, and the so-called Two-Way Prepositions where they merge in the middle

When do we use which case though? The answer is pretty simple: 

ACcusative for ACtivity 
So whenever you have a movement from point A to point B you can use the two-way preposition with the Accusative. You can also ask the magic question "Wohin?" (where to?).

Let's take a look at some examples by using a masculine noun again.

  • unter (under): Die Katze läuft unter den Tisch. (The cat walks under the table.) 
  • hinter (behind): Die Katze läuft hinter den Tisch. (The cat walks behind the table.)
  • auf (on): Die Katze springt auf den Tisch. (The cat jumps on the table.)


Want a full dive into the Accusative case? A post on the two-way prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen) is currently in the making.

Cat jumping on a table, illustrating the use of Accusative after a verb of movement and the preposition "auf" (on top of).

Die Katze springt auf den Tisch. Und dann... 

(The cat is jumping on the table. And then ...)


Check out Anja's video on the "Two-Way Prepositions":

Dative

The Dative case compares to an "indirect" object in an English sentence. Again, this might sound a bit abstract for you, but it's good to mention. It means that it's something like a passive receiver in our sentence. At this point, there are a few important things to keep in mind.

  • The Dative case is used after certain verbs and prepositions.
  • The same is true of the Accusative case. 
  • Some of the prepositions can be used with either case depending on the context.


The Dative is a bit trickier than the Accusative, because we have more changes in the articles. It's a good idea to learn new nouns along with the respective articles in order to avoid major confusion when it comes to learning new cases.

Let's start again by looking how the Dative case affects our articles compared to the Nominative case.

grid showing declination of definite and indefinite articles with their corresponding nouns in the German Nominative and Dative cases

Verbs That Take The Dative

You probably remember that most of the verbs need the Accusative and only a few verbs are followed by the Dative case. We'll practice some of the most common verbs together with the Dative case.

  • antworten (to answer): Wir antworten dem Lehrer. (We answer the teacher.) 
  • danken (to thank): Wir danken den Personen. (We thank the people.)
  • gehören (to belong to): Der Hund gehört dem Nachbarn. (The dog belongs to the neighbor.)


Do you want to know the 30 most important Dative verbs? Then watch the video below! You can also read up on the 30 most important Dative verbs in our post.


Prepositions That Take The Dative
There are a bunch of prepositions that only ever use the Dative case—no exceptions. However, there are also our two-way prepositions which can go with either the Dative or the Accusative. But let's start simple and look at those that only use the Dative case. 

  • mit (with) - Wir fahren mit dem Auto. - (We are driving the car.)
  • nach (after) - Nach der Arbeit gehen wir spazieren. - (After work we go for a walk.)
  • von (from) - Das Geschenk ist von meiner Mutter. (The present is from my mother.)
  • seit  (since) - Seit dem Abendessen habe ich Bauchschmerzen. (I have had a stomach ache since dinner.)
  • aus (from) - Er kommt aus der Schweiz. - (He's from Switzerland.)
  • zu (to) - Die Frau geht zum Arzt. (zu + dem = zum) - (The woman goes to the doctor.)
  • bei (at) - Sie wohnt bei meinem Nachbarn. - (She lives at my neighbor’s.)
  • ab (from) - Ab dem ersten September. - (From the first of September.)
  • außer (except) -Alle sprechen Deutsch außer mir. (Everybody speaks German except me.)
  • gegenüber (across) - Wir wohnen gegenüber dem Park. - (We live across the park.)


I know that you probably won't be able to memorize all these prepositions right away, but don't worry. Take your time, just read and practice them over and over again. Pretty soon, you'll know them all! 

Now, remember our two-way prepositions? We can also use them with the Dative case. And unlike before, now we are dealing with a static, passive situation. You wanna know what the magic question word is? It's "Wo?" (where?).

  • unter (under): Die Katze schläfunter dem Tisch. (The cat is sleeping under the table.) 
  • hinter (behind): Die Katze sitzt hinter dem Tisch. (The cat is sitting behind the table.)
  • auf (on): Die Katze liegt auf dem Tisch. (The cat is lying on the table.)


And, if you want to know everything about the Dative case, we got you covered 😉

And now, to end the Dative part, let's sing a little song about prepositions. Where's the song? I want to sing it! 🎤


Toddler going to the doctor, illustrating the use of Dative after the preposition "zu" (to).

Ok, ich geh' zum Doktor. ...Oh, doch nicht!

(Ok, I'll see the doctor. ...Oh, no I don't!)


Genitive

The fourth German case is the Genitive. We use it when we talk about possession.
In English, we mark possessions easily with an apostrophe or the preposition “of”. In German, we can use a case instead. 

For that, we have to change articles as well as the ending of the noun. Our magic question for the Genitive case is “wessen?” (whose). In spoken language, the Genitive is not very common. Instead, we use the alternative construction von + Dative case

  • The Genitive case marks a possessor of something, someone, or a characteristic.
  •  The Genitive is not very common in spoken German, but it is common in written and formal German.

And now, let's look at the chart to see what changes the Genitive case brings to the articles as well as to the nouns

grid showing declination of definite and indefinite articles with their corresponding nouns in the German Nominative and Genitive cases

As you can see, this case requires more attention than the others, but don't worry, it's not as bad as it looks. Let's look at some examples: 

  • Das ist der Sohn des Lehrers. (This is the teacher's son.) 
  • Der Hund der Frau heißt Schnuppi. (The woman's dog is called Schnuppi.)
  • Die Farbe des Autos ist rot. (The car's color is red.)
  • Die Kinder der Eltern heißen Bibi und Tina. (The parents' kids are called Bibi and Tina.) 

As you see, the noun in the Genitive case is always behind the noun that we are talking about. 

The car's colour is red, illustrating the use of the Genitive case in German.

Die Farbe des Autos ist und bleibt rot.

(The colour of the car is and will stay red.)

Verbs That Take The Genitive

There are a bunch of verbs that requires the Genitive and of course we'll take a look at some of the most common Genitive verbs. 

  • gedenken (to commemorate): Wir gedenken unserer Großmutter. (We commemorate our grandmother.) 
  • erfreuen (to enjoy): Er erfreut sich bester Gesundheit. (He's enjoying excellent health.) 
  • bezichtigen (to accuse): Sie bezichtigen ihn eines Diebstahls. (They accuse him of theft.) 


Smart hint: If you look up verbs in the dictionary and you see the abbreviation "jds" in front of the verb you can be sure that this verb needs the Genitive! The abbreviation jds stands for jemandes (someone's). 

He is enjoying excellent health, illustrating the use of the German Genitive case after the verb "erfreuen" (to enjoy).

Wie man sehen kann, erfreut er sich bester Gesundheit. Ähm... 

(As you can see, he's enjoying excellent health. Er...)


Prepositions That Need The Genitive

There are quite a few prepositions that need the Genitive case. We'll look at some of the most important ones and maybe you already came across some of them on your own. 

  • laut (according): Laut meiner Berechnung ist das korrekt. (According to my calculation this is correct.) 
  • trotz (despite): Trotz schlechten Wetters gehen sie in den Park. (Despite the bad weather they are going to the park.)
  • aufgrund (due to): Aufgrund der Krankheit geht sie nicht in die Schule. (She is not going to school due to her illness.)
  • mithilfe (with the help of): Mithilfe dieser Maschine könnt ihr in die Zukunft reisen. (With the help of this machine you can travel to the future.) 
  • außerhalb (outside of): Außerhalb der Arbeit telefoniert er nicht. (He doesn't talk on the phone outside of his work.) 
  • angesichts (considering): Angesichts der Situation bleibt er zu Hause. (Considering the situation he stays at home.) 
  • dank (thanks to): Dank der neuen Frisur sprachen ihn viele Frauen an. (Thanks to his new hairstyle a lot of women talked to him.)
  • südlich (south of): Südlich der Schweiz liegt Italien. (Italy is south of Switzerland.)

 

With the help of this machine you can travel into the future, illustrating the use of the Genitive case after "mithilfe" (with the help of)

Mithilfe dieser Maschine könnt ihr endlich in die Zukunft reisen. 

(With the help of this maschine you can finally travel into the future.)


Bonus: Hints To Help You Find The Right Case

Before you go, I'd like to give you some smart hints on your way.


There are four simple questions that you can apply to help determine the cases. If you’re able to remember them, you’ll be able to solve the case! 

Question 1: Is There A Preposition That Takes A Certain Case? 

The good news is that many prepositions have a specific case that they’re tied to and if you know that connection, you’ve already got the case.

mit (+ Dative)  

  • Ich fahre mit dem Auto (I'm driving the car.)
  • Er fährt lieber mit dem Fahrrad. (He prefers to ride the bike.)

The bad news is that, as you know, there are also prepositions that go with more than one case, the so-called two-way prepositions. But luckily there are other questions that will help you out.

Question 2: Is There A Verb That Needs A Specific Case? 

There are also verbs that require specific cases.

besuchen (+ Accusative)

  • Ich besuche meinen Vater. (I'm visiting my father.)
  • Seine Enkel besuchen ihn nicht. (His grandkids don't visit him.)


haben (+ Accusative)

  • Ich habe einen Sohn. (I have a son.)
  • Er hat einen Apfel aus Omas Garten. (He's got an apple from granny's garden.)


→ You can find that information in the dictionary. The abbreviation "trans" stands for "transitive", which means that the verb needs an object. Now, if you check the entry further, just before the verb, you'll find the abbreviations "jdn/ etw". They are short for "jemanden/ etwas" (somebody/ something), and they tell you that an Accusative object is the one you use after transitive verbs.

dictionary entry of the German verb "haben" (to have, to possess), illustrating that transitive verbs are followed by an Accusative object


Question 3: Is There A Prepositional Verb? 

These are verbs with prepositions such as: to think about (denken an/ über), to believe in (glauben an), etc. 

denken an (to think about + Accusative)

  • Ich denke an meinen letzten Urlaub. (I'm thinking about my last vacation.)
  • Du denkst an deinen nächsten Urlaub. (You're thinking about your next vacation.) 


Question 4: Are There Two Objects (Dative & Accusative)? 

If you are able to define which case is the direct and which is the indirect object in an English sentence you are almost good to go. Most of the time, the person will be in the Dative case and the "thing" (non-living object) will be in the Accusative case. 

  • Ich gebe meiner Mutter den Schlüssel. (I'm giving the key to my mother.)
  • Sie gibt ihren Katzen das Futter. (She gives the food to her cats.)


German accusative - den-Katzen-das-Futter-geben

Sie gibt ihren Katzen das Futter.
(She gives the food to her cats.)

Before we say goodbye….

... there is a whole category in our blog dedicated to all of these cases including examples and exercises.

Now, are you ready test what you've learned? Try our quiz! 


Exercises: German Cases

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