What are grammatical cases?

Just in case you were wondering what a case is and what it has to do with German, I’ll let you know here. Travelers have suitcases. Business people have briefcases. The police have cold cases. And you, lucky German learner, you have grammatical cases. 😉

Occasionally, they can give you a serious case of the grammar blues. But have no fear! The grammar fairy (die "Grammatik-Fee") is here to teach you all about German cases...

Puppy with a fairy costume

die deutsche Grammatik-Fee (the German grammar fairy)

So... What is a grammatical case?

A 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 jump into the pool of grammatical cases, I’d like to give you a quick example 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 in the examples. It can be the subject of the sentence (#1) and it can also be the object (#2, #3). How to use the cases correctly is what we're going talk about in this post. 

By the way, the English language also has cases - three of them. They're just a lot less flashy, though.

Why do we need cases in German?

Boss asking about why we need German grammatical cases

Cases distinguish the individual words or parts of a sentence from each other, so we can understand their relationships. 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 without applying a grammatical case, it will be almost unintelligible in German. Cases are a necessary part of the German language.

Let’s try this:

Without case

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


With case

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

Makes more sense with the grammatical case, right?

What are the German cases?

The four cases are:

If we look at our last example about “father’s keys,” we can analyze the sentence and mark all 4 German cases in one single sentence:

Illustration of German grammar cases and their uses


Here is what each case does in German: 

Nominative

This is something like our base camp. All the nouns we find in the dictionary are in the Nominative case. It is always the subject of the sentence 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. 

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

Now, let's apply our magic question to the sentence to point out the subject:
Wer wirft den Ball? Der Junge wirft den Ball. (Who's throwing the ball? The boy is throwing the ball.)

  • Der Junge spielt Fußball. (The boy plays soccer.)

The same here: Wer spielt Fußball? Der Junge spielt Fußball. (Who plays soccer? The boy plays soccer.) 

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

I'm sure you'll be able to ask the correct question according to the examples above. Wanna give it a try? 

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

To summarize so far: the nominative is the subject of the sentence and performs the action. The definite and indefinite articles don't change in the Nominative case.

Smart hint: Always learn new nouns with the respective article, because with the other remaining cases it'll get trickier!

We also use the Nominative after certain verbs

When we talk about 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 have the Nominative case!

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


There are also other verbs that require the Nominative case, which you can see here:

  • bleiben (to stay)

Der Hund bleibt draußen. (The dog stays outside.)

  • 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.) 


The Nominative case with adjectives

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

Adjective endings in the nominate case
  • Er ist ein netter Vater. (He's a nice father.)

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

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

Also here we have the same ending as the feminine article die

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

And as you can imagine, we have the ending "s" just like the article das.

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

This adjective ending is the same as the feminine. Surprise, we also have the same article die

If you want to know more about the Nominative case check out this post here


Accusative

The Accusative often also gets called the "direct object". However, if you're not a grammar geek this term could be complicated for you. There's an easier way to remember when to use the Accusative case and that is to know the verbs and prepositions that require this case. 

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

German articles in accusative

Verbs that need the Accusative

The good news is that almost all of the verbs demand the Accusative. This will definitely help you to not feel overwhelmed. 

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 article changes in the Accusative. 

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


In this video you will learn the most common German verbs that need the Accusative case. Enjoy!


Prepositions that require the Accusative

Some prepositions need only the Accusative case. 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!)


So far so good. But there are also the so-called Wechselpräpositionen (two-way-prepositions), that sometimes need the Accusative and sometimes need the Dative case. 

Wechselpräpositionen German

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? Then check out the entire post here.

Dative

In the Dative case we have an "indirect" object that we are dealing with. Again, this might sound a bit abstract for you, but it's good to mention. The meaning of the indirect object is that it's something like a passive receiver in our sentence.
Just like the Accusative, the Dative case is used after certain verbs and prepositions.

The Dative, however, is a bit trickier than the Accusative, because we have more changes in the articles. Therefore, I highly recommend learning new vocabulary along with the respective article in order to avoid major confusion when it comes to learning new cases.

Let's first see how the Dative affects our articles compared to the Nominative case.

Dative articles German

Verbs that need the Dative

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

  • antworten (answer)
    Wir antworten dem Lehrer. (We answer the teacher.) 
  • danken (thank) 
    Wir danken den Personen. (We thank the people.)
  • geben (give) 
    Ich gebe einer Frau ein Geschenk. (I give a present to a woman.)
  • gehören (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!


Prepositions that need the Dative
There are a bunch of prepositions that only call for the Dative case without any exception. And then again, there are our two-way.prepositions which could also have the Accusative. But let's do everything step by step and look at those which only need 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 vom Park. - (We live across the park.)


Alright, good job my dear student! I know that you probably won't be able to memorize all these prepositions immediately, but don't worry. Take your time and just read and practice them over and over again. And pretty soon you'll know them all! 

Now, remember our two-way prepositions from the Accusative case? 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 schläft unter 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.)


Again, if you wanna know everything about the Dative case, I recommend you watch the full post which you can find here. And now, to end the Dative part, let's sing a little song about prepositions. Where's the song? I want to sind it!


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” and we don’t have to worry about it anymore. The German language, though, has a reputation and therefore needs to make it a little more challenging.

In the Genitive case, we apply changes to the articles and also to the ending of the noun. Our magic question for the Genitive case is “wessen” (whose). In the spoken language, the Genitive is not very common. Instead, we use the alternative of the preposition von + Dative case

So why do we need the Genitive then? Well, because in the written language the Genitive is still very common and therefore it's important to know how to use it.
And now, let's look at the chart to see what changes the Genitive case bring to the articles as well as to the nouns. 

Genitive case German

As you can see, this case requires more attention, but don't worry, in it end it's not that complicated. Let's look at some examples with the Genitive case. 

  • 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 Genitive is always behind the noun that we are talking about. 


Verbs that need 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). 


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 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. (Her not going to school is 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 talk to him.)
  • südlich (south of) Südlich der Schweiz liegt Italien. (Italy is south of Switzerland.) 

Bonus: Smart hints to define the cases

We’re almost at the finish line in our introduction to German cases. Before you go, I like to give you some smart hints on your way.
There are four simple questions that you can apply to help determine the case. If you’re able to remember them, you’ll be able to solve the case. 

Question 1: Is there a preposition that asks for 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 case)  

  • 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. You can find that information in the dictionary right before the verb.

besuchen (Accusative)

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


Question 3: Is there a verb with a fixed preposition? 

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, like a direct and an indirect? 

If you are able to define which case is the direct and which is the indirect object you are good to go. In most of the cases you can see that the person is in the dative and the "thing" is in the accusative case. 

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


Before we say goodbye….

...if you want to find out more about the single cases and see more examples, check out the posts in our blog.

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