When do we use the Dative case?

Buckle up, dear German student. In this post we're going on a grammar adventure to take a closer look at the Dative case! What, you haven’t heard of it? Let's get started! 

In German, if we want to be sure whether we need to use the Dative case or not, we use the question “wem” (to whom) or “was” (what). We use the Dative case typically after verbs that indicate giving and receiving, etc. and it very often corresponds to an indirect object (in English that is) indicated by the word order or a phrase introduced by "to" or "for".

We also use it after certain prepositions. Some of them require only the Dative case and others are so-called two-way prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen) that can also be used with the accusative case. We’ll get to that point later on. 

I know, I know, there is one big question that you can’t stop thinking about: what in the world is an indirect object in a sentence? Let me tell you, that you don’t really absolutely have to know about the indirect object. There are also other ways to get to the Dative, just as all roads lead to Rome. But if you’re a savvy grammar wizard, here’s a simple practical example. 

  • Der Mann ist nett. (The man is nice.)

→ “Der Mann” is in the Nominative. It’s the subject and “the star” of the sentence.

Now we move on the Dative, where the man is no longer the star of the sentence. 

  • Ich helfe dem Mann. -  I help the man.

→ “Ich” became the subject of the sentence, the one who is performing the action, while “dem Mann” is now the object of the sentence, who receives the action.  

If you have an impeccable attention to details, then you surely have noticed that there is a different article that you probably haven’t really seen in the past. Isn’t it “der Mann?” Yes, you are right, the Nominative article is “der.” But why is it now “dem?” This is because we entered the world of the Dative case *evil laugh.*

The domain of the dative

What is the Dative case?  

Fun fact!
Did you know that the word “Dative” (case) derives from the latin word (casus) dativus and refers to dare (give) and datum (given)? That’s a little extra knowledge for when you want to impress your fellow friends at the next party.

Now that you have this background information, you can guess what this grammar case is for. Exactly, it has typically to do with giving or receiving. But of course there are also other situations, verbs and prepositions that call for the Dative. 

Very often, this case corresponds to English as the answer in the question to or for whom.

to whom the german dative may concern

If you want to be super grammatically correct, you can call the Dative the “indirect object” We talked about it here). An indirect object is a person, or a thing or a pronoun that is affected by the action of a so-called transitive verb, but is not the primary object. 

  • Ich gebe ihm das Buch. - (I’m giving him the book.)
  • Gogo kauft ihr ein neues Kleid. - (Gogo buys her a new dress.) 

Now, sometimes it is hard to differentiate between the indirect and the direct object and most of the definitions fail to be very logical, especially for students of a new language - like you. That’s why I already explained to you at the beginning that there are many roads that lead to Rome. It’s best to go with this definition: 

The Dative is used after certain verbs and certain prepositions.

German natives also use the questions “Wem” and “Was” to find the Dative, but it’s difficult to grasp for non-natives. 

How do we form the Dative case? 

Take a look at the table and spot the difference in the articles between the Nominative and the Dative case. 

German dative case articles table

Too many changes at once? Don’t worry, I’ll turn this rollercoaster ride into a smooth lounge experience for you, virtual drinks included. 

Here are some examples of the dative case to help you understand it better.

  • Nominative case - Das ist der Vater. (That is the father.)
  • Accusative case - Ich sehe den Vater. (I see the father. ) 
  • Dative Case - Ich gebe dem Vater das Buch. (I give the father the book.)

  • Nominative case - Das ist die Mutter. (This is the mother.)
  • Accusative case - Ich sehe die Mutter. (I see the mother. )
  • Dative Case - Ich helfe der Mutter. (I help the mother.)

  • Nominative Case - Das ist das Kind. (This is the child.)
  • Accusative case - Ich sehe das Kind. (I see the child.)
  • Dative case - Ich glaube dem Kind. (I believe the child.)

So far so good. You’ve probably noticed that in our examples we had different verbs for the different cases. I highly recommend you to remember them, because it will make it much easier for you to use the cases correctly. 

Also the endings of the nouns are affected by the Dative, but only in the plural, given that it does not already end in -s or -n. 

Here is what I mean:

  • Ich helfe den Eltern. (Dative case, Eltern already has the ending n in the plural)
  • Ich helfe den Männern. (Dative case with an -n added in the plural form)

I know, the dative case seems like a little diva that needs extra attention. But let me reassure you, the diva has downtime too, and you will be just fine. 

If you take your time and memorize the table and practice regularly, then there is no doubt that you will be using the dative case with confidence. 

Let’s take a break and watch a video of Anja explaining the dative articles. It’s fun! 

Dative case after certain Verbs

There are some verbs that you can rely on like your best friend when it comes to the Dative case. In the dictionary you can see whether it’s the Dative case or not by the abbreviation next to the verb. When you see “jdm.” this means jemandem (to somebody/someone) and the ending tells you that it is the Dative case. 

Bonus Fact: when you see the abbreviation “jdn.” it means “jemanden” (somebody/someone) which indicates the Accusative case. 
abbreviation for dative pronoun

Here is a list of some of the most common verbs that require us to use the dative. 

  • 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.) 
  • glauben (believe)
    Ich glaube dem Mann. (I believe the man.) 
  • helfen (help) 
    Ich helfe einem Kind. (I help a child.) 
  • schmecken (taste) 
    Das Eis schmeckt dem Mädchen. (The ice cream tastes good to the girl.)

As mentioned earlier, these are some of the common verbs that require the dative case, but not all of them.

Dative in combination with the Accusative

Oh good, you’re still with me. I thought you disappeared for a second. Let’s stick together down this trail. Take out your binoculars and watch what happens when the Dative meets the Accusative case.

Maybe, in one of Anja’s videos you learned that most of the German verbs need the Accusative case. So far so good. However, there are SOME verbs that also require the Dative case.

  • geben: Ich gebe dem Mann den Fisch. - OR - Ich gebe den Fisch dem Mann.

(I give the man the fish. - OR - I give the fish to the man.)

  • zeigen: Ich zeige meinem Mann den Park. -OR - Ich zeige den Park meinem Mann.

(I show my husband the park. - OR - I show the park to my husband.) 

  • empfehlen: Ich kann dir einen schönen Ort empfehlen. 

(I can recommend you a nice place. -  OR - I can recommend a nice place to you.)

Were you able to define which was the Dative and which was the Accusative?

You are correct! The Dative is marked red and the Accusative is marked blue. You can recognize the case by the articles. Now, if you remember what we’ve learned at the beginning you will see that the Dative case represents the receiver of an object. Also, very often the person is in the Dative case, while the “things” are very often in the Accusative case. 

If you want to practice a little bit more the combination of Dative and Accusative, watch Anja’s video below!

Dative case after certain prepositions

There is a popular mnemonic in German that will help you to memorize the prepositions that require the Dative case: 

Mit, nach, von, seit, aus, zu, bei, verlangen immer Fall Nummer 3!
(Mit, nach, von, seit, aus, zu, bei, always require case number 3! - The Dative case is case number 3 in German)

The wonderful thing is that these prepositions will always be followed by the Dative case, no exception here - high five! 

Ok, I haven’t been entirely honest with you. There are three more prepositions like: ab, außer and gegenüber, which sadly, do not fit into the cute little poem. But I will add them to the list below so that you can memorize them as well. 

Here are some examples with Dative case prepositions that will help you. 

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

Here is another wonderful video of Anja using the Dative prepositions. Believe me, you will love it and you will have the song stuck in your head for the next couple of days! 

Alrighty. Now’s the time to give yourself a nice pat on the back. Your hawk-eyed focus and attention to detail are fantastic. Believe me, you are another step closer to becoming a great German speaker. 

Take another deep breath, get ready and let’s soar into the next use of the Dative case.

The Dative case with two-way-prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen)

Don’t judge me, but does it ever happen to you that you crave potato chips and at the same time you also feel like eating chocolate? Well, guess what? There are some prepositions that behave the same way: Some like the Dative and some like the Accusative case. 

Here is a pretty image with prepositions, grouped According to their grammatical case, and as you can see, they merge in the middle as the so-called “Wechselpräpositionen” (Two-way-prepositions). 

Using two way prepositions in the dative case chart

When do we know how to use the Accusative or Dative case after those prepositions?

If you can remember back to the beginning, when I explained the use of the Dative with the indirect object, it applies to the passive receiver. Now imagine somebody or something really passive who doesn’t like to move at all. Jabba the Hutt comes to my mind. 

To be 100% sure, check the verb to find out whether it needs the Dative case or not and you got your solution.

Let’s see some examples:

  • Er liegt auf der Couch. - (He is lying on the sofa.)
  • Die Frau sitzt neben dem Bett. - (The woman is sitting next to the bed.)
  • Die Katze ist unter dem Stuhl. - (The cat is under the chair.)

In all of these examples our Jabbas (Couch, Bett, Stuhl) are not moving. Not a single bit. 

The personal pronouns in the Dative case

Last but not least, my dear A-student, let me tell you that there’s a new set of pronouns to go with the Dative. Now, before your face turns into Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” I want to reassure you that there is no need to panic. I promise that soon you will be able to remember all of them because I’m sure that you’ve already heard many of the Dative pronouns without even noticing it. 

What about: “Wie geht es dir?” Or: “Es geht mir gut, danke.” And surely you know: “Kannst du mir helfen?” See, you've been using Dative pronouns all along, and I’m sure you can even imagine using pronouns other than those. 

In the following table, I want to give you an overview of all the Nominative and Dative pronouns so that you can compare and practice them.

Wann practice with Anja and rock the Dative pronouns? Here you go, have fun!  

Other uses of the Dative case

The free Dative case #freedative

Yes, we will give the Dative its own hashtag! What is meant by free Dative? It’s basically when someone is affected in some way by the verb. The free Dative means that the verb isn’t bound by German law to use the Dative, but the circumstances in the sentence call for the Dative. #freedative

This could be the person the action is being done for.

  • Er öffnet mir die Dose. - (He opens the can for me.)
    → This could be referring to something being changed.

  • Sie schneidet mir die Haare. - (She cuts my hair for me.)

There’s also something called the “benefactive” - this is when someone is doing something for themself, they use a reflexive pronoun to say they’re doing the action for themself. This is pretty colloquial and you’ll hear it a lot in spoken German.

  • Ich gönne mir ein Eis. - (I treat myself to an ice cream.)
  • Ich hole mir einen neuen Hund. - (I get myself a new dog.)

Sometimes the Dative can be avoided by using “für” to tell who something is being done for. 

  • Meine Mutter hat mir einen Mantel gekauft. / Meine Mutter hat einen Mantel für mich gekauft.  - (My mother bought me a coat.)

The “Dative of disadvantage” - when something bad happens to someone 

“Mir ist was Dummes passiert” Something stupid happened to me. Sometimes I can be pretty clumsy and if you’re like me and feel like you have two left hands sometimes, it’s good to know this expression. 

When sh*t hits the fan, sometimes in German we’ll say it as if it was something that happened to us. 

For example:

  • “Mir ist das Glas runtergefallen.” (The glass fell down on me - not literally the glass fell onto me but rather I was holding it and it fell down, almost like it did that to me.)

  • Mir sind die Pflanzen gestorben. - (The plants died on me!)

Congratulations! You have made it out of the forest alive! 

Wie geht es dir? Haha, yes, there it is again, the Dative case. In all seriousness, I’m very proud of your accomplishments. You really learned a lot today. I know it’s not easy and it will take a lot of practice and effort. Remember, repetition is key so read out loud and more than anything, have fun learning. I’m sure we’ll see each other again very soon.  

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