How to Learn the 4 German Noun Cases
The four German cases are the nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. You can think of these as the equivalent of the subject, possessive, indirect object, and direct object in English.
For native English speakers, the German grammar cases can be challenging at first, because each noun, pronoun and article has four cases. Not only does each noun have a gender, but that gender also has four different variants depending on where it is placed in the sentence.
Depending on how a particular word is used - whether it is the subject, a possessive, an indirect object or a direct object - the spelling and pronunciation of that noun or pronoun changes, as does the article. The four German cases are the nominative, the genitive, the dative and the accusative. They correspond to the subject, possessive, indirect object and direct object in English.
The German Nominative ( Der Nominativ or Der Werfall)
The nominative is - in both German and English - the subject of a sentence. The term nominative comes from Latin and means to name (think of "nominate").
In the following examples, the nominative word or expression are underlined.
The nominative case can follow the verb "to be", as in the last example. The verb "is" acts like an equal sign (strawberry ice cream = favourite ice cream). Mostly, however, the nominative is the subject of a sentence.
The genitive (Der Genitiv or Der Wesfall)
The genitive indicates possession. In English, this is expressed by the possessive "of" or an apostrophe with an "s" ('s).
The genitive is used with genitive prepositions and with some verb idioms. The genitive is used more often in written German than in the spoken form and is the equivalent of the English words "whose" or "whom". In spoken, everyday German, von + dative often replaces the genitive.
You can tell that a noun is in the genitive case by the article, which changes to des/eines (for masculine and neuter) or der/einer (for feminine and plural). Since the genitive has only two forms (des or der), you only need to learn these two. However, in the masculine and neuter, there is also an additional noun ending, either -es or -s.
Feminine and plural nouns do not get a genitive ending. The feminine genitive (der/einer) is identical to the feminine dative. The one-word genitive article is usually translated in English with two words ("of the" or "of a/an").
The dative (Der Dativ or Der Wemfall)
The dative is an essential part of communication in German. In English, the dative is known as the indirect object. Unlike the accusative, which only changes in the masculine gender, the dative changes in all genders and even in the plural. Accordingly, the pronouns also change.
In additional to its function as an indirect object, the dative is also used after certain dative verbs and with dative prepositions. In the following examples, the word or expression in the dative case are underlined.
Das Fragewort im Dativ ist wem ([to] whom?). Zum Beispiel: Wem hat der Autor das Buch gewidmet? (Wem hast du das Buch gegeben?)
The Accusative (Der Akkusativ or Der Wenfall)
In English, the accusative is as an objective case (direct object).
In German, the masculine articles der and ein become den and einen in the accusative. The feminine, neutral and plural articles do not change. The masculine pronoun er (he) becomes ihn (him), as in English. In the following examples, the nouns and pronouns in the accusative (direct object) are underlined.
The direct object is the recipient of the action of a transitive verb. When you buy or have something, the "something" is the direct object. The subject (the person who buys or has something) acts on this object.
What is a transitive verb?
You can find out if it is a transitive verb by saying it without an object. If it sounds weird and seems to need an object to sound correct, it is probably a transitive verb, for example: Ich habe (I have) or er kauft (he bought).
Both sentences answer the implicit question "What?". What did you? What did he buy? And whatever that is, is the direct object and in German should be in the accusative.
With an intransitive verb like "to sleep", "to die" or "to wait", on the other hand, no direct object is required. You cannot "sleep", "die" or "wait" something. Sein and werden are not exceptions, as they are intransitive verbs that act like an equal sign and cannot take an object.
Important: Some verbs in English and German can be both transitive and intransitive, but the key is to remember that in German you have the accusative when you have a direct object.The Germanic word for the accusative, wenfall, reflects the change from der to den. The interrogative word in the accusative case is wen (whom).
Time phrases in the accusative
The accusative is used in some regular phrases for time and distance.
German cases allow flexibility in word order
English articles do not change depending on their position in the sentence, the language relies on word order to clarify which term is the subject and which is the object.
For example, in English, if you say "The dog catches the ball." and not "The ball catches the dog.", the meaning of the sentence changes.
In German the word order can be changed for emphasis without changing the basic action or meaning, as in:
Fängt der Hund den Ball? Does the dog catch the ball?
Fängt der Ball den Hund? Does the ball catch the dog?
Definite and indefinite article
The following tables show the four cases with the definite article (the, the or the) and a sample sentence. Note that keine is the negation of eine, which has no plural form. But keine can also be used in the plural.
Sie hat keine Bücher. She has no books.
Diesen Sommer gibt es keine Erdbeeren. There are no strawberries this summer.
Declining German pronouns
German pronouns also take different forms in different grammatical cases. Just as in English the nominative "I" becomes the object "me", in German the nominative "I" becomes the accusative "mich".
Look below! The pronouns change depending on their function in the sentence.
Most German personal pronouns have a different form in each of the four cases, but it can be helpful to keep in mind that not all of them change.
Examples in German are sie (she), sie (they), and the formal form of "you," Sie, which is capitalised in all forms. This pronoun, regardless of its meaning, will remain the same in the nominative and accusative. In the dative it becomes ihnen/ Ihnen, while the possessive form is ihr/Ihr.
Two German pronouns use the same form in both the accusative and dative (uns and euch). For third person pronouns (he, she or it), the rule is that only the masculine gender has a change in the accusative. In German, there is no change in either the neuter es or the feminine sie. In the dative case, however, all pronouns take on definite dative forms.
The following table shows the personal pronouns in nominative, accusative und dative case.