There are only FIVE important concepts you need to master in order to always recognize the correct case in German:
When the nominative case is not always clear
How to recognize the difference between direct and indirect objects
How to use the genitive case
Which verbs are always in the dative case
How to divide the 30 most common prepositions into four groups
How many of these things can you check off the list because you already know them? Not surprisingly, each of these concepts corresponds to a reason why you don't always spell German cases correctly. We'll tackle them one by one and get you on the road to fluent German. If you'd like to learn about the cases in general before delving into these specific details, you can check out this earlier post on the nominative and accusative for a more in-depth lesson.
The nominative case is not always straightforward.
The nominative case is the subject of the sentence. That is, the person or thing doing the action in the sentence. It sounds simple, but here are some examples of sentences where it's not immediately clear what's going on:
Double nominative case
One thing you might stumble across in an exam is that generally, when the sentence uses only one form of the verb to be, both nouns in the sentence are in the nominative case. This makes sense if you think about it, because the sentence doesn't actually have an object - it just has the same subject twice.
Die neue Studentin war eine Italienerin aus dem Norden.
Die Studienzeit war die beste Zeit ihres Lebens.
Remember, however, that as with any rule, there are exceptions and this is not always 100% the case.
Sentences without nominative case
One of the first things German learners should not say is Ich bin kalt. This doesn't mean that the room temperature is uncomfortable for you, but that your body is cold and is something you might hear in an episode of Tatort when a dead body is found.
The correct German way to express discomfort when the window is open is Mir ist kalt. This sentence is unusual because it contains only one noun in the dative case. I think you can imagine the rather indirect relationship between you and the cold - by having the noun in the dative case, it shows that the environment is cold for you, not just that you are cold.
There are also some verbs where what appears to be the subject is instead in the dative:
Eigentlich gefällt es mir, joggen zu gehen.
This is a bit for elementary school students, and it won't take long for you to learn it naturally. Later in this post, we'll look at the definition and use of direct and indirect objects in the German language. For now, let me give you a clear and simple way to tell them apart:
Direct object - An object that directly receives the effect of an action and is the primary object.
Example: "Der Hund trinkt das Wasser." The water is the direct object in this example sentence.
Indirect Object - An object that is passively affected by an action and is not the primary object.
Example: "Er kauft der Frau einen Kaffee." The woman is the indirect object while the coffee is the direct object.
You need to learn which verbs are always in the dative case.
Accusative or dative?
The accusative is the direct object of the sentence; the dative is the indirect object of the sentence. In sentences that have both a direct and indirect object, it's usually pretty clear which noun has a more direct relationship to the verb:
Ich habe dem Mann einen Kaffee gegeben. I gave the man a coffee.
Here the coffee is directly "given" , while the person to whom it is given or shown is the indirect object.
When someone says something to you, it is always in the dative case:
Ich sagte dir, dass du dir etwas Warmes anziehen solltest. I told you to put on something warm.
Sie hat mir gar nicht gesagt, dass sie nur veganes Essen isst. She didn't even tell me that she only eats vegan food.
You will also notice that certain verbs are always in the dative case:
danken, fehlen, gefallen, glauben, passieren, erlauben, bleiben, gehören, helfen, ...
Kann ich dir helfen? Can I help you?
Der Rucksack gehört mir. The backpack is mine.
Ich danke dir für deine Briefe. I thank you for your letters.
When you learn a new verb, you need to know a few things to use it correctly:
Is it reflexive?
What prepositions does it use?
Is it dative or accusative?
Every time you learn a new verb, make a note of whether it's dative or accusative, and even try to find a good, memorable example sentence to refer to if you're not sure. Generally, we assume that it is a verb in the accusative case, should it not be known as a dative verb.
The genitive is worth knowing, but is often neglected.
When the genitive comes up in class, some students proclaim that they hate it and want nothing to do with it. Certain dialects of German have already abolished the genitive.
Personally, I think the genitive sounds good and elegant and you see it quite often, so you might as well try to figure it out.
Basically, the genitive gives possession. Instead of writing Die Besonderheit vom Haus (vom is an abbreviation of the) for "the speciality of the house", you can write instead:
die Besonderheit des Hauses
The des thus literally means "of".
The genitive adds a suffix -s or -es to masculine and neuter nouns, but not to feminine nouns.
Masculine: Das Bellen des Hundes. The barking of the dog.
Feminine: Das Kleid der Frau. The woman's dress.
Neuter: Siehst du den Qualm des Autos? Do you see the smoke from the car?
The 30 most common prepositions can be divided into these four groups.
These prepositions, which all describe a place, are usually the first group taught in German classes. These include: an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor and zwischen
If the subject of the sentence does not move, then the nouns with which these prepositions form prepositional phrases are in the dative case.
Dein Buch liegt auf dem Schrank in der Küche. Your book is on the cupboard in the kitchen.
Hinter meinem Auto wachsen viele Kirschbäume. There are many cherry trees growing behind my car.
When the subject of the verb moves, these prepositions give their nouns the accusative.
Sie lief in das Zimmer, ohne zu klopfen. She ran into the room without knocking.
Er stellte seinen Rucksack auf den Stuhl. He put his backpack on the chair.
(2) Dative prepositions
The next group of prepositions is always in the dative case: ab, aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu und gegenüber
Mit ihr haben wir immer viel Spaß! We always have a lot of fun with her!
Ich habe eine neue Aufgabe von meinem Chef bekommen. I got a new task from my boss.
(3) Accusative prepositions
The accusative prepositions are: bis, durch, für, gegen, ohne, um und entlang
Ohne dich hätte ich nie den Mut gehabt, das zu tun. Without you, I would never have had the courage to do this.
Er hat mich durch seine freundliche Art überzeugt. He won me over with his friendly manner.
(4) Genitive prepositions
Finally, we come to the fanciest prepositions of all - the genitive prepositions. Please note that all the previous lists of prepositions were exhaustive, but the list of genitive prepositions is a bit long, so I have compiled only some of the most common ones: außerhalb, innerhalb, jenseits, während, trotz und dank
Trotz seiner anfänglich schlechten Laune hatte er einen schönen Tag. Despite his initial bad mood, he had a nice day.
Dank meiner Zeit in Deutschland, kann ich jetzt sehr gut Deutsch zu sprechen.
Thanks to my time in Germany, I can now speak German very well.
Viel Glück! When you master all these prepositions with the correct case, you'll be able to write and speak German really fluently. And when you have more experience in recognising the upper and lower case of words, then you will also be able to recognise the relationship between the words in these long, convoluted German sentences.