Believe it or not, mastering German cases is no harder than perfecting your pronunciation, cracking the code of German word order or learning how to understand crazy German compound nouns.
It’s all part of familiarizing yourself with your acquired language.
Soon, you’ll be getting perfect German sentences together as smoothly as the characters in your favorite German movies and your YouTube-based German instructors.
- Why’s It So Hard to Get German Cases Right?
- 5 Tricks to Understanding German Cases
- 1. The nominative case isn’t always straightforward.
- 2. You need to know the difference between direct and indirect objects.
- 3. You have to learn which verbs are always dative.
- 4. The genitive case is worth knowing, but is often neglected.
- 5. The most common 30 prepositions can be defined by these four groups.
Why’s It So Hard to Get German Cases Right?
Just look over the following two article charts, and tell me if you can spot any major differences:
Masc. Fem. Neut. Plural
Nom. der die das die
Acc. den die das die
Dat. dem der dem den
Gen. des der des der
Masc. Fem. Neut. Plural
Nom. The The The The
Acc. The The The The
Dat. The The The The
Gen. The The The The
Pretty frustrating, right?
In English, you always know where you stand with your articles. Regardless of gender, quantity or who’s doing what action, “the” will always be “the.” German is far more specific.
While these details have the advantage of making German a more precise language, they can also be intimidating when you begin learning the language. It becomes immediately apparent if you don’t know what to do here.
Being unable to get the case right is something that prevents people from being able to pass German tests in their German class, or to receive certifications like TestDAF (the cheapest and most common certification allowing foreign students to study in Germany) or the Goethe-Institut Großes Deutsches Sprachdiplom (the most prestigious German as a Foreign Language certification).
However, now you know exactly what you’re up against. Knowing which case a certain noun should be in is much easier than remembering that noun’s gender. The cases follow a set of fairly consistent rules that you can learn pretty quickly, and you only need a few easy-to-follow guidelines which can help you to remember the gender of nouns.
There is one crucial step to properly learning German cases and that is familiarizing yourself with how these cases are used. Listening to cases used in various examples can help you tune your ears to the proper declension of each one. Knowing which case to use and when brings you one step closer to fluency.
You can familiarize yourself with German cases using resources like audiobooks or YouTube videos. But, by using resources like learning programs or websites that are made for learners, you’ll find content that is aimed specifically at helping you learn. For example, the FluentU program helps you learn cases in context through authentic German videos. These videos are categorized into six skill levels and also include interactive captions to give you more support while you listen to how various cases are used by native speakers.
You can also use video courses on Deutsche Welle. Here, you’ll find a wonderful series called Nicos Weg, which was created for learners at a beginner-intermediate level. As you watch, you’ll hear the cases used in level-appropriate situations that can help you understand them better.
5 Tricks to Understanding German Cases
There are only FIVE important concepts you need to master to always identify the correct case in German:
•when nominative isn’t always straightforward
•how to tell the difference between direct and indirect objects
•how to use the genitive
•which verbs are always dative
•how the most common 30 prepositions are divided into four groups
How many of these can you check off the list as things you already know? Unsurprisingly, each of these concepts corresponds to one reason why you aren’t always getting German cases right. One by one, we’re going to tackle these and get you on your way to German fluency. If you feel you need to learn more generally about cases before honing in on these specific details, review this previous post on nominative and accusative cases for a more in-depth lesson.
1. The nominative case isn’t always straightforward.
The nominative case is the subject of the sentence. That is, the person or thing which is doing the action in the sentence. Though that sounds simple enough, here are some examples of sentences where it’s not immediately obvious what’s going on:
One thing that might trip you up on a test is that, generally, if the sentence only uses some form of the verb sein (to be), then both nouns in the sentence are in the nominative case. It 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 Schülerin war eine Französin aus dem Süden.
Das Praktikum war die beste Erfahrung meines Lebens.
However, keep in mind that, as with any rule, there are exceptions and this is not always the case 100% of the time.
Sentences without nominative
One of the first things that learners of German should learn not to say is ich bin kalt. Rather than meaning that the room temperature isn’t comfortable for you, this means that your body is cold and is something you might hear during an episode of Tatort (the German CSI) when they find a dead body.
The proper German way to express discomfort when the window is open is mir ist kalt. This sentence is unusual because it only has one noun in the dative case. I think you can imagine the rather indirect relationship between you and the cold – by putting the noun in the dative case, it shows that the environment is cold for you, rather than just you being cold.
There are also some verbs where what might seem to be the subject is instead in the dative case:
Eigentlich gefällt es mir, früh aufzustehen.
2. You need to know the difference between direct and indirect objects.
This is some real grade school level stuff here, and it won’t take long to pick this up naturally after a while. Throughout the rest of the post we’ll explore the ways in which direct and indirect objects are defined and used in the German language. For now, I’m going to provide you with a clear, simple way to tell them apart:
Direct object – An object which directly receives the effect of an action and is the primary object.
Example: “Please write the essay.” The essay is the direct object in this sample sentence.
Indirect object – An object which is passively affected by an action and is not the primary object.
Example: “Tell him the news.” News is the direct object because it is being told, while him is the indirect object because he is not performing an action, he is passively being informed and the news could be told to anyone else.
3. You have to learn which verbs are always dative.
Accusative or Dative?
Accusative case is the object of the sentence, and dative is the indirect object of the sentence. In sentences that have both a direct object and an indirect object, it’s usually pretty clear which noun has a more direct relationship to the verb:
Ich hab ihm das Geschenk gegeben.
Er hat mir leider stundenlang die Photos von seiner Reise nach Thailand gezeigt.
Here, the photos and the gift are being directly “given” or “shown,” while the person they are being given or shown to is the indirect object.
If someone says something to you, it’s always dative.
Ich sagte dir, dass du dir etwas warmes anziehen solltest.
Sie hat mir gar nicht gesagt, dass sie nur veganisches Essen isst.
You will also find that certain verbs are always dative.
danken fehlen folgen gefallen gehören glauben helfen passieren erlauben bleiben
Kannst du mir helfen?
Dieses blaue Auto folgte mir den ganzen Tag.
Ich muss dir für deine Hilfe mit meiner Autoreparatur danken.
When you learn a new verb, you actually need to know a few things in order to use it correctly. Is it reflexive? What prepositions does it use? And is it dative or accusative? Make a note every time you learn a new verb about whether the verb is dative or accusative, and even try to find a good, memorable sample sentence that you can refer to when you’re not sure.
4. The genitive case is worth knowing, but is often neglected.
Genitive is considered a fancy grammatical remnant that’s more trouble than it’s worth. When it comes up in class, some students announce that they hate it and want nothing to do with it. Certain dialects of German have already done away with the genitive, which inspired the title of a recent popular book about grammar: Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod.
I personally think the genitive sounds nice and you actually see it pretty often, so you might as well try to figure it out.
Basically, the genitive adds possession. Instead of needing to write Die Spezialität vom Haus (vom is a contraction of von dem) for “the specialty of the house,” you can instead write:
Die Spezialität des Hauses
so the des means literally “of the.”
Genitive adds a suffix –s or –es to masculine and neuter nouns, but not to feminine nouns.
Masculine: Das Bellen des Hundes.
Feminine: Ein Bild der Welt.
Neuter: Magst du den Geschmack des Bieres?
5. The most common 30 prepositions can be defined by these four groups.
(1) Dual Prepositions
Dual prepositions, which all describe location, are usually the first set that are taught in German classrooms. They include: an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor and zwischen.
If the subject of the sentence is not moving, then the nouns that these prepositions form prepositional phrases with are in the dative case.
Dein Glas steht auf dem Tisch in der Küche.
Hinter meinem Haus wachsen viele Kastanienbäume.
Das Mädchen hatte über den Augen keine Augenbrauen, nur Tätowierungen.
If the subject of the verb is moving, then these prepositions give their nouns the accusative case.
Er rannte in das Zimmer hinein, ohne seine Schuhe auszuziehen.
Er lag sein Handy auf den Tisch.
Wir segelten über das Mittelmeer in nur einer Woche.
(2) Dative Prepositions
The next set of prepositions are always in the dative: ab, aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, and gegenüber.
Bei ihr gibt’s immer leckere Kuchen.
Von mir aus, können wir gerne eine Reise nach Spanien planen.
Wir werden Probleme mit deinem Chef kriegen, wenn wir in September weggehen.
Be careful to note that gegenüber is used a little differently; it comes after the noun that it refers to:
Dem Platz gegenüber gab es eine kleine Gruppe von Breakdancern.
(3) Accusative Prepositions
The accusative prepositions are: bis, durch, für, gegen, ohne, um and entlang.
Ohne dich wäre das Projekt kein Erfolg gewesen.
Ich wurde durch seine Argumente überzeugt.
(4) Genitive prepositions
Finally, the fanciest prepositions of all – the genitive prepositions. Please note, all of the previous lists of prepositions were exhaustive, but the list of genitive prepositions is a bit long, so I’ve just gathered a few of the most common ones: außerhalb, innerhalb, jenseits, während, trotz, and dank
Trotz seines schlechten Atems hat er immer eine hübsche Freundin gehabt.
Während seiner Zeit in Deutschland hat er immer versucht, Deutsch zu sprechen.
Die Wienerische Vorstadt befindet sich außerhalb der Ringstraße.
So, good luck! Once you master using all of these prepositions with the correct case, you’ll be able to start writing and speaking German with real fluency. And when you get more experience recognizing what case words are in, then you’ll be able to see what relationship words in those long, knotty German sentences have to each other.