German Cases Explained, Plus Memorization Tips and Practice Resources
First, let’s address the big question: What is a case?
In any language, a case is a way to show how a word integrates into a sentence. It’s kind of like looking at a schematic of a building and figuring out how the floors, stairs, rooms and hallways fit together.
There are four German cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. Most German sentences include at least one case, but it’s rare that you’ll see all four cases in a single sentence.
Knowing your cases is vital in German, as many words change depending on what case they are in.
So without further ado, let’s learn the German cases!
- German Cases Explained
- Tips for Learning the German Cases
- Resources for Practicing German Cases
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German Cases Explained
The nominative case is first on our list because it’s typically first in the sentence, and it’s the case you’ll probably get the most practice in.
In this section, we’ll focus on the most common use, where the nominative case is the subject of the sentence.
(As you move up in fluency and create more complex sentences, you may use entire phrases as the subject in the nominative case. And later we’ll see examples of a double nominative, or no nominative at all—but don’t worry about these yet!)
When you start learning German, you often begin sentences with ich (I). For example:
Ich heiße… (I’m called…)
Ich bin… (I am…)
In both of these phrases, ich is in the nominative case, as the sentence’s subject. Here’s another example:
Sarah wohnt in Berlin. (Sarah lives in Berlin.)
Here, Sarah is the subject of the sentence and so is in the nominative case. Notice that the verb wohnen (to live, reside) is conjugated in the er/sie/es (he/she/it) form, since we’re talking in the third person.
That leads us to two tips for recognizing the nominative case:
- Verb conjugation. The verb will typically be conjugated in relation to the subject of the sentence, and the subject of the sentence will be in the nominative case.
- Definite and indefinite articles. The nominative case will only use der, die or das for definite articles, and ein or eine for indefinite aricles.
If either of these characteristics doesn’t fit, we move on to the next candidate—the accusative case.
The accusative case is typically used for the direct object of the sentence, though there are accusative prepositions and accusative pronouns as well.
The accusative occurs almost as often as the nominative case. What’s great about the accusative case is that it’s pretty easy to identify:
- Start by looking for multiple nouns and/or pronouns within the sentence.
- Determine which noun/pronoun is being used with the conjugated verb—this one is in the nominative case.
- Any remaining noun(s)/pronoun(s) are in a different case.
- Look at the verb again to see the relationship it has to the remaining noun(s)/pronoun(s). If they receive the action of the verb, they’re direct objects and qualify as the accusative case.
Looking for a shortcut? Take a look at the masculine noun(s)/pronoun(s) in your sentence. Do they include den or einen? For example:
Suzie kauft einen Apfel. (Suzie buys an apple.)
Here, the verb kauft (buys) corresponds with Suzie, who is the subject of the sentence and is in the nominative case. The buying action is being done to the apple, which makes it the direct object. And einen Apfel is in fact in the accusative case!
Here are some more examples:
Sie kaufen den Käse und schneiden ihn. (They buy the cheese and cut it.)
Did you notice the -n ending on the den before Käse? That’s a tell-tale sign of a masculine noun in the accusative case. In the second part of the sentence, the pronoun ihn replaces den Käse, also in the accusative case.
Wir gehen durch den Wald. (We walk through the forest.)
In this example, durch is an accusative preposition, which means that any noun(s)/pronoun(s) following it will always be in the accusative case.
Have no fear—we’ll talk more about this later, and there’s plenty of places for you to practice identifying the accusative!
The German dative case is a bit less defined than the nominative or accusative cases. While the dative case usually occurs as the indirect object of a sentence, it may also show up as prepositions, verbs and pronouns as well.
Let’s look at an example:
Mein Bruder gibt seiner Freundin einen Ring. (My brother gives his girlfriend a ring.)
The brother is the subject in the nominative case and the ring is acted upon as the direct object in the accusative case. As the girlfriend is the recipient of the direct object (the ring), she is the indirect object in the dative case.
So what about the example below?
Mein Kopf tut mir weh. (My head hurts (me).)
This is where it gets tricky. The verb wehtun (to hurt) is separable and takes a dative object. We say “My head hurts” in English, but in German, you need to state who feels the hurt—me, in the dative case.
If you’ve ever seen or used the verb sich waschen (to wash oneself), you’ll understand why:
Ich wasche mich. (I wash myself.)
Ich wasche mir die Haare. (I wash my hair.)
When used alone, sich waschen is an accusative reflexive verb. However, when we add an object to the sentence, the reference mich turns from the accusative case to the dative case as mir.
It’s worth taking some time to learn which verbs are always dative. For instance, if someone says something to you, it’s always dative:
Ich habe dir gesagt, dass du um zehn Uhr nach Hause kommen sollst. (I told you to come home at ten o’clock.)
The dative case isn’t always so complicated though. In fact, there are plenty of prepositions which take the dative case, such as mit (with, by means of):
Wir fahren mit der Bahn nach Italien. (We’re traveling to Italy by train.)
So, how can you spot the dative case in action? Go back to those definite and indefinite articles.
Nouns and pronouns in the dative case will change from der, die and das to dem, der and dem, respectively, while plural nouns and pronouns will change from die to den. Indefinite articles reflect the same endings: -em, -er, -em and -en.
Be careful here, because it can be easy to confuse the plural den with the accusative masculine den. Don’t fall for that red herring!
Last but certainly not least, the genitive is typically used to show possession. Like many of the German cases, the genitive may also appear in prepositions, verbs and pronouns.
Consider this example sentence:
Das Handy meines Bruders ist kaputt. (My brother’s cell phone is broken. / The cell phone of my brother is broken.)
To get the genitive down, it’s helpful to remember that “of” part of the phrasing.
For instance, think “the floor of my bedroom” instead of “my bedroom floor.” Or “the song of my people” instead of “my people’s song.” Or even “the eye of my mind” instead of “my mind’s eye.”
German also includes genitive prepositions, such as außerhalb (outside of):
Sie wohnt außerhalb der Stadt. (She lives outside of the city.)
And when possession isn’t easy to determine, look to your trusty confidential informants—definite and indefinite articles.
The genitive case is simple because its articles only use -es (masculine and neuter) and -er (feminine) endings. If you need help remembering this, try thinking of the phrase “his and hers.” The possessive pronoun “his” has an “s” while “hers” has an “r.”
Note that the genitive case is considered a fancy grammatical remnant of older German language. Some people think it’s more trouble than it’s worth, and it seems that it’s being used less and less.
But of course, it’s still good to be able to recognize and employ it!
Tips for Learning the German Cases
Memorize declensions and genders
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. Memorize the declensions (which tell you information about a noun’s case, number and gender) to help you recognize each case. Here are definite articles in German (English “the”), for example:
Recognizing the forms of definite articles in a sentence will help you identify cases that much quicker.
Similarly, memorizing the gender of German nouns is essential, as you’ll be able to confidently assess which article is in use for those that have the same form.
Understand the various uses of the nominative
The nominative case is the subject of the sentence. While that’s often just the person or thing doing the action, there are a few more complicated instances of the nominative case.
First, there’s the double nominative. If a sentence only uses some form of the verb sein (to be), then both nouns in the sentence are in the nominative case. For instance:
Die neue Studentin ist eine Französin aus Paris. (The new student is a French girl from Paris)
Das Praktikum war die beste Erfahrung meines Lebens. (The internship was the best experience of my life.)
It makes sense if you think about it, because the sentence doesn’t actually have an object—it just has the same subject twice. However, keep in mind that, as with any rule, there are exceptions and this is not always the case 100% of the time.
Second, there are German sentences without the nominative case.
If you’re just starting German, you might be tempted to say “Ich bin kalt” to say “I am cold,” but instead of describing your temperature, you’re instead making yourself sound emotionally vacant or withdrawn.
You should instead say “Mir ist kalt,” which literally translates into English as “To me is cold” but is the proper German way to express discomfort when the window is open. Here, there’s only one pronoun, and it’s in the dative case. You’re essentially saying that the environment is cold for you, rather than you just being cold.
Know the difference between direct and indirect objects
This will make it much easier for you to distinguish between the accusative and dative cases specifically. Keep in mind that:
- An object which directly receives the effect of an action and is the primary object of the sentence is a direct object. For example: “Please write the essay.”
- An object which is passively affected by an action and is not the primary object of the sentence is an indirect object. For example: “Tell him the news.” Note that here, “the news” is the direct object.
Learn the 31 most common prepositions
This will help you learn German cases because German prepositions take nouns of specific cases.
The most common prepositions can be defined by these four groups:
- Dative prepositions: ab (away from), aus (out of, from), bei (at, near), mit (with), nach (after, to, according to), seit (since, for), von (from, of), zu (to), gegenüber (across from, opposite).
- Accusative prepositions: bis (to, up to, until), durch (through, by means of), für (for), gegen (against), ohne (without), um (at, around (time)) and entlang (along).
- Genitive prepositions: außerhalb (outside of), innerhalb (inside of), jenseits (on the other side of, beyond), während (while, during), trotz (despite), and dank (thanks to).
Dual prepositions: an (to, on), auf (on, upon), hinter (behind), in (in, into), neben (next to), über (above), unter (under), vor (before, in front of) and zwischen (between, among).
For dual prepositions, it depends on whether the action you are describing is stationary or moving.
If the subject of the verb is moving, then the noun will be in the accusative case, for example:
Wir gehen in den Supermarkt. (We go to the supermarket.)
The action describes walking, so movement, so the masculine noun Supermarkt goes in the accusative case, so you need to use den.
If the subject of the verb is stationary, so not moving, then you put the noun after the preposition in the dative case:
Ich sitze auf der Bank. (I’m sitting on the bench)
The action described is sitting still, so the feminine noun Bank goes in the dative case, so you need to use der.
So, once you memorize some common prepositions, you’ll know exactly which case you need to use after it.
Resources for Practicing German Cases
The best way to better understand German cases is to practice!
I highly recommend you start with diagramming sentences in German. Take your time to determine the case of each noun (pronoun, etc.) in your study sentences, and why they’re in that particular case. Eventually, you’ll start noticing the patterns on your own without having to diagram each sentence.
You can get sentences from a number of places, such as German textbooks, graded readers, TV shows, movies and more.
In fact, reading and listening to how native Germans use cases will help you get familiar with them. You may try listening to German audiobooks or YouTube videos, or you may want to try programs made specifically for language learners.
The FluentU program, for example, helps you learn cases in context via authentic German videos. These videos are categorized by level and topic, and include interactive captions with contextual definitions and example sentences.
You can turn new words into flashcards for later study, and take personalized quizzes to test whether you really understood each video. FluentU can be used on desktop or as an app (iOS and Android) so you can listen to German cases in use at home or on the go.
For additional practice and study materials, check out:
- Learn German—hear cases used in level-appropriate situations.
- German.net—practice the nominative case first, or select the area you need the most help with.
- German Prepositions Battleship—test your knowledge of prepositions and their cases by playing this classic game.
- Verbs with Prepositions—use this printout as a reference or commit it to memory.
- Easy Deutsch—fill in the correct pronouns in the quiz, using the genitive form as needed.
Once you have more experience recognizing German cases, you’ll be able to see the relationships of the words in those long German sentences.
And when you’re comfortable with the German cases, you’ll be able to start writing and speaking German with greater fluency. You got this!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)