“It was Professor Plum, in the billiard room, with the candlestick!”
Do you remember playing Clue?
The name of the game was figuring out whodunnit, but it was fun just to move around the board and take those secret passageways. Everyone got to be a detective, but only the cleverest could solve the mystery.
Which three cards were in that envelope?
And was it really Professor Plum?
Learning German cases shouldn’t be as hard as solving a mystery.
Who wants to spend hours consulting and sharing information?
And since you can’t peek into the envelope for a hint—that’s cheating!—German cases are a grammar concept you’ll have to figure out on your own.
That said, knowing the proper German case to use can be a simple task.
In this guide, I’ll show you all the tricks you need to pin down those cases. Rather than scratching your head and pondering the clues before you, you’ll have the answer in just a few minutes.
(German) Case closed!
Why Learning German Cases Is Important
So, why is it important to know these German cases?
For starters, they’re a very integral part of German grammar.
That means if you want to speak the German language, you’re going to have to make nice with cases. German cases play a huge role in how the entire language goes together. From parts of speech to basic language structuring, German cases can be found in every sentence.
In their most basic form, German cases allow speakers to comprehend the relationship between words and phrases in German.
You may have heard that, in German, you have to get to the end of the sentence to know what’s going on. As much as that pokes fun at the language, it does ring true—especially when you’re focusing on cases.
And of course, knowing German cases lends itself to passing fluency certification tests and attaining recognizable fluency in the German language.
You can’t speak German if you don’t know the German cases.
Tips for Learning the German Cases
Before we jump into each case, here are some tips for making the most out of your studies.
First, memorize your declension.
This scary word simply describes the way to show some characteristics of a noun that you’re talking about. These characteristics include features like case, number and gender.
You should also try to memorize what types of nouns have certain genders associated with them.
For example, nouns that end in –e are oftentimes feminine, while those that end in -ment typically take the neuter gender.
Diagram sentences to figure out what each word is and what role it plays in the sentence. You can use a variety of texts in this kind of practice.
What Are the German Cases?
You’ve heard enough about them. Now, let’s get down to what the German cases actually are.
What Is a Case?
First: 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. Cases change in relation to the elements of the sentence, depending on which are present and which aren’t.
Most sentences include at least one case, but it’s rare that you’ll see all four cases in a single sentence.
The Purpose of German Cases and How to Identify Them
Each case indicates a certain modus operandi that tells us exactly what the words’ purpose is.
For example, the nominative case denotes the subject of the sentence.
Typically the subject is performing the action (the verb) of the sentence, or is at least the focus of what’s happening.
If the subject is acting upon something, we call this the direct object, and it takes on the accusative case.
Whereas direct objects receive the action of the sentence, indirect objects are a bit more complicated. Categorized in the dative case, they can be recipients of the direct object, but there are certain German verbs that are inherently dative, too.
Definite and indefinite articles are an easy way to determine cases in German.
Definite articles, such as der, die and das, reflect the case of the noun they’re describing.
This is also true for indefinite articles, such as ein and eine. The endings of both definite and indefinite articles change as the German case changes.
For example, the phrase der Apfel changes in the following sentences:
Der Apfel ist rot. (The apple is red.)
Ich esse den Apfel. (I eat the apple.)
In the first instance, der Apfel is the subject of the sentence. Therefore, it’s in the nominative case.
The second sentence places the apple as the recipient of the action of the sentence. In other words, it’s the direct object, making it part of the accusative case.
As you can see, the phrase changes from der Apfel to den Apfel, as den is the accusative form of der.
If your head’s spinning a bit, take a breath.
We’ve given you a few clues as to what the German cases are, but in the next section, we’ll describe each one more in detail.
Just know that there are four German cases:
- Accusative case
- Dative case
- Genitive case
Each case has its own unique characteristics.
The Nominative Case in German
The nominative case is first on our list because it’s typically first in the sentence.
Oftentimes the subject, the nominative case can also come in the form of a double nominative. Depending on the verb, there are even times where there’s no nominative case!
When you start out learning German, you often begin sentences with ich (I).
You might say, “Ich heiße” (I’m called) or “Ich bin” (I am).
Both of these phrases include the nominative case with each use of ich.
In fact, the nominative is the case you’ll probably get the most practice in. As you move up in fluency level, the sentences you create should be more complex, so you may use entire phrases in the nominative case as the subject of the sentence.
You just saw an example of the nominative case above, but here’s another one:
Sarah wohnt auf dem Land. (Sarah lives off the land.)
In this example, Sarah is the subject of the sentence. The verb is conjugated to the sie (she) form (from the infinitive wohnen to wohnt) since Sarah is a girl.
Typically, the verb will be conjugated to the subject of the sentence.
This is one of the easiest ways to remember the nominative case.
Another way to detect the nominative case is to look at the definite and indefinite articles, as we mentioned above.
The nominative case will only use the der, die or das definite articles.
Die can be used for both feminine and plural nouns. As for indefinite articles, you’ll only see ein for masculine and neuter nouns, and eine for feminine nouns.
Since ein words translate to “a” in English, they can’t be used with plural nouns (you don’t say “a kittens”).
Where to Study the Nominative Case
If you’re looking for a way to practice finding out where the nominative case is in a sentence, there are a few resources out there.
- German.net offers exercises to practice your knowledge after you’ve read the explanation. Click through the prompts, choosing the case-appropriate answer from each drop-down. You can even check your answers at the end.
- Easy Deutsch is a great place for practicing those definite and indefinite articles. These exercises will help you distinguish between noun genders and their corresponding articles. Not only will you have to figure out if it’s der, die or das, but you’ll also complete a few sections where you’ll categorize endings by the gender they define.
The key thing to remember with the nominative case is that:
- The verb is conjugated to it
- Both definite and indefinite articles don’t change their endings.
If either of these characteristics doesn’t fit, we move on to the next candidate—the accusative case.
The Accusative Case in German
As we mentioned above, the accusative case typically describes the direct object of the sentence.
There are, however, accusative prepositions and accusative pronouns as well.
What’s great about the accusative case, though, is that once you know something is in the accusative, you can simply apply the rules associated with the accusative case. So the accusative is pretty easy to identify.
The first step in locating the accusative case is to look for multiple nouns and/or pronouns in the sentence.
The accusative case often shows how these various (pro)nouns are related to each other. When you rule out the subject of the sentence as we did above (by looking to see which noun/pronoun the verb is conjugated to), the remaining noun(s)/pronoun(s) are in a different case.
This might be the accusative or dative case. Look at the verb again to see the relationship it has to the remaining noun(s)/pronoun(s).
Do they receive the action? If so, 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, here’s a sentence with a direct object in the accusative case. Do you know which object that is?
Suzie kauft einen Apfel. (Suzie buys an apple.)
If you guessed einen Apfel, you’re correct!
Suzie is the subject of the sentence and though we can’t necessarily see it, she’s in the nominative case.
Since Suzie buys the apple, she’s acting upon it directly. That means the apple is the direct object, making it part of the accusative case.
Here are some more examples:
Sie kaufen den Käse und schneiden ihn. (They buy the cheese and cut it.)
The pronoun ihn replaces den Käse in the second part of the sentence. Did you notice the -n ending on den Käse? That’s the tell-tale sign of a masculine noun in the accusative case.
Wir gehen durch den Wald. (We walk through the forest.)
Durch is an accusative preposition. If you can memorize the accusative prepositions, you’ll know that any noun(s)/pronoun(s) following them are always in the accusative case. Guaranteed.
Now that you know more about the accusative, let’s talk about where you can apply your skills.
Where to Study the Accusative Case
Here’s a fun way to practice the German accusative case: German Preposition Battleship.
This game incorporates the age-old Battleship concept into learning accusative and dative prepositions. You can also learn about which verbs take an accusative or dative prepositions by memorizing this printout.
Finally, check in with Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White. Their fairy tale examples will guide you towards recognizing the accusative case in real-world texts.
See if you can spot the accusative case in terms of definite and indefinite articles, pronouns, prepositions and verbs.
Remember the –n and –en endings change in the masculine case, and look closer at the sentence when encountering feminine, neuter and plural nouns.
The Dative Case in German
It’s easy to associate the German accusative case with the direct object of the sentence. After all, accusations typically come directly, especially when you’re trying to solve a mystery.
But here’s where it all starts to get a bit fuzzy, at least in the German language.
The dative case is a bit less defined. While most instances of the dative case occur as indirect objects, prepositions, verbs and pronouns can be dative as well.
Let’s look at an example:
Mein Bruder gibt seiner Freundin einen Ring. (My brother gave his girlfriend a ring.)
It’s simple to figure out here that the ring is what the speaker’s brother is acting upon since he’s giving it. And since his girlfriend is the recipient of both his action and the ring, she’s in the dative case, as the indirect object.
But what about the example below?
Mein Kopf tut mir weh. (My head hurts (me).)
This is where it gets tricky.
In German, the verb wehtun (to hurt) is separable and dative.
We say “My head hurts” in English, but in German, there needs to be a reference to who feels the hurt.
If you’ve ever seen or used the verb sich waschen (to wash oneself), you know why this is the case:
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.
The object then takes the place of the direct object, or accusative form.
The dative case isn’t always so complicated though. In fact, there are plenty of dative prepositions, such as mit:
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 your trusted sources: definite and indefinite articles.
Nouns and pronouns in the dative case will change from der, die and das to dem, der and dem, respectively.
Plural nouns and pronouns will change from die to den.
Indefinite articles reflect these same endings as well: –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!
Where to Study the Dative Case
That might seem like a lot to wrap your head around, so here are a few resources you can use to practice what you’ve learned and put it into context.
We’ve talked about sich waschen as both an accusative and dative verb, but did you know prepositions have similar behavior?
- German Prepositions Quiz. Many prepositions can be accusative, dative or dual, depending on the circumstances. Answer these multiple-choice questions and you’ll figure out soon if you know each type well enough to catch them in the act.
- Easy Deutsch. Dative verbs abound, too. Work through these written exercises from Easy Deutsch to get a feel for how to use German dative verbs in your writing.
- German.net. You can also get a feel for dative pronouns by completing this simple quiz from German.net. And if you’re given the nominative pronoun, can you fill in these sentences with the proper corresponding pronoun in the dative case? Try your luck to see how well you fare.
Besides learning to recognize definite and indefinite article endings, the secret to learning the dative case lies in memory.
Study those prepositions, pronouns and verbs so that when you see them in person, you can identify them right away. They won’t be able to hide from you.
The Genitive Case in German
Last but certainly not least, and definitely not the easiest case to master, the German genitive is typically used to show possession.
Like many of the cases before, genitive prepositions, verbs and pronouns exist in the German language. So what do they look like and how do you use them?
Here’s an example:
Das Handy meines Bruders ist kaputt. (The cellphone of my brother is broken. / My brother’s cellphone is broken)
Bear with me because the genitive case can be confusing at first.
If you can remember the “of” part of the phrasing, it’s a bit easier to get down pat.
For instance, you might start saying “the floor of my bedroom” instead of “my bedroom floor,” “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:
Wo kann ich außerhalb der Stadt parken? (Where can I park outside the city?)
When possession isn’t as easy to determine, look to your trusty confidential informants: those definite and indefinite articles.
Genitive makes it easy by only using –es and –er endings. Masculine and neuter nouns and pronouns will use the –es ending, while feminine and plural nouns and pronouns take the –er ending.
You may remember this by thinking of the phrase “his and hers.” The possessive pronoun “his” has an “s” while “hers” has an “r” in it.
Where to Study the Genitive Case
Trust me, give the following practice exercises a try and you’ll start to see how the German genitive case integrates into the language.
- Cengage. Fill in these multiple-choice questions from Cengage to see how well you know the genitive case.
- Easy Deutsch. Try these written exercises by Easy Deutsch. By the end of the exercise, you’ll know if you truly understand the German genitive case—or if you need to go back and do some more studying. Just remember to look at the article endings and/or possession.
- University of Texas. Bring back Little Red to form sentences about her and her story mates in the genitive case through the University of Texas. Because even though rumor has it the genitive case may not be used much longer in Germany, it’s still something you should practice and know how to do. This is especially true for fluency tests.
Did you get your man—or woman?
Nabbing the culprit of German cases isn’t as easy—or hard, for that matter—as solving a real mystery case.
But there are ways you can put together clues and find your way through the labyrinth. Keep this guide handy as you familiarize yourself with the German cases and remember—sometimes the answer you seek is before your very eyes.
Rebecca Henderson holds a degree in German and Creative Writing. She is the editor behind The Kreativ Space and hopes to shift your world perspective through her words, because looking out the same window every day hardly makes for an interesting life.