When you’re learning German, you learn to just accept certain things.
A door is feminine, a dog is masculine and a horse is neuter?
Okay, sure! Why not?
Believe it or not, though, there is actually a reason behind every bit of strangeness.
In the case of the above, it’s all about genders. In German, every noun has a gender.
Once you know the gender of a noun, you’ll know which definite and indefinite article to assign it.
But…hang on. That’s not everything.
German grammar is also made up of different cases, which can change the definite and indefinite articles.
You may feel that cases have been invented with the sole aim of annoying the German learner, but they actually serve a really useful purpose in language.
The more you understand them, the easier you’ll find all your German speaking, reading and writing becomes.
If you’re wondering why English doesn’t have these cases, we actually do!
It’s just that over time ours have become less distinctive from one another, and we only have one word for our indefinite and definite articles.
You can still see and hear cases in English. However, they are often seen as very archaic. Ever wondered why we sometimes say “whom” instead of “who”? Well, that’s a case in action!
If you want to speak proper German, you have to really know your cases.
German has four cases: nominative, accusative, genitive and dative.
This article is going to focus on the one most language learners come to fear…the dreaded dative!
What Is the Dative?
The dative’s main purpose is to point out an indirect object. That’s a person or thing that’s being affected by a verb’s action.
Ich habe das der Frau gesagt. (I told that to the woman.)
In the above sentence, “the woman” is the one being told. So she is the indirect object. “I” is the subject of the sentence and “that” is the direct object.
One reason learners grapple with the German dative so much more than any other case is because it changes every definite and indefinite article. In the example above, you’ll notice how die Frau has changed to der Frau. This is because the dative changes the feminine definite article from die to der.
Dastardly Dative Definite and Indefinite Articles
If a sentence or clause is in the dative case, you need to make sure you’re using dative articles with nouns. As we don’t change articles in English, this can be tricky for learners to get their heads around. However, once you remember the following pattern of changes, you’ll find your understanding of German improves by leaps and bounds.
Masculine Definite Article
In the dative case, instead of taking their usual der, masculine nouns need to use dem as their definite article.
Er hat das dem Hund gegeben. (I gave it to the dog.)
Ich bin mit dem Mann ins Kino gegangen. (I went to the cinema with the man.)
Feminine Definite Article
We also need to change the feminine definite article. Der is used instead of die.
Wir backen der Julia einen Kuchen. (We’re baking a cake for Julia.)
Germans will often precede male names with the masculine definite article, and female names with the feminine definite article.
Er hat der Oma den Tisch gekauft. (He bought the grandma the table.)
Neuter Definite Article
The definite article for neutral nouns, das, changes to dem. Just like the masculine one did!
Ich habe dem Mädchen Witze erzählt. (I told the girl jokes.)
Er gibt dem Pferd das Heu. (He gives the horse the hay.)
Plural Definite Article
As well as changing the plural definite article to den, we also need to add an “-n” or “-en” ending to the plural noun.
Sie spricht mit den Brüdern. (She speaks with the brothers.)
Ich habe den Hunden das Fleisch gefüttert. (I fed the meat to the dogs.)
Masculine Indefinite Article
It’s not just definite articles that are changed by the dative—indefinite ones get in on the action too! When it comes to masculine nouns, ein becomes einem.
Er macht es mit einem Computer. (He’s doing it with a computer.)
Sie werden einem Franzosen alles sagen. (They’ll tell a Frenchman everything.)
Feminine Indefinite Article
The pattern with indefinite articles follows that of the definite articles. So, die changes to der. That means eine will change to…einer.
Sie hat einer Tante das Geld gegeben. (She gave the money to an aunt.)
Ich habe das in einer Geschichte gelesen. (I read that in a story.)
Neuter Indefinite Article
Neuter nouns need einem instead of ein.
Ein Esel ist einem Pferd sehr ähnlich. (A donkey is very similar to a horse.)
Ich habe nichts außer einem Fenster gebrochen. (I didn’t break anything except a window.)
As in English, there is no indefinite article for plurals. However, we do use the article kein to negate plurals. In English, this is usually translated as “not a” or “not any.” The translations below will help you get a grasp on the grammar.
Ich habe mit keinem gesprochen. (I spoke with nobody. / I didn’t speak to anyone.)
Das Mädchen hat keinen Verwandten das Geheimnis gesagt. (The girl told no relatives the secret. / The girl didn’t tell any relatives the secret.)
Whereas in English, there are a few different constructions that get across the same idea, in German you’ll always be using kein.
Der Wemfall: Is That “Who” or “Whom”?
Even Germans find the dative hard to master! And for one reason in particular—its effect on the word wer (who). This aspect has even led to Germans coining the nickname der Wemfall for the dative. Der Wemfall could be translated into English as “the whom-case.” Indeed, English used to have a dative case and “whom” is a remnant of this—but who really knows how to use “whom” correctly? Germans also have trouble remembering that wer is changed to wem in the dative, and that’s why they’ve come up with the nickname der Wemfall.
Whenever wer (who) is found in a dative clause, it changes to wem.
Wem hat er das Ticket gegeben? (To whom did he give the ticket?)
Dastardly Dative Verbs
Some German verbs always require the dative case—whether the following noun is the indirect object or not. These are as follows:
- helfen (to help)
- danken (to thank)
- gefallen (to like)
- gehören (to belong to)
- schmecken (to taste)
- passen (to match)
Here’s an example of how these verbs work:
Kannst du mir bitte helfen? (Can you please help me?)
In this instance, even though “me” is the direct object and would usually take the accusative, helfen forces it to be in the dative.
Dastardly Dative Prepositions
- aus (from/out/over)
- außer (except/besides)
- bei (with/by)
- mit (with)
- nach (after/to)
- seit (since)
- von (from/of)
- zu (to/too)
Sie kommt aus der Turkei. (She comes from Turkey.)
Note: In German, Turkey (the country, not the bird!) translates as die Turkei—it always has a definite article.
Dastardly Mixed Prepositions
Here we have a group of prepositions that, just to confuse things, can take either the accusative or dative case. If there is no movement or direction in the sentence, you’ll need to use the dative.
So, for example:
Das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch. (The book is lying on the table.)
Ich lege das Buch auf den Tisch. (I lay the book on the table.)
In the top sentence, the book is lying still on the table. There is no movement in the sentence, so auf triggers the dative case. Therefore, der Tisch changes to dem Tisch. Whereas in the bottom sentence, the book is being moved onto the table. Der Tisch needs to change to den Tisch because the movement along with auf requires the accusative case.
Here’s a list of these pesky prepositions:
- an (on)
- auf (on/upon)
- hinter (behind)
- in (in/into)
- neben (near/next to)
- über (over/above)
- unter (under)
- vor (in front of/before/to)
- zwischen (in between)
Hopefully, this article has given you all the weapons needed to tackle the dastardly dative case!
Eventually, knowing all the cases will help you to better understand and speak German.
So time to get cracking on that dative!
After studying German and Philosophy at The University of Nottingham, Laura Harker relocated to Berlin in 2012. She now works as a freelance writer and is also assistant editor at Slow Travel Berlin.
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