Can you find the difference between the two bolded words in the following sentences?
“The boy plays with his dog joyfully.”
“The dog sloppily licks the boy all over his face.”
I’ll give you a hint – it’s not the capitalization!
Need another hint? Try saying them in German!
Common confusion between dem, den, die, der and das
If you’ve already been studying German for a while, you probably aren’t sure when to use dem, den, die, der or das with certain nouns and prepositions. It can be difficult to understand why you hear one instead of another when watching German TV shows or German movies. Those of you who have some knowledge of German know that the German cases are one of the most notoriously tricky parts of learning Deutsch.
If you don’t know any German yet, or are only just beginning, you’re probably wondering what on Earth I’m talking about—especially if you’re a native English speaker. Don’t worry, everything will start to make a little more sense soon!
In this article, I’ll quickly break down just what the different cases in German entail, and give you an easy summary of how to use them.
German has many different articles
Anyone who knows a little German knows that a super important difference between German and English is that German has several different words for the English “the”: namely, der, die, and das. In English, we use one definite article (“the”) for plurals, animals, furniture, places… absolutely everything! The indefinite article (“a”) doesn’t change either (except when used with words beginning with a vowel, when it becomes “an”).
In German, case changes are important
Despite having only “the” as an indefinite article, English does have different cases! If you grew up speaking English, and have never studied grammar extensively, you may not be aware of what grammatical cases mean for a sentence or how to use them. If you’re like I was before I started learning a second language, you may not even really know what a grammatical case is! However, an explanation of English pronouns can provide an easy demonstration of case changes, which will make the German cases a whole lot easier to understand.
What are grammatical cases, anyway?
Take a look at the following two sentences about a man and a dog:
He pets the dog.
The dog bites him.
What changes in these sentences? Well, “he” and “him” both refer to the same thing: the man who is interacting with the dog. But in the first sentence, the man (“he”) is nominative, whereas in the second sentence, the man (now “him”) is accusative. The change in cases from nominative to accusative means that the pronoun referring to the man changes. Let’s look at this in a bit more detail now, so that you can figure out the difference between the nominative and accusative cases.
A Simple Introduction to German Nominative and Accusative Cases
What is the nominative case?
In the first sentence, the man is the subject of the sentence. He is the one doing the action (petting) to the dog. This means that the man, “he,” is in nominative case. The nominative word in a sentence is the subject: the person or thing that is doing the action indicated by the verb. More examples are: “The girl is running,” and “The house is on fire.” (“The girl” and “the house” are the subjects of these sentences.)
What is the accusative case?
The dog, having an action done to it, is accusative in the first sentence. We call this the direct object in English. The accusative word in a sentence is the direct object: the person or thing that is being acted upon. In the second sentence, the dog is now the subject, and the man is accusative. Therefore “he” becomes “him,” changing from nominative to accusative. “The” does not change because, as discussed above, it is the only definite article in English.
English pronoun changes are similar to German pronoun changes
The same case change happens when “she” becomes “her,” and “I” becomes “me.” These changes may seem totally easy and intuitive to you if you have been speaking English all your life. Imagine how weird it would sound if you said, “Her drives the car” instead of “She drives the car,” or “The professor talked to I” instead of “The professor talked to me.”
When you use the wrong case in German, it sounds equally confusing and wrong. But now that you understand the German pronoun changes from nominative to accusative are similar to those in English, keeping track of German pronouns shouldn’t be too hard!
How exactly do German articles differ in nominative and accusative cases?
Let’s look at the same example in German, for a specific demonstration of how German articles are different depending on their cases:
Er streichelt den Hund.
Der Hund beißt ihn.
First off, let’s look at the difference between er and ihn. As I just pointed out, you don’t have to worry too much about this part because we just learned the difference between “he” and “him,” and it is the same for the German pronouns!
Male, female and plural German personal pronouns
Er is nominative in the first sentence, and the man becomes accusative in the second sentence, switching to ihn. But what happens if we change these sentences to be about a woman?
Sie streichelt den Hund.
Der Hund beißt sie.
The female pronoun does not actually change in the accusative case—it is exactly the same as the nominative. You can use sie for both sentences here. Although this is not quite like English, it shouldn’t be too hard to remember.
The German plural pronoun (“they” in English) is the same as the female pronoun: they are both sie. So, just as the female sie is the same in accusative and nominative case, the plural sie is also the same in both cases.
Neutral German pronouns
What if we wanted to talk about a robot (or any other non-gendered entity) and a dog?
Es streichelt den Hund.
Der Hund beißt es.
The neutral pronoun, es, also remains the same in nominative and accusative. This is the same as sie. These two should be fairly easy to keep track of.
More German pronouns
Below is the same example for “I” and “me”:
Ich streichele den Hund.
Der Hund beißt mich.
Ich becomes mich. Similarly, du becomes dich:
Du streichelst den Hund.
Der Hund beißt dich.
Just as the English “we” becomes “us,” wir becomes uns:
Wir streicheln den Hund.
Der Hund beißt uns.
What about the formal pronouns?
Sie streicheln den Hund.
Der Hund beißt Sie.
Here we have the formal pronoun, which you may know as Ihr, in the nominative case, changing to Sie in the accusative case. Pretty straightforward.
German definite articles
Now that we have gone over the indefinite articles, let’s take another look at this sentence. Something has happened to the definite articles—a change we don’t see in English.
Er streichelt den Hund.
Der Hund beißt ihn.
Der Hund is straightforward enough. Obviously that means “the dog.” But what does den Hund mean? Why isn’t der used here? Dog is a masculine noun in German, and masculine nouns use der as their definite article, or ein as their indefinite article:
Er streichelt einen Hund.
Ein Hund beißt ihn.
The same thing happens when we put the indefinite article in these sentences: we recognise ein Hund, but what about einen Hund? The explanation for this change in noun article is that the case of Hund changes. Just as the man changes, in the second sentence, from nominative to accusative position, so does the dog, from accusative to nominative.
einen Hund, den Hund = accusative
ein Hund, der Hund = nominative
When the dog changed from being the thing being acted upon in the sentence to the subject, it changed from accusative to nominative. In German, in the case of der Hund, its article changes as well.
German definite articles in nominative case
The nominative articles for German nouns are the ones you may have already learned if you are a German beginner:
der, ein = masculine
die, eine = feminine
das, ein = neutral
die = plural
German definite articles in accusative case
Unfortunately, I have to let you know that your knowledge isn’t quite complete: when nouns are in the accusative case, they have different articles… at least, some of them do.
den, einen = masculine
die, eine = feminine
das, ein = neutral
die = plural
It turns out that, in fact, only masculine nouns actually change pronouns in accusative case. So you only need to worry about new articles when masculine nouns are involved. This lets you off the hook some of the time, but when it comes to nouns that use der, you’ll have to remember that this changes to den when the noun in question is the direct object of a sentence.
This has been a quick introduction to what the German nominative and accusative cases look like, what they mean, and how to use them. Simple foundational rules like these will be useful to know once you really start getting into learning German grammar.
And One More Thing…
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After learning about the cases above, you’ll start to recognize them more often in their natural environment, and it’s going to start feeling more natural for you to use them yourself.
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