It was a dark and stormy night.
The distinction between subjects, direct objects, possessive pronouns and the like was driving me crazy.
I just knew I’d have to learn all about the case.
The Spanish case.
All kidding aside, why do you need to know the grammatical labels for every sentence part, anyway?
Well.. you don’t, except for in those awkward moments when you get them mixed up. Did you really mean to say “Me give the letter to he?” in Spanish? Probably not.
But if you knew all about Spanish cases, you wouldn’t make that kind of mistake.
Get your label makers ready, because we’re here to help you get a handle on Spanish cases.
Why Do Spanish Cases Matter?
Like the luggage in your closet, Spanish cases aren’t something you think about much… until you have to use them.
If you’ve studied any other case-based language like Latin or German, you might be wondering: “Does Spanish even have a case system?”
The answer is “yes, but…” You’ll be happy to hear that cases in Spanish aren’t as strict or as sentence-altering as its more case-adherent language relatives. Spanish cases do exist but they don’t always change the form of the noun or pronoun.
Even if you don’t need to alter words to make them fit into a case, knowing what function a word is serving in a sentence can be quite beneficial.
Here are all the reasons why Spanish cases matter:
They tell you how a noun functions in a sentence.
Knowing Spanish cases helps you understand what function a noun is serving, whether it’s the subject that’s doing the action or the object that’s receiving it. Nouns don’t change for Spanish cases, but pronouns and subject markers do, so being able to tell what case a noun is in will help you if you decide to turn it into a pronoun.
Cases help you understand which pronoun to use.
We may not verbalize it, but it’s obvious to most English speakers that the pronoun “I” is used differently from the pronoun “me.”
If you hear a sentence in which the pronoun “me” is used where “I” should be instead, it’s easy to tell that it’s wrong, or endearing when it’s done by the Cookie Monster: “Me like cookies!”
But in Spanish, it’s not always so obvious.
That’s because pronouns often go next to each other in the same sentence, or may even be left out altogether.
What student of Spanish hasn’t gotten tripped up with the difference between lo and le? Or struggled to the point of madness over the four different possible words for “mine”?
But understanding Spanish cases takes the mystery out of the plethora of pronouns that exist.
They help determine word order in a sentence.
Word order in any language is one of the hardest things to learn. First, you have to remember that object pronouns come before the verb in Spanish (instead of after). As if that weren’t already hard enough, you have to remember that indirect objects come before direct objects and that people come before things.
It’s a lot to keep track of. But a little practice with Spanish cases can help you keep everything straight.
How to Practice Spanish Cases
As with anything, the best way to master Spanish cases is to practice them.
Here are some of the best ways to do that:
Converse with a native speaker.
You can listen to a lecture or read a textbook about Spanish cases, pronouns and word order over and over without retaining anything.
The best way to understand how to use Spanish cases correctly is to hear and use them in conversation.
After all, when you were learning to speak your first language, no one had to explain anything to you about pronouns, cases or word order. Over time, you just figured out that certain sentences just “sounded” right.
It’s the same with Spanish.
Do some online grammar exercises.
There’s nothing like repetition to really drive a grammar point home.
Here are some good sites to drill Spanish cases.
- Study Spanish offers hands-on practice with almost any grammar topic you could imagine, including Spanish cases. Check out Unit 4 for some practice with different kinds of pronouns, and Unit 8 for correct word order in statements of command. Unit 1 gives you a run-down of gender and correct use of subject pronouns.
- Lengalia’s second level in its Spanish course provides a thorough review of Spanish modality and verbs.
Do listening exercises with captions.
Watching videos with subtitles is like listening to a conversation, but with the added benefit of seeing the words at the same time. This allows you to practice reading and listening simultaneously to get a real grasp of your Spanish cases.
Here are the best sites to practice listening to sentence structure.
- Netflix has a nice variety of Spanish movies and Spanish TV shows. All you have to do is go into your settings to make sure there’s a checkmark next to “Spanish” for subtitles. You can pause and go back as many times as you need to understand the dialogue better. Plus, Netflix is generally a great tool to help you learn Spanish.
- News in Slow Spanish gives you snippets of news stories accompanied by a transcript so you can follow along. Besides helping you with Spanish cases, it’s a good way to get a daily dose of Spanish culture, too.
- FluentU is a great way to learn Spanish the way it’s actually used by native Spanish speakers.
Plus, it doesn’t just offer subtitles: You have the option to use dual-language captions, and they’re all interactive—just hover over a word to see a definition, example sentences and even other videos that use it! Check it out with a free trial.
So now you know the best places to practice Spanish cases.
But how do you really use them?
Spanish Cases in Grammar and Their Role in Spanish Sentences
The Spanish Nominative Case
In this case, the noun or pronoun functions as the subject of the sentence. In other words, it’s the person, place or thing doing the action, like the word “dog” in this sentence: “The dog drinks the water.”
The pronouns used in the Spanish nominative case are the standard ones that are typically the first ones you learn.
Yo — I
Tú/vos — You (informal)
Usted — You (formal)
Él — He
Ella — She
Nosotros/nosotras — We
Vosotros/vosotras — You (plural, informal)
Ustedes — You (plural, formal)
Ellos — They (masculine)
Ellas — They (feminine)
Here are a couple of example sentences:
Los profesores (ellos) les dan los libros. — The professors (they) give them the books.
Yo voy a la biblioteca. — I go to the library.
Nosotros comemos siempre. — We always eat.
The Spanish Accusative Case
Nouns in the accusative case are direct objects, meaning they directly receive the action of the verb. In our example sentence from the last section, the water is the direct object: “The dog drinks the water.”
The Spanish pronouns used in the accusative case are:
Me — me
Te — you (relating to tú)
Lo — him, it (masculine) and you (relating to usted)
La — her, it (feminine) and you (relating to usted)
Nos — us
Os — you (relating to vosotros and vosotras)
Los — them (masculine) and you (relating to ustedes)
Las — them (feminine) and you (relating to ustedes)
In the sentence Yo quiero helado (I want ice cream), the helado is in the accusative case since it’s receiving the action of “being wanted.” Notice that the noun doesn’t change.
If we replaced it with a pronoun, though, you’d change helado to lo since el helado is a masculine noun. The resulting sentence would look like this: Yo lo quiero (I want it).
For more information about why the pronoun jumps to a different place in the sentence, read our guide to object pronouns.
Some other examples:
Yo lo veo. — I see it.
Mi hermana nos enseña. — My sister teaches us.
The Spanish Dative Case
Nouns in the dative case refer to indirect objects. They indirectly receive the action of a sentence. In the sentence “I talked to him,” the word “him” is in the dative case since the action of being “talked to” is being received by “him.” If the sentence were “I asked him,” then “him” would be in the accusative case since the action is being applied directly!
Confused? Don’t be! Think of indirect objects as nouns or pronouns that are being acted on, to, for, forward, on behalf of, etc. There’s a degree of separation, usually indicated by a preposition in English.
The Spanish pronouns for the dative case are:
Me — me
Te — you (informal)
Le, se — him, her, it or you (formal)
Nos — us (formal)
Vos — us (informal)
Les, se — you (formal)
Les, se — them
Let’s return to this example sentence: Los profesores les dan los libros. In this sentence, the les is in the dative case, showing that the professors give the books “to them.”
Some other examples:
Yo doy el regalo a mi padre. — I give the present to my father.
Yo le doy el regalo. — I give him the present. (“I give the present to him.”)
Mi hermana escribe a su amigo. — My sister writes to her friend.
Mi hermana le escribe. — My sister writes to him.
Wait, but when do you use se? This little pronoun is reserved for those moments when a pronoun in the accusative case (a direct object) wants to join a pronoun in the dative case (an indirect object).
If we wanted to change the los libros to a pronoun in this sentence Los profesores les dan los libros, we’d also have to change les to se:
Los profesores se los dan. — The professors gave them (the books) to them (the people).
Just remember that the indirect object pronoun—that is, the pronoun in the dative case—always comes before the direct object pronoun.
The Spanish Genitive/Possessive Case
This case denotes objects which are owned or possessed by someone. In other words, “mine” is in the genitive/possessive case in this example: “This is mine!”
The genitive case pronouns in Spanish are gendered. That is, you need to take into account the gender of the person you’re referring to when you’re choosing which pronoun to use:
mío(s), mía(s) — mine
tuyos(s), tuya(s) — yours (corresponding to tú)
suyo(s), suya(s) — his, hers or yours (corresponding to usted)
nuestro(s), nuestra(s) — ours
vuestro(s), vuestra(s) — yours (corresponding to vosotros/vosotras)
suyo(s), suya(s) — theirs, or yours (corresponding to ustedes)
This case is used basically the same in Spanish as it is in English so it shouldn’t give you too much trouble. Here are some examples:
El chocolate no es tuyo. Es mío. — The chocolate isn’t yours. It’s mine.
Los libros son suyos. — The books are theirs.
Son nuestros amigos.— They are our friends.
If you want to use the possessive case with a noun (ie “my item”), you’ll need to also learn a few possessive adjectives. That topic is too broad for our little post but you can learn a lot more about possessive adjectives in Spanish with our guide. The Spanish possessive adjectives are as follows:
mi(s) — my
tu(s) — your (informal)
su(s) — his, her, their, its, your (corresponding to usted)
nuestro(s)/nuestra(s) — our
vuestro(s)/vuestra(s) — your (corresponding to vosotros/vosotras)
Use the -s form of the possessive pronoun when the noun attached to it is plural. Here are a few examples:
Tienes mi móvil.— You have my phone.
¿Vas a comer tus papas fritas? — Are you going to eat your french fries?
You now have a handle on Spanish cases and their roles in the Spanish sentence. Case closed!
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