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WHO is doing that to WHOM with WHAT and WHOSE is it at all? – The four German cases Posted by on Aug 6, 2010 in Language

Most learners of German seem to struggle with the language’s grammar cases. In this post I am going to explain why these cases exist and what they mean.

The crucial element of every sentence is the verb, since it names a particular action. In this action, there are always specific subjects and objects (nouns) involved in. Since German word order is very changeable all nouns have to slip into particular roles, so that we have the chance to realize how each noun is related to the verb. These roles are the language’s grammar cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative.

Usually, we cannot realize the role or case by the form of the noun. Therefore, German nouns are preceded by other parts of speech, e.g. definite articles, indefinite articles, pronouns, and adjectives, which have the function to indicate the specific grammar case of the following noun.

As I cannot cover all parts of speech in a single post I will focus on the definite articles in the following.  Below you can find an overview of all definite articles.

Singular Plural
masculine feminine neuter
Nominative der die das die
Genitive des der des der
Dative dem der dem den
Accusative den die das die

Here is a short description of what each case indicates, that is, how a particular noun is related to the verb or action.

Nominative = DOER

(indicates who or what carries out the action)
Genitive = POSSESSION

(indicates that something belongs to the doer, instrument, OR target of an action)
Dative = INSTRUMENT (indicates with what the action is carried out)
Accusative = TARGET (indicates who or what receives the action)

Here are some example sentences:

Der Mann der Nachbarin liest das Buch mit der Brille. – The man/husband of the (female) neighbor is reading the book with the glasses.

Die Frau schreibt den Brief mit dem Stift des Chefs. – The woman is writing the letter with the pen of the boss.

Das Kind spielt das Spiel des Jahres mit der Freundin. – The child is playing the game of the year with the (female) friend.

From these example sentences, we can deduce the following two general rules:

1) English “of the” corresponds always to the German articles of the genitive case. That is, there are only two options to express “of the” in German: “der” or “des”

2) The preposition “mit” (with) requires always the dative case of the following noun. That is, it is either  “mit dem” or “mit der” (for singular nouns) or “mit den” (for plural nouns).

Here is a list of all the nouns, which I have just used, with their nominative articles, so that you can check my explanations.

der Mann – man; husband

die Nachbarin – (female) neighbor

das Buch – book

die Brille – glasses

die Frau – woman; wife

der Brief – letter

der Stift – pen

der Chef – boss

das Kind – child

das Spiel – game

das Jahr – year

die Freundin – (female) friend

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About the Author:Sandra Rösner

Hello everybody! I studied English and American Studies, Communication Science, and Political Science at the University of Greifswald. Since I have been learning English as a second language myself for almost 20 years now I know how difficult it is to learn a language other than your native one. Thus, I am always willing to keep my explanations about German grammar comprehensible and short. Further, I am inclined to encourage you to speak German in every situation. Regards, Sandra


Comments:

  1. Kat:

    This is SO brilliant… Brief, yet it’s easy to digest. Danke schön! 🙂

  2. schwein hundert:

    Hey, this site is ausgezeichnet!, I just discovered it!
    A fun way to keep my hand in the game a bit.

  3. Pranav:

    This is the simplest explanation on cases that I ever read. Thanks a ton. 🙂

  4. Hanna:

    Wow, thank you so much!! I am German and have been trying to explain the cases to my husband who is American. This is the simplest and yet most comprehensive way I have ever had the cases explained in English. Wonderful!!

  5. Tim:

    Sandra, you’re a star!!

  6. kanak:

    nicee …thanks

  7. AM:

    what a brilliant explanation. I like it .

  8. Jay:

    Still very difficult for an English speaker but your post is extremely useful, ausgezeichnet !