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German Case System Easy Explained

case system

While learning German, you have probably noticed that every German noun has a gender. 

Every noun. Even an apple – “der Apfel”. So an apple is masculine in German.

Why? Nobody knows.

The easiest way to learn German articles is to learn them directly with the noun. 

Let’s say you have learned all your nouns with the corresponding article:  

  • direct article: dermasculine; diefeminine; das neutral). 
  • indirect article: ein – masculine/neutral; eine – feminine)

But learning a language is not only about knowing some words but knowing how to put them together into a sentence. 

“Ich bin die Schwester der Nachbarin mit dem Hund.

Ich bin = I am; die Schwester = the sister – so far so good.

But why is it “der Nachbarin” while it should be “die Nachbarin”(neighbor) because it’s female? And what in the world should “dem” mean?

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to: The German Case System. 

In this article, you’ll learn: 

  • what is the Case System
  • why  we need it
  • how to use it

What is the German Case System

There are four cases in the German language, which are: 1. Nominativ, 2. Genetiv, 3. Dativ, 4. Akkusativ. 

Used in a sentence, words change their endings, depending on their function. For example, it’s essential to differentiate whether a word is a subject or an object in a sentence. 

To know which ending you have to use, you need to understand the German case system. Maybe the cases seem a bit strange to you, especially if you’re a native English speaker because the English case system (Yes, it exists) is not commonly used.

Why do we Need the German Case System?

So, if it’s not essential to know English cases, why is it in German? The answer is easy.

Because otherwise, you wouldn’t understand the meaning of the sentence. 

The easiest way to show it is with an example:

Die Frau der Bruder geben die Tochter der Freund der Hut.
(the wife the brother to give the daughter the friend the hat.)

Die Frau des Bruders gibt der Tochter des Freundes den Hut.
(The brother’s wife gives the hat to the friend’s daughter.)

First sentence: no declination  – we just can’t understand it.

Take a look at the table below. 

Nominativ + GenetivPrädikat (Verb)Dativ + GenetivAkkusativ
Die Frau des Brudersgibtder Tochter des Freundesden Hut 

Due to the case system, we can understand more precisely which role each element plays in a sentence.

In  short:

  1. Nominative case: is used for sentence subject. Every sentence contains a subject. A subject can be a person or a thing that does the action. In the example above, our subject is “the wife.”
  2. Genitive case: This case shows possession. E.g., The brother’s wife. 
  3. Dative case: This case is used for the indirect object. Usually, it’s a person or thing that receives an action. Example: “The brother’s wife gives the hat to the friend’s daughter.” –  the friend’s daughter is the receiver of the action.
  4. Accusative case: Is for the direct objects. The direct object is a thing or person to which something is done. For example: “The brother’s wife gives the hat” – “the hat” is the direct object. 

How to use the German Case System 

Tip:

  • If you rearrange the sentence correctly, you will quickly find out in which case the subject and object are in the sentence
  • the subject of the sentence is always in the nominative, whereas the object is either in the genitive, dative, or accusative

The following table shows you the declination of the direct and the indirect article. 

Declination Table Overview

KasusNominativ
Wer oder Was?
Genetiv
Wessen?
Dativ
Wem?
Akkusativ
Wen oder Was?
maskulin (m.)der Vater
ein Vater
des Vaters
eines Vaters
dem Vater
einem Vater
den Vater
einen Vater
feminin (f.)die Mutter
eine Mutter
der Mutter
einer Mutter
der Mutter
einer Mutter
die Mutter
eine Mutter
neutral (n,)das Kind
ein Kind
des Kindes
eines Kindes
dem Kind
einem Kind
das Kind
ein Kind
Pluraldie Elternder Elternden Eltern die Eltern 

1. Case: Nominativ

  • The nominative is the basic form of the noun, the” Subjekt.”
  • In a German sentence, the subject of the sentence is always in the nominative.
  • You can find out what the subject is by asking the questions: wer oder was? (who or what?)

e.g. 

Der Vater isst einen Kuchen. (The Father eats a cake)
Wer oder Was isst einen Kuchen? – der Vater (Who or what is eating a cake? – the father)

Die Mutter kocht das Essen. (Mom cooks the food
Wer oder Was kocht das Essen? – die Mutter (Who or what is cooking the food? – mom)

Das Kind spielt im Garten (The child is playing in the garden)
Wer oder Was spielt im Garten? – das Kind (Who is playing in the garden? – the child)

Nominativ overview

bestimmter Artikel(direct article)unbestimmter Artikel(indirect article);, Possesivartikel(meine, deine…)
maskulinder Bruderein Bruder
feminindie Schwestereine Schwester
neutraldas Kindein Kind
Pluraldie Elterndeine Eltern

Personal Pronouns in Nominative

Personalpronomen Possessivartikel
masculine/neutralfeminine/plural 
ichmein meine
du deindeine
ersein seine
sieihrihre
esseinseine
wir unserunsere
ihr euereure
sieihrihre

2. Case: Genetiv

  • This case shows possession
  • answers the question “wessen” (whose)
  • This case is primarily used in the written language. In spoken language, one can use the accusative or dative instead

Das Kind einer Freundin hat Geburtstag (It’s a friend’s child’s birthday)
Wessen Kind hat Geburtstag? – einer Freundin ( whose child’s birthday is it? – a friend’s child)

Die Katze des Nachbarn ist süß (The neighbor’s cat is cute)
Wessen Katze ist süß? – des Nachbars ( Whose cat is cute? – neighbor’s cat)

Der Besitzer des Hauses ist neu (The house owner is new)
Wessen Besitzer ist neu? – des Hauses (Whose owner is new? – of the house)

Genitiv overview

bestimmter Artikelunbestimmter Artikel, Possessivartikel
maskulindes Bruderseines Bruders
femininder Schwestereiner Schwester
neutraldes Kindeseines Kindes
Pluralder Elterndeiner Eltern

The masculine and neuter forms of the noun require either an -s or -es ending.

There are some signal words for the case system. These signal words require you to use this particular case. For genitive, these are: 

  • trotz (despite)
  • während (during)
  • wegen (because of)
  • anstatt (instead of)
  • außerhalb (outside of)
  • innerhalb (inside of)

In spoken language, it is possible to use the dative case as well.

Personal Pronouns in Genitive

Personalpronomen Possessivartikel
masculine/neutralfeminine/plural 
meinermeinesmeiner
deinerdeinesdeiner
seinerseinesseiner
ihrerihresihrer
seinerseinesseiner
unserunseresunserer
eurereureseurer
ihrerihresihrer

3 Case: Dativ

  • This case is used for the indirect object..
  • Usually, it’s a person or thing that receives an action. 
  • In part, the dative and accusative are identical.
  • It answers the question “wem?” (whom?) or “was?” (what?)

e.g. 

Das Auto gehört der Mutter. (The car belongs to the mother.)
Wem gehört das Auto? – Der Mutter. (To whom does the car belong? – Mother)

Sie schickt dem Vater eine Nachricht (She sends the father a message)
Wem schickt sie eine Nachricht? – Dem Vater (Who is she sending a message to? – The father)

Ich gehe mit dem Kind spazieren (I am going for a walk with the child)
Mit wem gehe ich spazieren? – mit dem Kind (Who am I going for a walk with? – with the child)

Artikel in Dativ

bestimmter Artikelunbestimmter Artikel, Possesivartikel
maskulindem Brudereinem  Bruder
femininder Schwestereiner Schwester
neutraldem Kindeinem Kind
Pluralden Elterndeinen Eltern

Pronomen im Dativ

Personalpronomen Possessivartikel
masculine/neutralfeminine plural
mirmeinemmeinermeinen
dirdeinemdeinerdeinen
ihmseinemseinerseinen
ihrihremihrerihren
ihmseinemseinerseinen
unsunseremunsererunseren
eucheuremeurereuren
ihnenihremihrerihren

Note: Some prepositions and verbs require the dative. A selection:

  • Präpositionen: aus(out), außer(besides), bei(next to), dank (thanks to), mit(with), nach(after), seit(since), …
  • Verben: antworten(to answer), zuhören(to listen), zustimmen(to agree), glauben(to believe), vertrauen(to trust), folgen(to follow), helfen(to help), danken(to thank), gehören( to belong)… 

4 case: Akkusativ

  • The objects of the sentence can be in the accusative case
  • It answers the question: Wen oder Was? (whom or what)
  • equal to the objective case in English

e.g. 

Ich habe einen Hund (I have a dog)
Wen oder Was habe ich? – einen Hund (Who or what do I have? – a dog)

Ich möchte einen Kaffee trinken (I would like to drink a coffee)
Wen oder Was möchte ich trinken? – einen Kaffee (what do I want to drink? – a coffee)

Ich habe eine Lampe gekauft (I bought a lamp)
Wen oder Was habe ich gekauft? – eine Lampe (What did I buy? – a lamp)

Artikel in Akkusativ

bestimmter Artikelunbestimmter Artikel, Possessivartikel
maskulinden Brudereinen Bruder
feminindie Schwestereine Schwester
neutraldas Kindein Kind
Pluraldie Elterndeine Eltern

Pronomen im Akkusativ

Personalpronomen Possessivartikel
masculineneutralfeminine/plural
michmeinenmeinmeine
dichdeinendeindeine
ihnseinenseinseine
sieihrenihrihre
esseinenseinseine
unsunserenunserunsere
eucheureneuereure
sieihrenihrihre

Note: Some prepositions and verbs require the accusative. A selection:

  • Präpositionen: durch(through), entlang(along), für(for), gegen(against), ohne(without), um(around)
  • Verben: bestellen(to order), bezahlen(to pay), buchen(to book), essen(to eat), haben(to have), besitzen( to possess), kaufen(to buy), verkaufen(to sell), treffen(to meet), kennen(to know), hören(to hear), verstehen( to understand), fragen(to ask),, trinken( to drink)…

Word Order in a German Sentence

First of all, congratulations that you’re still here. 

I’ll show you one beneficial thing we can do due to the German case system.

While in the English language, the subject and the direct/indirect object have their specific places, the German language, and sentence structure allow us to switch the word order without losing the meaning.

Take a look:

Der Junge(nominative) bekommt eine Schokolade(accusative) von seiner Oma(Dativ).
The boy gets a chocolate from his grandma.

Eine Schokolade bekommt der Junge von seiner Oma.
The boy gets a chocolate from his grandma.

Von seiner Oma bekommt der Junge eine Schokolade

The boy gets a chocolate from his grandma.

Due to the case system, all these sentences mean precisely the same, even though we changed the word order. 

This wouldn’t be possible in English:

correct: The boy gets a chocolate from his grandma
incorrect: A chocolate gets a boy from his grandma

Practicing the German Case System 

I know the case system is definitely not a walk in the park, and I’ll be honest: it takes time to master it. 

The most important thing is that you don’t give up! I know it is hard, but it is possible. 

In my opinion, this topic is not the easiest part of the German language, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re having difficulties with learning it. 

Nobody will cut off your head if you make a mistake

People will always appreciate your determination and willingness to learn their language.

An excellent exercise to master the German case system is to read German books and get more familiar with the language by listening to radio or podcasts. 

After a while, you’ll notice that you develop some kind of “Sprachgefühl” (language gut feeling), and then you won’t think about whether it’s dativ or accusative case, but just speak. 

Feel free to always use this post as a reminder of which case requires which ending, and have fun mein Freund

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Rozalia Olszewska

Rozalia Olszewska

Young and passionate German online tutor with lots of energy. Fluent in 3 languages and currently polishing her Spanish and French.

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