The Four Cases

What is a case?

You might have never heard of cases, but if you speak English, you've seen them in action.

Look at the words "he" and "him," for example. They both mean the same thing, so in a sense they are the same word. But we use them in different situations: "He threw the ball." "The ball hit him in the face." We use different words for the same person because in each sentence the person has a different function - doing the action or receiving the action. The different function means we need a different case --> different words.

Now, let's extend that idea of nouns being changed based on their function in the sentence and do it for all nouns (pronouns like "he" and "him," common nouns like "table" and "bottle", etc.), also include changing the article it uses (a different version of "the" for different cases), and add endings to adjectives based on the case of the word they describe. That's what you get it German. 

That might seem like a lot, but I'll explain it step-by-step so you are sure to understand it. And let's start with a short definition of cases:

The case of the noun tells you what role the noun plays in the sentence and its relationship to the other nouns in the sentence.

In German, there are 4 Cases:

Achtung Hinweis

Important Notice!

On this website I always color the cases in this way:​

Nominative, Accusative, Dative, Genitive

Those words probably don't mean anything to you yet, but don't worry, I'll explain it in more detail later in the lessons on each individual case. But let's start with some examples.

Examples:

  • Das Pferd ist weiß.“   (das Pferd = Nominative)
  • Das Pferd des Reiters ist weiß.“  (des Reiters = Genitive)
  • Der Mann schenkt der Frau das Pferd.“ (der Frau = Dative)  (das Pferd = Accusative)

Which words have a case?

Every time you use a noun, it gets a case.

The words associated with the noun take the same case. For example: articles, adjectives, etc.

⇒ Articles, nouns, pronouns, and adjectives must have matching cases:

  • Der Vater geht morgen mit dem Kind in die Schule.“

How do you determine which case to use?

Normally it’s determined by:

  • the noun’s function in the sentence
  • the verbs used in the sentence
  • the prepositions around the noun

More about that in my e-book: Nominative, Accusative, Dative or Genitive? - No Problem!

The Nominative Case

Die Fälle - Nominativ
  • The nominative case is the base form of the noun and signals the subject of the sentence (the person or thing that performs the action).
  • It is also the word that tells you how to conjugate the verb.
  • The questions for the nominative case are "Wer?" (Who?) and "Was?" (What?)
  • The nominative case is also used after the verbs sein, werden, and bleiben. (Warning: Here it is NOT the subject!)

Articles and the Nominative Case:

The article has to match the case (and the gender) of the noun:

The Accusative Case

Die Fälle - Akkusativ
  • The accusative case is also known as the direct object
  • The direct object is the thing that is acted upon.
  • But: We also use the accusative case after certain verbs and prepositions.
  • The questions for the accusative case are "Wen?" (Who?/Whom?) and "Was?" (What?)

Articles and the Accusative Case:

The article has to match the case (and the gender) of the noun:

Genus deutsche Fälle

The Dative Case

Die Fälle - Dativ
  • The dative case is also known as the indirect object.
  • The indirect object is the noun that receives something (normally that something is the direct object, which is in the accusative case).
  • BUT: We also use the dative case after certain verbs and prepositions.
  • The question for the dative case is "Wem?" (To whom?) or "Was?" (What?)

Articles and the Dative Case:

The article has to match the case (and the gender) of the noun:

The Genitive Case

Die Fälle - Genitiv
  • The genitive case shows belonging or possession.
  • It is used in noun-noun constructions.
  • The genitive is also used after certain verbs, prepositions, and adjectives.
  • The question for the genitive case is "Wessen?" (Whose?)

Articles and the Genitive Case:

The article has to match the case (and the gender) of the noun:

Summary

  • The nominative case is the subject
  • The accusative case is the direct object
  • The dative case is the indirect object
  • The genitive case shows belonging
  • Specific prepositions and verbs can also determine the case.

Related Topics:

An introduction to German nouns and gender.

To many rules for you? Guess 75% of all article correctly with my article trick.

What articles are there in German? Articles.

How to form plural nouns in German.

Some masculine nouns get an extra "-n"-ending in accusative, dative, and genitive. It's called n-declension.

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