German Cases: Easy Beginner's Guide To The Four Noun Cases

  • Fergus O'Sullivan
    Written byFergus O'Sullivan
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German Cases: Easy Beginner's Guide To The Four Noun Cases

If you’re learning German, you may find yourself confused by noun cases.

Cases are a foreign concept for English speakers new to German.

In my guide on why German isn’t as hard as you think, I explained that German actually isn’t as bad as you thought, as long as you learn and respect the rules of the language.

Cases are vital here.

So in this guide, I’ll cover the four German cases so you can get a better understanding of how they work, when to use them, and what to do when you’re not sure.

What is a grammatical case?

You could fill a library with books written about what cases are exactly, but in short it’s when a noun or pronoun changes form depending how it’s used in a sentence.

We don’t use them for nouns anymore in English (Old English did though), but we do still use them for pronouns.

So we say he saw him walk down the street.

Though in both cases we’re talking about a man, it’s clear it’s two different people; you can tell because he is the subject of the sentence, while him is the object.

Most languages of Germanic origin - including English - still use cases for pronouns but not for nouns, as do many Romance languages such as French or Spanish.

However, most Slavic languages still use cases, as do Greek, Finnish and a number of Asian languages (see this list).

The German cases

German is unique among Germanic languages in that it hung on to its cases (called Fall (s.) and Fälle (pl.) in German), even as its neighbors got rid of them.

For example, when you compare Dutch vs German, it’s probably the biggest difference when it comes to grammar; verbs and pronouns more or less behave the same way in both languages.

Not only did German keep its case system, it hung on to all of it: it has four of them and uses them in daily conversation. As such, you need to know them all.

It’s not like in modern Greek, where you can ignore the fourth, vocative case because it’s barely used, something we explain in our piece on why Greek is easy to learn.

If you’re learning German from an older textbook, it probably uses the old, Latin-derived terms for the cases.

More modern systems just number them; to make sure there’s no confusion, we’ll use both ways of doing it.

1. Nominative case (der Nominativ)

The first case (erster Fall) is the nominative or subject case.

Think of it as the standard version, the word as it is at home with its slippers on.

When a word is the subject of a sentence, it’s in the nominative: when you say “Jim looks at his car,” Jim is the subject of that sentence.

Generally speaking, it’s the easiest one to get used to as you already use it; in a way, every word is in this mode in languages like English.

2. Genitive case (der Genitiv)

The second case (zweiter Fall) is the possessive or genitive case.

You use this to denote when somebody or something belongs to or with something or somebody else.

It’s not as foreign to English speakers as you may think at first, we more or less use it, too: in a sentence like “the woman’s car” you’re using a possessive, in German you just need to switch it around: das Auto der Frau.

3. Dative case (der Dativ)

The dative or third case (dritter Fall) is the one that gives most learners the biggest headache, especially if they speak a language like English.

This is because the dative denotes the indirect object of a sentence, something we English speakers don’t bother about much.

The indirect object is the part of the sentence that is receiving something from the direct object.

So, in the sentence “Jim gave a present to Jill,” Jim is the subject, the present is the direct object and Jill is the indirect object.

To find the indirect object, the best way is to ask “to or for whom is this?” and you’ll likely find it.

4. Accusative case (der Akkusativ)

The fourth case (vierter Fall) is another relatively simple one as it denotes the object of the sentence.

To call back to our first example “Jim looks at his car,” the car is the object.

Just wonder what is the verb acting on and you’ll have it.

Though we don’t use it except in pronouns in English, most learners seem to pick it up pretty easily.

German name Latin name (in English) Function
der Nominativ
Erster Fall
Nominative Subject
der Genitiv
Zweiter Fall
Genitive Possessive
der Dativ
Dritter Fall
Dative Indirect object
der Akkusativ
Vierter Fall
Accusative Direct object

How cases change German words

All this may seem a little exhausting, but you’d be surprised how soon you get used to it all.

One thing that makes things a little easier is that German wasn’t completely immune to the changes its neighbors underwent: as such, the actual noun only changes rarely, most of the time it stays the same.

What does change is the article in front of the word.

This means it acts like a weather vane of a sort: when reading or listening to German, the articles serve as a way to tell you the way a sentence is going.

This includes definite articles and indefinite articles (in English “the” and “a,” respectively), but also possessive pronouns.

However, before we get to how articles change and how all this looks, we first need to talk a little about the genders of German words.

Gender in German nouns

Each German word falls into one of three specific gender categories: masculine, feminine and neuter (männlich, weiblich and sächlich).

This affects what their article looks like, as well as how the word changes in the plural.

However, the plural is weird in German: no matter what gender a word is, in the plural they all use the same article.

The actual noun changes, like in English, but the articles are the same.

As an example, below you can see what that would look like if we take the word for “man” and the one for “woman.” We’ll also throw in “car” for a neuter example.

Note that this is the nominative form of these words!

Singular
the man the woman the car
der Mann die Frau das Auto
Plural
the men the carsthe women
die Männer die Frauen die Autos

This is as good a time as any to point out one of German’s weirder quirks: it capitalizes all nouns.

Now that we better understand cases and genders, let’s put them together and see what that looks like.

What German cases look like

Although we know big tables are a little scary for language learners, it really is the best way to learn how German nouns work.

As you go over all the information below, note that only in the masculine and neuter genitive does the noun change; in all other cases it stays the same.

Definite articles

We’ll start with definite articles as those are the way you’d learn words in a vocabulary list.

In fact, you need to so you’ll know the gender.

Note that for the plural (Mehrzahl) we used the word for “stone,” der Stein.

However, also note that the German Mehrzahl is an extremely tricky thing: nouns can change radically in the plural, so this simple example is a poor indicator.

Case Masculine
(Männlich)
Feminine
(Weiblich)
Neuter
(Sächlich)
Plural
(Mehrzahl)
Nom. der Mann die Frau das Auto die Steine
Gen. des Mannes der Frau des Autos der Steine
Dat. dem Mann der Frau dem Auto den Steine
Acc. den Mann die Frau das Auto die Steine

Indefinite articles

That’s the definite articles taken care of; now let’s look at what happens with the indefinite article ein.

For hopefully obvious reasons there’s no plural for ein, so we’ll use the adjective kein (none) instead as it follows the same pattern.

Case Masculine
(Männlich)
Feminine
(Weiblich)
Neuter
(Sächlich)
Plural
(Mehrzahl)
Nom. ein Mann eine Frau ein Auto keine Steine
Gen. eines Mann einer Frau eines Auto keiner Steine
Dat. einem Mann einer Frau einem Auto keinen Steine
Acc. einen Mann eine Frau ein Auto keine Steine

How German cases work

Armed with all the above knowledge (yes, it’s a lot), it’s time to start putting it all together.

Nominative and accusative cases

Let’s start extremely basic:

Listen to audio

Der Mann lauft.

The man walks.

This sentence only has a subject and a verb, so clearly it has to be in the first case.

Let’s add another element:

Listen to audio

Die Frau sieht den Mann.

The woman sees the man.

In this example, the woman is doing the seeing, so she’s the subject and she gets the article die.

As the man is being seen, he’s the object and thus gets den in front of the word.

Let’s play with this simple structure a little more:

Listen to audio

Das Mädchen küsste eine Jungen.

The girl kisses a boy.

The word girl, _Mädchen _(lit: “little maid”) is neuter, so gets das.

It’s “a” boy and since he’s the object of the girl’s affection, gets the fourth case einen.

Let’s do one more to drive the point home:

Listen to audio

Der Student nimmt seine Bücher.

The student picks up his books.

I snuck in a little genitive there in the form of the pronoun seine, but you probably get the point by now: der shows that the student is the subject of the sentence, and he picks up the object of the sentence.

Genitive case

The second case is not used quite as much in spoken German anymore (people often use a preposition instead) but it does pop up often enough in print that we’ll take a look.

At its most basic it looks a little like this:

Listen to audio

Das Auto des Mannes

The man's car.

The car is the subject, so it gets das in front, but as it belongs to the man, he gets the genitive.

Let’s go a little further here and wor all three cases so far into a sentence.

Listen to audio

Der Jungen sieht den Mann der Frau.

The boy sees the woman's husband.

Though again very basic, you can see in this sentence how sparse German can be, and also how very important articles are.

If you don’t have a good grasp of them, this sentence would just be word soup.

Dative case

With all other cases out of the way, let’s look at our indirect object, which can be a bit of a headache for people not used to it.

For our next example we’ll use only masculine nouns as the articles are a little less subtle.

Try to figure out what’s going on before reading the translation.

Listen to audio

Der Jungen gibt dem Mann einen Teppich.

The boy gives the man a carpet.

This kind of thing is what gives German its reputation, but it’s a perfectly logical sentence once you give yourself a second to digest it.

Let’s go through it bit by bit: the boy is clearly the subject, he’s the one giving something.

The thing being given, the carpet, is the direct object - that’s the weird part for English speakers.

It’s given to the man, so that makes him the indirect object.

Let’s do it one more time, and we’ll throw in a genitive for a giggle.

Listen to audio

Die Frau gibt dem Jungen die Bücher des Mannes.

The woman gives the boy the man's books.

If you don’t get it at first, dissect the sentence a little, noun by noun, looking closely at the articles.

Conclusion

Don’t worry too much if you don’t get it straight away: German cases can be tricky to understand for new learners.

Try to memorize the articles and practice taking sentences apart whenever you see them.

Before you know it, German cases will be easy.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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