If you’re learning German, you can’t help but run into its use of cases, the way nouns change depending how they’re used in a sentence.
I’ve talked in depth about German cases in another article, but in this one I’ll explain the dative case to see what makes it different, and when and how to use it.
What is the dative case?
The dative case (dritter Fall - 3rd case - in German) shows that a noun is the indirect object of a sentence.
An indirect object is a noun that’s on the receiving end of something; it answers the question to who or what something is going — or with in some cases.
For English speakers, this can be a little weird as we don’t bother with this much.
In German, though, it’s pretty important. Let’s look at a quick example.
Der Jungen gibt dem Mann den Schlüssel
In the English version of that sentence, all the nouns are the same; in German, though, the articles changed to reflect their corresponding nouns’ function in the sentence.
So we can tell the boy is the subject of the sentence as his article is der, while the key is the accusative because of the article den.
As the man is given something, he gets the dative article dem.
The upshot is that to make a grammatically correct sentence in German you need to do a little more than you do in English.
That’s not only because you want to come across as clever and educated; if you make a mistake in the sentence above you could end up giving a man to the key!
Dative vs accusative
Because we don’t really distinguish in English between the direct and indirect object, knowing when to choose the accusative and when the dative can be tricky.
The short version is that the accusative is on the receiving end of a verb, so in the next example the man is the object and thus in the accusative.
Die Frau sieht den Mann
We find the direct object by asking “who or what is seen?”
This is easy enough, but adding the dative can confuse matters.
As we said, it’s important to think of the indirect object as being on the receiving end of something, usually the direct object.
Let’s go over the example from before again:
Der Jungen gibt dem Mann den Schlüssel
If you just go by your gut, you may be tempted to think that the direct object is the man, but it’s not.
If we ask the question “who or what is given?” it’s clear it’s the key and thus it gets the accusative.
The next question is “who or what is the key going to?” and that gives us the indirect object, meaning we place the man in the dative.
It’s confusing stuff, but thankfully there’s some good news: you can learn all this pretty quickly.
German isn’t my native language and after some regular practice I even started to notice when people were using an accusative when it should have been a dative, especially in print.
While it may seem daunting at first, and there’s no guarantee you won’t mess up in the initial stages, if you apply yourself you’ll master the dative in just a few weeks.
What the German dative look like
Before we go over more examples to explain how all this works, let’s quickly recap what the most important changes are.
Below a table of what German cases look like with definite articles; we’ve cut the genitive out for convenience’s sake.
|Nom.||der Mann||die Frau||das Auto||die Steine|
|Dat.||dem Mann||der Frau||dem Auto||den Steine|
|Acc.||den Mann||die Frau||das Auto||die Steine|
Besides nouns and their articles, German pronouns can also change a lot depending on their use in a sentence.
Now that we have an idea of what it all is supposed to look like, let’s go a little deeper.
How to use the dative in German
There are a few ways in which the dative can pop up in German.
The trickiest is the way we discussed earlier.
Der Jungen gibt dem Mann den Schlüssel
Since all these nouns are masculine — the gender that changes the most — it’s pretty easy to pick apart.
However, let’s try it with a sentence that could be a little more ambiguous:
Der Mann gibt der Frau das Auto
If you were a native German speaker this would make immediate sense to you, but if you’re not we need to dissect it a little.
The car is being given and is thus the direct object, but as the neuter doesn’t change in the accusative, we get das Auto.
The woman is the one to whom the car is going, so she is the indirect object.
The feminine gets der in the dative, so we end up with der Frau.
Let’s do one more simple sentence like this, only mix it up a little with some pronouns.
Ich gebe ihm den Schlüssel
In English, the pronoun he changes to him regardless of whether it’s the direct or indirect object, but in German there’s a difference.
In this sentence it helps you figure out who is receiving the key, but it’s also important for another reason, namely if I replace the word key with its pronoun.
Let’s see what that looks like, keeping in mind that Schlüssel is masculine.
Ich gebe ihm ihn
Though you’re unlikely to find a sentence exactly like this in the wild (ihm and ihn are too similar in sound to be used like this), it does show how intricate the dative can become.
German verbs and the dative
However, if you’re worried that learning German will be all about figuring out where the dative is and dissecting every sentence you come across, I have some good news: it won’t be.
While certain types of sentences will have a sneaky dative hiding in them (any with the verb geben, “to give” in it, for one) in most other cases you can see it coming from a mile away.
This is because in most cases, the dative is either used with a specific set of verbs or with a specific set of prepositions.
I’ll go over the verbs first as there are a lot of them.
I picked 10 I figure you’ll run across the most and arranged them alphabetically.
|gefallen||to be pleasing, to like|
|gehören||to belong to (ownership)|
|n ützen||to use|
To get a feel on how these work, let’s use a few examples.
Er antwortet mir
In this sentence, I’m asking questions of somebody and he answers.
Even though I’m the object of the verb “to answer,” I get put in the dative because that’s just how antworten rolls.
Much the same goes for all these verbs.
Here’s another example, variations of which you’ll come across a lot in spoken German.
Das Auto gehört dem Mann
The verb gehören is extremely common and it always goes with the dative. To help you, remember it’s about who the car belongs to. Just like with giving something, to helps you find the dative.
Let’s check out a similar example.
Die Jacke ist so schön, sie gefällt mir gut
Here’s another construction you’ll encounter a lot, saying you like something (or somebody).
Gefallen is an odd word for English speakers in that it means “to please,” so in the sentence above you’re literally saying “it pleases me well.”
As the thing in question is pleasing to you, you use the dative. It’s a weird way to think about things, but you’ll get used to it soon enough.
German prepositions and the dative
Besides certain verbs, there are also a number of prepositions that go with the dative.
There are nine of them, we’ve put them and their approximate translation in the table below.
|aus||from, out of|
|von||of, from, about|
Whenever you see one of these, the word they act on (usually the first one after it) uses the third case.
There are few tricks here, you just need to learn these suckers off by heart.
It’s pretty simple, so let’s go over some quick examples.
Ich gehe nach dem König
This one is easy, because nach just means “to” and we always answer that with dative.
The next sentence is just as straightforward.
For bonus points, see if you can figure out the gender of the German word for “bank.”
Das Hotel ist gegenüber der Bank
These prepositions are pretty easy. However, it doesn’t end there.
German prepositions with either dative or accusative
There’s a set of prepositions that can go with either dative or accusative, depending on how they’re used in the sentence.
There are again nine of them, and we’ve put them below.
|über||over, on top of, above|
|vor||in front of|
When any of the above tell you the position of something, the corresponding word goes into the dative.
When any of them tell you the motion of something, the next word is accusative.
Let’s take a look at some examples to make this clearer.
Der Mann steht vor dem Eingang
Because the man is standing still, in position, in front of the entrance, we get dem (Eingang is masculine).
Der Mann läuft vor den Eingang
However, when he’s walking or pacing in front of the entrance, it becomes a motion, so Eingang gets the accusative den.
If this all sounds incredibly pedantic, that’s only because it is.
I took German in school and we were force fed this stuff for weeks. I kind of got it in the end, but it’s still a bit of a nightmare.
However, I’m going to let you into a secret: it’s okay to mess these up.
Even educated people will make a dog’s dinner of these from time to time — is a plane flying over a city in position or in motion? Do you really care? — so when in doubt, just use the third case.
There’s no denying that the German dative is tricky.
However, with some study, memorization and the hopefully helpful tricks in the article you’ll be able to figure it out in no time.
Have fun learning German!