Dative and accusative seem to be a struggle, especially for English speaking students. You are not alone and this blog will give you insights and a better understanding of the seemingly challenging concept of German cases. We will answer your all-important question: what is dative vs accusative in German.
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Dative vs accusative in German can get confusing
First of all let me tell you, that we will not cover the cases in relation to prepositions in this article.
So you can relax and we will walk through it step by step.
Genders and articles in German
To understand the cases in a better way it is, first of all, important to understand that German works with genders. Instead of a single article like “the” in English, German consists of three genders and therefore three different articles.
The genders are male or masculine (der Mann), female or feminine (die Frau) and neutral or neuter (das Kind).
Caution: These articles do not necessarily match the “real” gender.
For example: die Frau, feminine (the woman) but das Mädchen, neutral (the girl)
Whenever you learn new nouns, learn them with their dedicated articles and genders. It makes your life regarding cases so much easier.
These articles of the noun change according to their assignment in the sentence. It depends if they are assigned for a subject or an object. If they are describing an object, the noun can be a direct object or an indirect object in German. Here lies the magic for your learning, I will explain this in the following steps.
The noun as the subject (nominative case)
As you know, the nominative case is used for the subject in the sentence.
It is the “default setting” of the cases so to say and answers the question “Wer?” or “who?”
Der Mann lebt in Berlin. – The man lives in Berlin.
Die Frau geht spazieren. – The woman goes for a walk.
Das Kind spielt. – The child plays.
Die Freunde treffen sich. – The friends meet each other.
If you are unsure if the noun is the subject and in the nominative case, you can ask:
Wer lebt in Berlin? – Der Mann. – Who lives in Berlin? – The man.
The noun as the direct object (accusative case)
In English we know the generic term of the objective case. Basically, every object falls under it. For example “I see him with his friend behind a car”. “I” is the subject and all bold objects would be referred to as the objective case in English.
“Him” here is referred to as the direct object. I am talking directly about him. The other objects are additional. I can as well say:
Ich sehe ihn. – I see him.
So we know now: The accusative case describes the direct object of a sentence. It answers to the question “Wen?” or “whom?”.
As you can see here, compared to the nominative case, only the article in the masculine gender changes.
Sie trifft den Mann. – She meets the man. “She” is the subject. “Den Mann” describes the direct object in accusative case.
Die Frau isst die Schokolade. – The woman eats the chocolate. “Die Frau” is the subject in nominative case. “Die Schokolade” describes the direct object in accusative case.
Das Kind sieht das Auto. – The child sees the car. “Das Kind” is the subject in nominative case. “Das Auto” is the direct object in the accusative case.
If you are unsure, if the noun is the subject and in the nominative case or the object in the accusative case, you can ask: Wen sieht das Kind? – Das Auto. – Whom sees the child? – The car.
Whenever you think of the accusative case, remember it as the n-case, because you have to add -en to the article in masculine.
This is a casual tip but helps in remembering this particular declination.
The noun as the indirect object (dative case)
The dative case describes an indirect object that receives an action from the direct object in the accusative case or the subject.
The dative case gives you more information about an action that took place. It talks about the recipient.
The question for the dative case in German would be “Wem?” or “to whom?”
The articles are a little more complex than in the accusative case and affect every gender.
Ich (subject) schenke dem Mann (indirect object) ein Auto (direct object). – I am gifting him a car.
As you can see here, I am doing something to the man.
Das Kind (subject) gibt der Mutter (indirect object) einen Kuss (direct object). – The child gives the mother a kiss.
The child is doing something to the mother. The mother receives an action from the child.
Du (subject) schreibst dem Mädchen (indirect object) einen Brief (direct object). – You are writing a letter to the girl.
The girl is receiving something from you. The action is taken towards her. The action itself is writing the letter, which shows the accusative case.
If you are unsure, if the noun is assigned to the dative case as indirect object, you can ask: Wem gibt das Kind einen Kuss? – Der Mutter.
To whom gives the child a kiss? – To the mother.
It’s important is in this way of questioning, that you include the subject and if given also the direct object in accusative case.
Please note, that the basic word order in a sentence with dative and accusative case is: Subject-Verb-Dative-Accusative
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Whenever you think of the dative case in German, remember it as the m-case, because you have to add -em to the article in masculine.
German verbs in dative case
There are certain verbs that demand the dative case:
helfen – Ich helfe dem Mann. – I help the man.
schmecken – Der Kuchen schmeckt dem Kind. – The cake tastes good to the child, the child likes the cake.
passen – Die Jacke passt der Frau. – The jacket fits the woman.
gehören – Das Buch gehört dem Mädchen. – The book belongs to the girl.
gratulieren – Ich gratuliere dem Vater. – I congratulate the father.
glauben – Ich glaube der Freundin. – I believe the friend (female).
danken – Ich danke der Mutter. – I thank the mother.
gefallen (to like) – Berlin gefällt der Frau. – Berlin suits the woman, she likes it (Berlin).
Verbs that demand the dative and the accusative case:
geben – Der Mann gibt der Frau das Auto. – The man gives the woman the car.
schreiben – Ich schreibe dir einen Brief. – I write you a letter.
bringen – Sie bringt dem Mann die Blumen. – She brings the man the flowers.
schicken – Ich schicke meinem Freund ein Paket. – I send my friend a package.
zeigen – Er zeigt ihr die Stadt. – He shows her the city.
wünschen – Ich wünsche dir ein schönes Wochenende. – I wish you a nice weekend.
schenken – Das Kind schenkt dem Vater ein Bild. – The child gifts the father a picture.
German word order
There is a concept behind the cases in German. They allow us to play around with the word order. You know by now that a normal basic sentence is structured as “Subject Verb Object”. In English the syntax (sentence structure) is important to clarify which nouns play which role in the sentence. In German the cases are taking over that job. So later on, when we are more fluent and comfortable in German, we are able to play around with the sentence structure without changing the meaning of the sentence. This works as long as we stick to the correct cases for the nouns!