German Cases: A Comprehensive Guide 

In German grammar, you can find the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive cases. German Cases define the role someone or something plays in a sentence. These roles include the subject as well as the direct and indirect object. 

  • Subjects are people or things actively doing something.  
  • Direct objects can be people or things and something is being done to them by the subject. 
  • An indirect object is usually a person, and something is happening to them in relation to a direct object. 

You can watch the following video to get a better understanding of how to define subjects and objects in a German sentence: 

Types of German Cases 

The four cases in German grammar are nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. Cases modify the spelling of nouns, pronouns, and articles. 

This means you won’t just need to learn the correct gender of each noun (there are 3 genders in the German language), you’ll also need to learn the four different ways that nouns, pronouns, and articles change based on their roles within a sentence. 

This concept poses an initial challenge for English speakers because there are so many different ways to spell nouns, pronouns, and articles in German. For instance, the single word “the” has 16 variations in German. 

For native speakers, using the correct cases comes naturally, and they don’t need to think about the rules for even one second. Adult English speakers need to become acquainted with the rules if they were never exposed to the language as a child in a natural non-academic way. 

Let’s begin with the basics and learn how to define and identify the German cases and how to apply them in a sentence. 

1. Nominative 

When you look up German nouns in a dictionary, you will always find them in the nominative case. Subjects in a sentence take the nominative case. To determine the subject in a sentence, ask yourself: Who or what is doing something? Let’s take a look at some examples: 

Jenny isst einen Apfel. (Jenny is eating an apple.) → Who is eating an apple? Jenny is! So she is the subject of that sentence. We need to use the nominative case. If we replace Jenny with the pronoun “sie” (she), the sentence would be: 

Sie isst einen Apfel. (She is eating an apple.) → Who is eating an apple? She is! “Sie” is a pronoun in the nominative case. 

Jenny takes the role of the subject in the previous two examples. But she can also change roles and become the direct object in a sentence. This leads us to the accusative case. 

2. Accusative 

Die Kinder sehen Jenny. (The children see Jenny.) → The subject of this sentence is “die Kinder” (the children). The person whom the children are seeing is the direct object. In this case, it is Jenny. Jenny is the direct object, and direct objects take the accusative case. 

We can replace Jenny with the personal pronoun “sie” (she). The sentence would then change to: 

Die Kinder sehen sie. (The children see her.) → In the example “Sie isst einen Apfel”, “sie” was the subject of the sentence. In the sentence “Die Kinder sehen sie”, the pronoun “sie” has changed roles and is no longer the subject,  it is now the direct object. “Sie” is a German pronoun in the accusative case. 

3. Dative 

As you may have guessed, if there is a direct object, there has to be an indirect object. The indirect object is usually a person receiving something or benefitting from something. Indirect objects take the German dative case. 

Jacqueline gibt Jenny die Haarbürste. (Jacqueline gives Jenny the hairbrush.) → Jenny is no longer the subject or the direct object. Jenny is the indirect object now because she is the recipient or in other words the beneficiary in that sentence.  

She is being given the hairbrush. Who is giving it to her? Jacqueline is! That makes Jacqueline the subject. What is being given to Jenny? The hair brush! That makes the hairbrush the direct object. 

We can replace “Jenny” with the dative personal pronoun “ihr” which means “to her” or “for her”. 

Jacqueline gibt ihr die Haarbürste. (Jacqueline gives her the hairbrush.) In this case, “ihr” is the indirect object of the sentence. You can also refer to the indirect object as the dative object. 

The German sentence structure rules dictate that the indirect object comes before the direct object.  

→ Jacqueline [SUBJECT] gibt [VERB] Jenny [INDIRECT OBJECT] die Haarbürste [DIRECT OBJECT]. However, the indirect and direct objects are reversed when the direct object is a pronoun. 

→ Jacqueline [SUBJECT] gibt [VERB] sie [DIRECT OBJECT] Jenny [INDIRECT OBJECT]. This translates to: Jacqueline gives it to Jenny. 

4. Genitive 

To express the possession of something or the relationship of something to a person or a thing, you need to use the genitive case. The genitive case is always made up of two nouns in two different cases. It shows the relationship of one noun to another noun. 

Das ist die Krawatte des Vaters. (This is the tie of the father.) We are talking about one of the father’s possessions, in this case the tie. The tie belongs to the father.  

The two words “des Vaters” can be translated to: of the father. The thing that you possess comes first, followed by the person possessing it. “Die Krawatte” is in the nominative case in this sentence. It is the subject of the sentence. 

Das ist das Auto meines Bruders. (This is the car of my brother.) The car is the thing being possessed and the brother is the one possessing it. “Das Auto” is in the nominative case, while “meines Bruders” is in the genitive case. “Meines” is a possessive article in the genitive case. 

Das ist das Buch meiner Mutter. (This is the book of my mother.) → The book is in the nominative case (subject), while the mother is in the genitive case (she is the one owning the book). “Meiner” is a possessive article in the genitive case.  

Die Chefin seiner Frau hat zwei Kinder. (The boss of his wife has two children.) → The boss (subject) is in the nominative case, the children (direct object) are in the accusative case, and the wife (the person who has a boss) is in the genitive case.  

Whose boss is it? It is his wife’s boss. The relation of the boss and the wife is shown by the genitive case. “Seiner” is also a possessive article in the genitive case. 

Definite Articles in the Four Cases 

Now that we know which roles nouns and pronouns can take in a sentence and how to identify them, we need to learn how to form them. Let’s take a look at the following table to see how definite articles change in each case: 

Table with German definite articles in the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive case.

The only difference between the nominative and the accusative case here is that the masculine definite article changes from “der” to “den”. 

Der Apfel ist rot. (The apple is red.) → The apple is the subject here, which is why you have to use the article “der”. The apple can also be a direct object. In that case, the role of the apple changes. 

Ich esse den Apfel. (I am eating the apple.) → The apple is no longer the subject but rather the direct object. It is being eaten by someone. “Ich” is the subject, and “den Apfel” is the direct object. So you need to use the definite article “den”. 

Let’s add an indirect object. 

Ich gebe der Frau den Apfel. (I am giving the woman the apple.) → We have three cases in this sentence. The subject is “ich” (nominative), the direct object is “den Apfel” (accusative) and the indirect object is “der Frau” (dative.). The recipient in that sentence is the woman. She is receiving the apple which is the direct object here.  

Let’s take a look at possession. 

Der Anzug des Mannes ist schön. (The suit of the man is nice.) → We have two nouns in this sentence. “Der Anzug” is the subject (nominative), while “des Mannes” is the person to whom the suit belongs. It is in the genitive case. 

Indefinite Articles in the Four Cases 

Now that you know how definite articles change with each case, let’s take a closer look at indefinite articles. The following table shows you all the variations of “ein” you need to know. There is no plural indefinite article, as is the case in Spanish (unos, unas).  

Table with German indefinite articles in the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive case.

You’ll notice that the last two letters of German definite and indefinite articles are the same in the accusative, dative, and genitive cases. The accusative masculine articles “den” and “einen” have the same last two letters. The same goes for the dative feminine articles “der” and “einer“. 

Let’s take a look at the above examples using indefinite articles. 

Ein Apfel ist rot. (An apple is red.) → “Apfel” is a masculine noun. You have to use the article “ein” since the apple is the subject in this sentence, and we have learned that the subject takes the nominative case. 

An apple can also be a direct object. This will change the spelling of the masculine article. 

Ich esse einen Apfel. (I am eating an apple.) → “Ich” is the subject and “einen Apfel” is the direct object. So you need to use the accusative definite article “einen”. 

Let’s add an indirect object. 

Ich gebe einer Frau einen Apfel. (I am giving a woman an apple.) → The subject is “ich”, the direct object is “einen Apfel”, and the indirect object is “einer Frau”. “Frau” is a feminine noun, and since she is the beneficiary in that sentence, we have to use the article “einer”. 

Das Fell eines Hundes ist weich. (The fur of a dog is soft.) → We have two nouns in this sentence. “Das Fell” is the subject (nominative), while “eines Hundes” is the genitive form. The dog is the animal to whom the fur belongs. “Hund” is a masculine noun which is why we have to use the article “eines”. 

Negations in the Four Cases 

When negating German nouns, you have to choose the article “kein”. It’s declined just like the indefinite article “ein”, but this time, we have plural forms. The table below shows you the declensions of “kein” in all four cases.

Table with the German article "kein" in the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive case.

Let’s take a look at some examples: 

Kein Teller ist sauber. (No plate is clean.) → The plate is the subject of this sentence, so we need to use “kein” in the nominative case. 

Ich habe keine Gläser. (I don’t have any glasses.) → The verb “haben” always takes the Accusative case. “keine Gläser” is the direct object here. The subject in this sentence is “ich”. 

Ich gebe keinem Hund Schokolade! (I am not giving any dog chocolate! Chocolate is toxic to dogs!) The dog is the indirect object in this sentence, which is why “keinem” is in the dative case. 

Personal Pronouns in the Four Cases 

German personal pronouns also have different spelling variations in the four German cases. This is how they change: 

An overview of the German personal pronouns in the nominative, accusative, and dative case.

Let’s practice using personal pronouns in some examples: 

Ich brauche den Laptop. (I need the laptop). → “Laptop” is a masculine noun which is the direct object in this sentence. That is why we are using the accusative masculine article “den”. 

We can replace “Laptop” with a personal pronoun to say “I need it.” In German, you wouldn’t say “I need it” but rather “I need him” because “Laptop” is a masculine noun: 

Ich brauche ihn

Let’s take a look at what happens when we are using a feminine noun: 

Ich brauche die Flasche. (I need the bottle.) → “Flasche” is a feminine noun which is the direct object in this sentence. That is why we are using the accusative feminine article “die”. 

We can also replace “Flasche” with a personal pronoun. In this case, you would say, “I need her” instead of “I need it.” 

Ich brauche sie

Let’s take a look at what happens when we are using a neuter noun: 

Ich brauche das Handy. (I need the cell phone.) 

Ich brauche es. (I need it.) → This works exactly like in the English language because the noun “Handy” is neutral, and the neutral personal pronoun is “es” in the accusative case. 

“Me” translates to “mich” and “You translates to “dich” in the accusative case. 

Ich brauche dich. (I need you.) 

Er braucht mich. (He needs me.) 

“Euch” translates to “you guys” or “you all”. 

Ich brauche euch. (I need you guys.) 

The personal pronoun “sie” has quite a few different meanings. It can translate to she, you, they, or them.  

“Ich brauche sie” can be translated to “I need her” or “I need them”. 

“Ich brauche Sie” with a capital S means “I need you” (formal). 

Sie brauchen mich” means “They need me”. 

We can also use German pronouns in the dative case. Let’s take a look at some examples: 

Ich zeige ihr das Büro. (I am showing her the office.) → In this sentence, we have the subject “ich”, the indirect object “ihr” and the direct object “das Büro”. The beneficiary in this sentence is “ihr” because the office is being shown to her. 

Er gibt mir den Stift. (He is giving me the pen.) → In this sentence, we are using “mir” as the indirect object. 

You can find even more useful examples of how dative pronouns are used in German in this video: 

Tricks for Learning German Cases 

If you are unsure about which case to use when you make a sentence, you can help yourself out by remembering which German verb takes which case. This makes sense for the most commonly used verbs that are used all the time in spoken and written communication.  

Some of the most common verbs that take the accusative case are: 

haben, brauchen, suchen, essen, trinken, kaufen, verstehen, buchen, lieben, schreiben, verlieren, aufmachen, zumachen, spielen, machen, fragen, mögen, verkaufen, besuchen, bekommen. 

  • Ich verkaufe mein Auto. (I am selling my car.) 
  • Tanja macht das Fenster zu. (Tanja is closing the window.) 
  • Er hat einen Sohn. (He has a son.) 
  • Wir verkaufen das Haus. (We are selling the house.) 

The most important verbs requiring an accusative AND a dative object are: 

schreiben, geben, zeigen, erklären, bringen, kaufen, holen, erzählen, empfehlen, schenken, schulden.  

These verbs are all related to an action where something is given/taken/recommended, purchased/explained/written to someone.  

  • Er schuldet dem Mann Geld. (He owes the man money.) 
  • Ich gebe ihr ein Geschenk. (I am giving her a present.) 
  • Sie erzählen dem Kind eine Geschichte. (They are telling the child a story.) 
  • Die Chefin schreibt Simon eine E-Mail. (The boss is writing Simon an email.) 

There are also German verbs that ONLY take a dative object. They are called dative verbs. You will have to memorize these verbs because there is no way to logically deduce why they require a dative object. Here are the most common ones: 

antworten, danken, fehlen, folgen, gefallen, gehören, glauben, helfen, leidtun, passieren, verzeichen, wehtun. 

  • Du fehlst mir! (I miss you, or literally, You are missed by me!) 
  • Ich antworte dir gleich. (I will reply to you in a bit.) 
  • Das tut mir leid! (I am sorry about that!) 
  • Mir ist nichts passiert. (Nothing happened to me.) 

Make sure to watch the following video for even more examples showing how dative verbs are used in German: 

How to Use German Cases with German Prepositions 

Cases in the German language aren’t only used to show roles in a sentence. Cases also come into play when you use prepositions. German prepositions are classified into accusative, dative, two-way, and genitive prepositions. You will need to memorize which preposition requires which case and also become acquainted with their actual meaning. 

Accusative Prepositions 

The German accusative prepositions you will need to remember are: 

  • bis (by, until) 
  • durch (through, across) 
  • für (for) 
  • gegen (against)
  • ohne (without) 
  • um (at, around) 

Dative Prepositions 

The German dative prepositions you will need to remember are: 

  • ab (from) 
  • aus (from, out) 
  • bei (at, with, by) 
  • mit (with) 
  • nach (after) 
  • seit (since) 
  • von (from) 
  • zu (to) 

Two-Way Prepositions 

German two-way prepositions can take either the dative case if they refer to a position or location or the accusative case if they refer to a movement from A to B. 

The German two-way prepositions you will need to remember are: 

  • an (at, by) 
  • auf (on) 
  • hinter (behind) 
  • in (in) 
  • neben (next to)
  • über (above, over) 
  • unter (under) 
  • vor (in front of) 
  • zwischen (between) 

Genitive Prepositions 

The most common prepositions in the genitive case you will need to remember are: 

  • anstatt/statt (instead of) 
  • außerhalb (outside of) 
  • innerhalb (within, inside of) 
  • trotz (despite, in spite of) 
  • während (during) 
  • wegen/aufgrund (because of, due to) 


German cases can be challenging for English speakers to grasp because, although they exist in English, they are much more complex in German. 

German language learners should know why cases are used, how to identify them, and how to use them correctly in German sentences. Knowing the correct gender of German nouns is a must to avoid making mistakes. 

Practice makes perfect, so make sure to equip yourself with the proper German learning resources to master this essential aspect of German grammar. 

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