You have probably noticed that the endings of some German words change depending on the context they’re used in. This is because German has four different grammatical cases (“Fälle“).
This grammar lesson will serve as an introduction (“Einleitung“) to the German cases.
The four German grammatical cases
The four cases are called nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. Those grammatical cases apply to articles, adjectives, nouns, and pronouns. That means every word belonging to those word groups changes its form, particularly its ending, according to the case they are in.
Let’s start learning how to detect nouns in each case.
The nominative case in German
The nominative case is the easiest to learn and distinguish because each word is in its original form.
Here are example sentences for feminine, masculine and neuter words – the words that are in the nominative cases are in bold:
Die Liebe ist eine schöne Sache.
Love is a beautiful thing.
Der Bauarbeiter arbeitet auf der Baustelle.
The construction worker works at a construction site.
Das Leben ist nicht immer einfach.
Life is not always easy.
An easy way to find out whether a noun is the subject of the sentence (and thereby in the nominative case) is to ask the question ‘Who or what?‘:
- Who or what is a beautiful thing? – Love (“die Liebe“).
- Who or what works at a construction site? – The construction worker (“der Bauarbeiter“).
- Who or what is not always easy? – Life (“das Leben“).
The genitive case
The genitive case is the second case of the German language. It indicates possession and answers the question ‘Whose?‘.
Masculine and neuter nouns require an “-s” or “-es“ at the end of the word: Single syllable words take an “-es” ending, and words with more than one syllable take an “-s” ending:
Der Nachteil der Liebe ist Ihre Vergänglichkeit.
The disadvantage of love is its impermanence.
Die Schaufel des Bauarbeiters ist in den Graben gefallen.
The shovel of the construction worker fell into the ditch.
Die Länge des Lebens hängt von vielen Faktoren ab.
The length of life depends on many factors.
Let’s check whether the above words are in the genitive case by asking the question ‘Whose?’:
- Whose disadvantage is it? – The disadvantage of love (“der Liebe“).
- Whose shovel fell into the ditch? – The shovel of the construction worker (“des Bauarbeiters“).
- Whose length depends on many factors? – The length of life (“des Lebens“).
The dative case
The dative case is the third case of the German language. It describes the indirect object of a sentence.
Ich gebe der Liebe eine zweite Chance.
I’m giving love a second chance.
Der Architekt gibt dem Bauarbeiter Anweisungen.
The architect is giving orders to the construction worker.
Er möchte dem Leben mehr Beachtung schenken.
He wants to pay more attention to life.
To know which part of the sentence is in the dative case, you ask the question ‘Whom or what?‘:
- Whom or what am I giving a second chance? – Love (“der Liebe“).
- Whom or what is the architect giving orders? – The construction worker (“dem Bauarbeiter“).
- Whom or what does he want to pay more attention to? – Life (“dem Leben“).
The accusative case
Finally, the last and fourth case used in German is called the accusative. It describes the direct object of a sentence.
Sie liebt die Liebe.
She loves love.
Das Kind mag den Bauarbeiter.
The child likes the construction worker.
Der Autor beschreibt das Leben.
The author describes life.
For the accusative, you also ask ‘Who or what?’:
- Who or what does she love? – Love (“die Liebe“).
- Who or what does the child like? – The construction worker (“den Bauarbeiter“).
- Who or what does the author describe? – Life (“das Leben“).
How definite articles change in each case
The following table shows how the articles “der“, “die” and “das” change according to the case that the noun they describe is in:
To give these declensions of the German definite articles more context, I have also created a table for you that shows each article describing a specific noun, and the translation of these phrases:
|Nominative||Der Bauarbeiter||The construction worker||Die Liebe||Love||Das Leben||Life|
|Genitive||Des Bauarbeiters||Of the construction worker||Der Liebe||Of love||Des Lebens||Of life|
|Dative||Dem Bauarbeiter||To the construction worker||Der Liebe||To love||Dem Leben||To life|
|Accusative||Den Bauarbeiter||The construction worker||Die Liebe||Love||Das Leben||Life|
Once you’ve mastered the declensions of the definite articles, you can go ahead and learn more about the declensions of the indefinite articles, too!
What you’ve learned today about the four grammatical cases in German
Now you know the basics about the grammatical cases in Germany – you know that there are four of them and that they are called nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative.
You know that each case fulfills a different function in a sentence – describing either a subject or object of the sentence or indicating possession.
You also know how to change articles according to the case they (and the noun they’re describing) are in. In future lessons, you will also learn how to change German adjectives and personal pronouns according to the case they’re in.
Did you know? There’s a series of books entitled “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod” – ‘The dative is the death of the genitive’ which debates the common language use of the German articles.