Telling difference between all four cases in a German sentence

I am having extreme difficulty with this, for some reason I just cannot tell the difference between Nominative, Accusative, Dative and Genative case. Whenever I am confident that it is one of those cases, I end up getting it wrong.

I do however know how to kinda tell whether it is Dative or not like 'Der Hund spielt mit der (not die) Katze' but other than that, no clue.

Could someone give me a proper answer? Whenever I search this up I get answers that don't really explain it and/or just give a chart with Nom, Acc, Dat, and Gen. Also, is there a shortcut to know this immediately, like 2nd nature immediately?

June 14, 2014


It might help you to know the following. The dative is in the process of dying out in German and of being replaced by the accusative. [PS: In the discussion below it has become clear to me that this claim is scientifically questionable. But I still think it's helpful to learners to believe it, so please humour me.] Various other languages including Dutch, as well as the Low German dialects, have already merged the dative into the accusative completely (or the other way round), which has thus become a unified object case.

This doesn't mean you needn't learn about the dative. In fact, it makes things more complicated: when you have a row of words that should normally all be in dative, only the first one is and the others are in accusative. But it also means that even some native speakers have trouble distinguishing accusative and dative, and if you always replace the dative by the accusative people will have no trouble understanding you and won't get too irritated.

If we pretend for a moment that this process has already completed and you only need to distinguish nominative, object case (also called accudative) and genitive, then things become much easier for English speakers because these three cases have survived in the English personal pronouns:

"Er trifft ihn und gibt ihm sein Geld." - "He meets him and gives him his money."

"Sie trifft sie und gibt ihr ihr Geld." - "She meets her and gives her her money."

"Es trifft es und gibt ihm sein Geld." - "It meets it and gives it its money." (This example sounds equally tortured in both languages.)

Each of the German sentences has the personal pronouns in all four cases in the order nominative, accusative, dative, genitive. As you can see, English still maintains in its male pronouns all case distinctions except the one between dative and accusative. It uses a single word him where German distinguishes between ihm (dative) and ihn (accusative). If this makes you guess that him was originally the dative form, you are guessing right.

Also, the most obvious case marking on German nouns is the final s marking the genitive. This is obviously the same thing as the so-called Saxon genitive 's.

Thus our simplified German case system is quite simple for English speakers. The nominative is the case for the subject and the accudative or object case is for the object. (Remember that a typical short sentence has the form subject - verb - object). The genitive corresponds to the Saxon genitive.

Finally, how to distinguish dative and accusative? You can think of the accusative as the default object case and of the dative as a variant with to built in. I.e., where there is a dative in German, you often have to in English. Not always, e.g. not in the examples above. But in this case you can rephrase the English translations so as to make the to visible:

"He meets him and gives his money to him."

By the way, you can similarly think of the genitive as the of-case, though that shouldn't be necessary.

June 14, 2014

I have never before heard that the dative was dying out. In my dialect it's the only distinct case left... Genitive's long gone and Nominative and Accusative forms are identical.

June 15, 2014

Some examples for the phenomenon called Dativschwund in Standard German:

"In einem großeN Haus." (The second dative is 'weakened' from großem to accusative großen, though it appears that standard grammars are overcomplicating it with a series of weird distinctions. In Frühneuhochdeutsch this was sometimes not done, but this sounds very strange to us now. I could not find out whether Alemannic also does this. A Google search for Alemannisch + Dativschwund brought up ZERO hits. Google searches show that not all native speakers do it consistently, though this might be a hypercorrection.)

"Ab 18 Jahre" (The dative form Jahren is still correct, but the n has become optional.)

"Am Freitag, deN Dreizehnten." (More correct would be dem because the apposition - after the comma - is in dative case and can't start with dative weakened to accusative right away. But clearly this is changing, and this error is so common that I guess it's no longer an error.)

Yes, unification of nominative and accusative (except for personal pronouns) is a special feature of Alemannic dialects. According to Wikipedia, the genitive is gone except for Valais German and a few idiomatic expressions such as "Hesch der Zyt?" Clearly this is because in its primary, possessive function it has been replaced by a dative construction (2 below). Maybe this is what saved the Alemannic dative.

Let's look closer at possessive constructions:

  1. des Vaters Kind / das Kind des Vaters
  2. dem Vater sein Kind
  3. das Kind von dem Vater

1 is Standard German but for some reason sounds so stilted to us nowadays that in colloquial speech we tend to resort to alternatives. 2 is an elegant solution that people in the Southwest use, though it tends to be considered vulgar. 3 is what people elsewhere use - in the North, but also Austro-Bavarian speakers. It's clumsier, and this may explain why people in the north still use the genitive more often. (At least I think they do. Even in standard Dutch, where 3 has long been the dominant construction, remnants of the possessive genitive exist.)

Even though 2 and 3 both use the dative, it appears to me that it's more important in 2 for the dative to be distinct because Kind is the most important information, and in any other case you might initially think it's Vater and have to switch later: "Ich sehe den/m Vater ... sein Kind". (Note that even with a distinctive dative we can have this problem: "Ich gebe es dem Vater ... seinem Kind." But at least we can be sure no further switch will be required as in: "Ich sehe den/m Vater ... sein Kind ... hochheben.")

This is how popular constructions influence which cases are merged (or not), and vice versa.

June 15, 2014

About this first thing that you couldn't find about Alemannic, there's a difference still (second form with stressed article):

  • In einem grossen Haus: Imana groossa Huus / In ainem groossa Huus
  • In ein grosses Haus: In as groosses Huus / In ai groosses Huus
  • In dem grossen Haus: Im groossa Huus / In dèm groossa Huus
  • In das grosse Haus: Ins groossa Huus / In daas groossa Huus

Another thing that comes to mind that you forgot to mention is the loss of dative -e in the singular.

"Ich gebe dem Manne einen Brief", no one says that anymore. Which kinda makes me want to start doing it.

On a side note, I find it curious how conservative the Highest Alemannic dialects are (Valais). I guess that's what happens if you're isolated from the rest of the Germanosphere by a mountain range and the Frenchies.

June 15, 2014

Regarding the first point, it's still not clear to me. Is there an Alemannic equivalent to constructions such as "auf großem Fuße", so that I can compare? If not, then may question may not actually make sense.

On your last point: This can also go the other way. Isolation just means you have a different development in some respects, and I think in general it also means the development is faster. E.g. Pennsylvania Dutch has lost the dative almost completely, unlike Vorderpfälzisch, its closest relative.

June 15, 2014

Well, the -e ending has been lost. Auf großem Fuße == Ùf groossem Fuass. I don't know what kinds of constructions you'd need to make yourself a picture, but I can translate any sentence for you if you want.

June 15, 2014

That's already what I needed, thanks. So the strong dative declination of groß is groossem, and the weak one is groossa, similar to the situation in Hochdeutsch with großem and großen.

Meanwhile I learned that this distinction apparently is an old Germanic feature, not a recent symptom of dative loss.

June 16, 2014

I like the sentence 'Ich schicke dem Bruder meines Vaters einen Brief' because it has all the cases in it (and all the nouns are masculine which is the only gender that changes in every case, making the cases easier to spot). It means 'I send my father's brother a letter'.

Ich is the Nominative - the person doing the verb

einen Brief is Accusative - the thing that's having the verb done to it (also known as the direct object). In this case you might think the brother is the direct object, but stop and think for a second - the verb is 'send'. What's being sent? Not the brother, the letter.

dem Bruder is the Dative - the person the letter is being sent to (the indirect object). This can be a bit confusing because the dative is brought about by several prepositions as well, like the one you mentioned (mit). It might help to look up which prepositions take which case (some can be either accusative or dative depending on what's happening. Did I mention that German grammar is complicated?).

meines Vaters is the Genitive. The 's' is added to the end of masculine or neuter nouns in the genitive (don't ask me why). This is how you write the possessive in German - rather than saying 'my father's brother' you say 'the brother of my father'. There is no word for 'of', you just use the genitive instead.

I hope this clarifies things a bit. It is a difficult thing to get your head around. I'd definitely recommend learning the chart of which case/gender combination uses which article (den, dem, des, die etc), it will help you spot cases in a sentence. For example, if you see 'des', you know straight away that it's the genitive. There's no real short cut, you just have to read as widely as you can. It might be worth finding say a children's book in German, and go through each sentence to try to work out which case each noun is in. It will really help you make sense of sentences, especially as German word order can be a lot more flexible than in English.

June 14, 2014

Aus bei mit nach seit von zu genenüber are always followed by dative

bis durch für gegen ohne um are always followed by accusative

an auf hinter in neben über unter vor zwischen are followed by accusative if there's a movement, and by dative if there's no movement. (ich gehe hinter das Haus; ich bin hinter dem Haus)

Then there are verbs that are always followed by dative, like helfen, danken, gefallen ( ), you just need to learn them and keep practicing.

And of course generally if something is the direct object of a sentence then it's accusative (er fällt den Baum, he cuts the tree), but if it's an indirect object then it's dative (Ich gab dem Bettler einen Euro, I gave one euro to the beggar)

June 14, 2014
  • Nominative is what's doing the verb. It indicates the subject.
  • Accusative is what the verb is being done to. It in indicates the object.
  • Dative is a little more complicated. It's something like a little extra bit of information about the subject or the object.
  • Genitive indicates possession.

That's just the basics. As kiroskiw said there are some verbs and prepositions that have to be followed by a particular case. For in the sentence you give you know cat has to be dative because mit always puts a word into the dative case.

June 14, 2014

"Dative is a little more complicated. It's something like a little extra bit of information about the subject or the object."

I don't really agree with this. Your explanation does not make much sense to me. Dative is generally very clear:

  • Ich gebe dir den Apfel (I'm giving the apple to you)
  • Meine Mutter kauft mir eine neue Jacke (My mother buys a new jacket to/for me)
  • Mir ist kalt (It is cold to me)
  • Das Konzert ist der Band gelungen (The concert succeeded to the band (it was successful for the band))

(the english translations are semi literal)

Dative indicates that something is something to someone or to something (or in some cases for someone). In English you usually need a preposition for that, in German not. That is the difference.

On top of that you then have the prepositions and verbs that require it – and reflexive verbs (those you just need to learn and memorize). But in it's "purest sense" it is just simple as that. It is not extra information about the object or subject.

Your other explanations however are good :)

June 14, 2014

Your quite right about it being more complicated. I was trying to come up with a single sentence summary, and clearly didn't quite get it. :P For what I said I was thinking of a sentence like Ich gebe den Mann dem Buch where in English the recipient of the book (i.e. a little extra information about the object) could be determined by sentence order (I give the man the book) rather than a case.

June 14, 2014

This was exactly what I was talking about. I need a proper explanation, examples, etc. I always see these answers and I still don't get it.

June 14, 2014

The wikipedia links all have examples. The nominative one has a section explicitly called examples.

June 14, 2014

Here is a basic method. Put "who/what" before the verb and that gives you the subject =Nominative. "who/what" after the verb gives you the object = Accusative. The dative then , is what comes after the (first) object , EXTRA Information if you like. e.g. to whom do you give etc... (just my attempt).

April 15, 2017

It takes time to understand it. Even now, on complicated sentences it takes me a few seconds to figure out everything.

If you still don't understand it after reading online resources, I recommend getting a good learning German book that explains the grammar.

June 14, 2014

Okay, so I am only level 2 in German, so I'm no expert. I don't even know about the Nominative stuff you mentioned. But about the Shortcut thing, there are ways to GENERALLY tell what it is, but it is better to memorize sentence by sentence what type. I learned the hard way with French Verbs. There is regular and irregular, and irregular you always just have to memorize what form it is. That's all the advice I have. Hope it helps!

June 15, 2014

Maybe this link helps to explain the concept of a case without drowning you in too much linguistic talk. There are follow-ups for the individual cases.

June 17, 2014
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