How to identify the indirect object

Could somebody help me understand how to identify the indirect object of a sentence?

e.g. Wir essen einen Fisch. (We are eating a fish) the fish is the direct object, is there an indirect object? And if there is how did you find it?

February 1, 2015


That sentence does not contain an indirect object. The subject is 'wir' - the person/people/thing/things doing the action - and as you pointed out 'einen Fisch' is the direct object as it is the thing being acted upon. There are no more nouns in the sentence so we have identified all of the objects along with the subject.

Here is an example of a sentence with an indirect object: "Wir geben ihm einen Fisch." (We are giving him a fish) 'Wir' is the subject for the same reason as above and 'einen Fisch' is the direct object because it is directly being acted upon. The indirect object in this sentence is 'ihm' - he is the recipient of the fish. One way to think of this is whether the sentence makes much sense when removing an object. If you remove the indirect object and say "I am giving a fish" we will certainly be left wondering to whom you are giving the fish, but the sentence still conveys that the fish is the thing being given away. If you remove the direct object and say "I am giving him" this becomes rather silly and it is unclear whether you left out a word or if he is the object being given away.

When we say "I am giving him a fish" really what we mean is "I am giving a fish to him." The same thing in German - "Ich gebe ihm einen Fisch" comes from "Ich gebe einen Fisch zu ihm." In both languages the preposition is considered superfluous and is not generally used, although doing so would not be incorrect. A great way to identify indirect objects is by checking if a preposition is being used with it (or if it is possible to use one like in the example I gave).

February 1, 2015

Super clear explanation, thank you! Nice to know that I was right with my response but your explanation and example is brilliant and definitely makes it all clearer for me too.

February 1, 2015

Thanks, I feel super useful right now :)

February 1, 2015

This may serve as a rule of thumb but you should be aware that it can become more complicated. After writing a lengthy comment, I find that someone else has explained it better. ;)

Here are some challenging sentences with the use of dative:

Mir ist kalt. I am cold. (I am the dative audience of a cold that exits.)

Some verbs use a dative object without a necessary accusative object. (dir - dative you, dich - accusative you)

Ich glaube dir. I believe you. - Ich folge dir. I follow you. - Ich gefalle dir. You like me. (I appeal to you.) also: helfen, to aid - zürnen, to scorn

It can be useful to think of the accusative and dative cases as role categories. The most important ones are the ones you have mentioned with geben. Ich gebe dir (the receiver role - dative) einen Fisch (the acted upon - accusative)

Roles for the dative can be - audience, perceiver, goal, receiver, beneficiary

Wir spielen ihm zu Ehren. We play to his honor. - Ich applaudiere dir. I applaud you. - Ich höre dir zu. I listen to you. (Btw, zu is not a preposition but a separable prefix here.)

It really comes down to the verbs. Each verb asigns roles to different objects. There can be none, one, two objects. Some are obligatory some are optional. There is no sure way to know and you have to learn it with each verb. However, it is not as arbitrary as genders for nouns, because of the recurring categories.

Some verbs describe the same situation with differnet case roles.

Ich mag dich. Du gefällst mir. - both: I like you. (You appeal to me.)

Ich vermisse dich. Du fehlst mir. both: I miss you. (Your presence is lacking to me.)

A very important distinction is a free object versus a noun with a preposition that governs a certain case. A certain preposition may dictate the case (dative: mit, zu, bei, von, nach... - accusative: gegen, ohne, für, über as about) no matter what category you might asign. Some preposition take dative for locational action/movements and accusative for directional action/movements (dative or accusative: über (as over), auf, an, in, hinter, neben...)

Ich schreibe dir. (free dative - audience/receiver) I write to you.

Ich schreibe dich auf die Liste. (free accusative) I write you(r name) on the list.

Ich schreibe von dir. (von with dative) I write about/of you.

Ich schreibe über dich. (über as about with accusative) I write about you.

Ich schreibe an dich. (directional preposition with accusative) I write to you.

February 2, 2015

Perfect, thank you!

February 2, 2015

Unless I'm mistaken, there isn't an indirect object in this particular sentence. Wir/We is the subject, essen/are eating is the verb, and einen Fisch/a fish is the object which is having the action of the verb (the eating) done directly to it, thereby making it the direct object. Hope that helps :)

February 1, 2015


February 2, 2015

Hello, The dative case in German expresses the grammatical function of indirect object. In German the rule is: the indirect object is before the direct object. For example; (1)Der Mann gibt der Frau das Geld =The man gives the woman the money (2) Die Mutter gibt dem Kind ein Spielzeug.=The mother gives the child a toy... To know all these thoroughly, you need to learn dative and accusative cases very well. And... For your example, since there is no indirect object in your sentence. "Wir essen einen Fisch", we can not consider here an existence of dative case. If you carefully look at it, accusative case is used there. (einen) it can't be indirect object.

February 1, 2015

In general this is how you will see the sentences written/spoken, although it is possible to invert the word order to get things like "Der Mann gibt das Geld der Frau." This is where it becomes really important to be solid on the declensions so you don't hear that sentence and think it means "The man gives the woman to the money." It's like how you can change "The man gives the woman the money" to "The man gives the money to the woman." In English it's slightly more clear because to swap the order of the objects in the sentence you must include the preposition (or omit it going the other direction). On the other hand, to distinguish between the two objects in German you have to look at which one has been put in the dative case - "der Frau." The only way it would end up meaning the wrong thing is if you said something like "Der Mann gibt dem geld die Frau." or "Der Mann gibt die Frau dem Geld."

February 1, 2015

thank you for clarifying. So we should go over the meanings of objects rather than using basics when we are about to form a sentence that include more than one object?

February 1, 2015

Yes. Indirect object/the dative case is fequently obvious due to the object coming directly after a preposition that forces the dative case (aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, gegenüber) or a preposition being used to describe comparative location and not movement (an, auf, hinter, in neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen). When this doesn't happen you can also try to figure it out by seeing if you can use zu/to in the sentence to clarify what the object is doing. There are also some verbs that force the object to take the dative case such as folgen and helfen.

February 2, 2015

"der Frau" can also be interpreted as genitive case, thus "das Geld der Frau" = "the woman's money". Maybe that's why the indirect object goes in front of the direct object? To avoid mixing dative and genitive?

February 2, 2015

On Duo it seems that one word order is used over the other - probably because they don't want to confused people with inverted word order - but in general one is not more correct than the other and they are both used (although I don't know which is more frequent).

By itself "das Geld der Frau" could certainly mean "the woman's money." However, you would use context in this case to determine which meaning is more likely. "Der Mann gibt das Geld der Frau" likely does not mean "The man is giving the woman's money (to no recipient in particular)". If the man was giving someone's money to someone/something and we wanted to determine whose money he was giving then the sentence could be interpreted in the genitive case. There are a lot of sentences on Duo that could possibly have multiple meanings and without context there really is no way of knowing for sure.

February 2, 2015

Ich gebe ihm das Geschenk. (=I give him the gift.) 'ihm' is in 3. case (dativ.) ; 'das Geschenk' is in 4. case (accu.)

'einen Fisch' is not in the 3. case, because if it is in case 3, it would be 'einem Fisch'.

  • Wir sehen einen Fisch. Wir essen einen Fisch. Wir füttern einen Fisch. Wir köpfen einen Fisch. [We see a fish. We eat a fish. We feed a fish. We head a fish. (We cut the fish)]
  • Wir sehen einem Fisch zu. Wir schneiden einem Fisch den Kopf ab. [We watch a fish(, how it swims). We cut the fish it's head.]

I can not explain the difference between 'direct' and 'indirect' objects. Because young Germans learn to ask for the word in a sentence. You can not ask for a word, because you have no feeling for the language.

February 1, 2015
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