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Please explain what are the cases (accusative, dative) here and why exactly those.

Schreibst du einen Brief an deinen Vater?

I assume that schreibst is a verb, ein Brief is a subject the same as dein Vater. Is that correct and is that the reason we have both ein Brief and dein Vater in accusative?

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Please notice that the question „Schreibst du deinem Vater einen Brief?“ has the same/a similar meaning but it uses the dative case. –  AlexE Apr 17 '13 at 20:28
    
The subject is of course du and both Brief and Vater are objects. But I assume it's just a typo, isn't it? –  Em1 Apr 17 '13 at 21:36
    
Not at all. Brief is the direct object and Vater is the indirect objects in both cases. The preposition "an" however requires the accusative case here, and it has the last word to say. That being said, for both sentences you could ask "Wem schreibst du einem Brief?" and "An wen schreibst du einen Brief?". Prepositions in German simply play a far more important role than in English. Google "german prepositions with dative". –  vlad-ardelean Apr 18 '13 at 7:20
    
Brief and Vater are substantives, not subjects, while often the subject is one substantive. However - questions should fokus on one topic. The question should be generalized - in current form it is imho too localized. –  user unknown Apr 21 '13 at 23:08
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1 Answer

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Well, "ein Brief" is in accusative because it's the direct object of the verb - meaning it IS the thing that you actually do the action to. Same as in "I am hitting the boy." or as "apple" would be in "I am giving the apple to the boy", or "I see the boy".

"An deinen Vater" is also accusative, but this time it's because the preposition "an" requires the accusative case here.

The preposition "an" can require the dative case also, but that is only when specifying location (and not direction). Example: Ich sitze am (=an dem) Tisch.

The reason why the preposition "an" and not another one is used here, is because of a property of the verb called "rection" if I'm not mistaken.

[EDIT] For "rection" or "government" (linguistical notion) check out the wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_(linguistics)

[EDIT] The wnglish word "whom" translates to both the german "wem" and "wen". English has lost this distinction entirely, so don't rely on analogies for help there :)

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Thanks for clear explanation. Would it be correct to check whether an requires Akk or Dat by asking a question? E.g. here it would be: Whom write the letter to? (Wen?) And with the table example: Where to sit? (Wo?) –  Denys S. Apr 17 '13 at 17:57
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In German, the questions for your sentence would be: „Wen oder was (Akk.) schreibst du an deinen Vater?“ (einen Brief!); „An wen (oder was) (Akk.) schreibst du einen Brief?“ (an deinen Vater!); „Wer (oder was) (Nom.) schreibt einen Brief an deinen Vater?“ (du!); „An wessen (Gen.) Vater schreibst du einen Brief?“ (an deinen!) In the case of „Ich sitze am (=an dem) Tisch.“, it would be: „An wem (Dat.) sitze ich?“ –  AlexE Apr 17 '13 at 20:46
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@DenysS. Yes, this is the correct way to check. The questions "where to" (wohin) and, in this case, "to whom" ask about direction, which means the preposition requires accusative. If you ask "where", you ask about location, in which case the preposition requires dative. –  elena Apr 18 '13 at 7:08
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The difference between an with accusative and an with dative is that in the accusative case the an indicates a direction (question wohin: Wohin setzt Du Dich? An den Tisch. Wohin schreibst Du? An den Vater. Wohin fährst Du? An das Meer). The dative case answers the question wo (Wo sitzt Du? An dem Tisch. Wo machst Du Urlaub? An dem Meer). –  Thorsten Dittmar Apr 18 '13 at 12:32
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