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As I learned German, I was taught that the dative case, for example the word "mir," essentially means "to me" just as "dir" means "to you."

As such, when is it acceptable to add "zu?"

Komm zu mir!

Er hat mir einen Apfel gegeben.

I may be answering my own question. Am I right in assuming that when you must express "to me" literally, it is okay to say "zu mir," and when it should be implied, it is simply "mir?"

It seems whenever I have a question, I can't think of the examples that led me to ask the question, so those will have to do for now. :-)

  • 1
    Basically, if you express a direction, you use "zu", and if you just address the "whom", then it is without "zu". – äüö Nov 24 '14 at 15:46
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    I have the feeling you are trying too hard to translate word by word. It is "zu mir kommen" because the word "kommen" uses a destination that needs a preposition, e.g. "zu"; and "zu" requires the dative case. And it is "mir geben" because the verb "geben" requires a dative object. What I try to say, essentially is: You have to learn by heart which cases/prepositions a verb requires and you must learn by heart which case a preposition requires. – Chris Nov 24 '14 at 15:51
  • You can say "komm mir" as in "Komm mir nicht so an", but that expresses a sentiment similar to "Don't you talk to me like that." Or "Komm mir nicht zu/so nah!", "Don't get so close to me." – blutorange Nov 24 '14 at 16:37
  • Good question. Best example might be "mir sagen" and "zu mir sagen" which are both correct. In most cases it is one or the other though and, locational movement aside, I doubt there is logic behind it. – Emanuel Nov 24 '14 at 19:15
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    This is indeed a tricky question. Some verbs even allow both but with different meaning. For instance, you can read in a newspaper: "Auf der linken Seite setzt Holtby sich durch und bringt den Ball zu van der Vaart in den Strafraum." In this context, it would be wrong to say "...und bringt van der Vaart den Ball..." In the given example they're talking about a successful pass, but with the other structure you would understand that Holtby holds the ball in his hands, runs to van der Vaart and gives him the ball. Bad enough, though, that the given sentence above can mean both (without context). – Em1 Nov 24 '14 at 22:09
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First, let's consider the structure of the two expressions jemandem (etwas) geben and zu jemandem kommen.
It depends on the verb which object it takes (e.g. a prepositonal object, a dative object, an accusative object):

  • The verb geben requires two objects: a dative object (receiver) and an accusative object (given thing):

    jemandem(=Dativ) etwas(=Akkusativ) geben.

    Therefore, your second example uses solely the dative pronoun mir without any preposition.

    English has lost most of its cases, so there isn't anything that can be really compared to the German dative case; English has no cases to distinguish two objects. It uses a different means to mark the receiver and the given thing: In the sentence give me the book this is done by word order; in give it to me by the preposition to.

  • The verb kommen needs a destination, where the person is going to. That destination is linked to kommen by a preposition, i.e., kommen takes a prepositional object. Which prepositions are acceptable has to be learnt by heart or deduced from context via logic. The case of the noun following the preposition is determined by the preposition itself. For example, you could say:

    er kommt in das Haus (in + Akkusativ; into the house)
    er kommt auf das Dach (auf + Akkusativ; onto the roof)
    er kommt zu der Straße (zu + Dativ; to, towards the street)

    Note, that the so called Wechselpräpositionen use accusative case when refering to a direction rather than a location.
    The preposition zu is an appropriate one to go with "kommen". It isn't a Wechselpräposition and it always requires dative case. So you can see that the preposition zu is not really "added" in the phrase komm zu mir as if there were a hole where you can just put the zu in. Don't think of it as if the mir was there all the time and you only had to decide whether or not to put the zu there. The reasoning is the other way round: kommen can go with the preposition zu which requires the dative pronoun mir.


Now, let's think about how to me can be translated to German. By equating mir = to me or zu mir = to me things are being oversimplified.
There are several possibilities for translating to me to German, depending on context:

  • translate it as a pure dative mir (as in give it to me = gib es mir)
  • translate it as an accusative mich (as in don't lie to me = lüg mich nicht an)
  • translate it as prepositional object zu mir (as in come to me = komm zu mir)
  • translate it as a different prepositional object, e.g. für mich (as in sounds good to me = hört sich für mich gut an)

To choose the correct one, you have to know whether the verb in question needs a dative object or an accusative object or a prepositional object. And if the verb requires a prepositional object, then you must know/deduce which prepositions are possible and which case each of these prepositions takes.


Finally, let's come back to your question:

Am I right in assuming that when you must express "to me" literally, it is okay to say "zu mir," and when it should be implied, it is simply "mir?"

No. I hope it became clear that you cannot simply say that whenever an English sentence contains to me it has to be translated by zu mir or that an "implied" to me must be translated as mir. English and German need not use the same expressions/structures:

  • Take for example the phrase I ask him. Somehow it is "implied" that the question points to him; he is the receiver of what is asked. Nonetheless, you don't say I ask to him nor do you say ich frage ihm(=Dativ).
  • Another counter example would be something happened to me. There is a literal to me in this sentence. However, the German translation would be mir ist etwas passiert, not zu mir ist etwas passiert.

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