This might be a general question, but I’ve just re-encountered cases again while learning German. How would one explain the purpose of cases?

In German there are four, there are languages with more... What kind of semantic information do they provide that couldn’t be read out from an equivalent English sentence?

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    You could narrow your somewhat broad question by adding some actual cases for examination and some examples to support your question.
    – dakab
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 20:06
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    I'm not sure what kind of answer you expect. You can ask the same question for any feature of the English language that is absent in some other language. E.g., why does English have articles? Why does it distinguish between "he" and "him"? Why is there a continous tense (German doesn't need one)? Etc. You can successfully communicate in a language without all those features. Nevertheless, English has them, and that's the way English is. Same for German.
    – dirkt
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 20:54
  • If I get the intention of this question correctly, it should be reopened and immediately reclosed as primarily opinion-based.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 21:20
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    Thank you for your suggestions on moderation of the question. However I don't plan to change the question because it was understood and successfully answered. Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 21:53
  • @Jan: Why should it be opinion based? Are you sure, there is no scientific answer? Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 16:18

4 Answers 4


As an English speaker learning German, the tendency of native speakers, textbooks & online resources to explain cases simply by repeating their names is frustrating & confusing. Stating "this is nominative, while this is dative" does nothing to explain the purpose or concept. Might as well say "this is blargle, while this is schmergelpluff" - equally meaningless, which is why I still struggle w/these concepts :)

So, with that in mind, and because I'm curious to see whether or not I actually have a good grasp of them myself...

What are "cases"?

A case is 1 of the possible "declensions," in a language.

Well, that doesn't help. So...

What is "declension"?

A declension is a grouping of word endings/changes that help to clarify the role each noun or pronoun plays in a sentence, removing possible ambiguity:

  • Who/what is doing a verb?
  • What thing is having a verb done to it?
  • What other thing is being used to do the verb to the main thing?
  • For whom or what is the thing being done?
  • Who owns or possesses the thing?
  • Where is the verb happening; are the doer(s) or the thing(s) moving or stationary?
  • Are the doers or things being addressed by proper nouns?

Each such situation is a separate "case," and each case has a particular name. If you know what the case names mean, you can use them to infer/label the purpose for each noun/pronoun in the sentence (if not, you're likely even more confused than when you started).

Ok, so now what are the "cases"?

German, as you noted, has 4 cases (4 Fälle).
Each case (Fall) can be thought of as the following:

  • Nominative (Nominativ): The subject of the sentence. Who/what does the verb?
  • Accusative (Akkusativ): Direct Object. The thing having the verb done to it.
  • Dative (Dativ): The indirect object. With or for what 2nd thing is the verb being done to the 1st thing?
  • Genitive (Genitiv): Who/what possesses the thing, and who/what is possessed?

(Not used in German, at least not anymore:)

  • Locative: Where is the verb happening? The place noun, I think?
  • Ablative: Stationary or moving? Related to prepositions, which work a bit differently in German.
  • Vocative: A proper noun (name) for the doer or the thing.

How do I tell what's what?

Now that you know which role a noun/pronoun plays (its case), you know which "inflections" or changes to apply to it and its related parts.

In German, the specific preposition often requires/dictates which case a noun takes, whether accusative, dative, or genitive, so if you memorize what case must go with a given preposition, you can remove a lot of the guesswork from considering the role of the noun & just use what you're told is the required case.

How do I know what to change to and how?

Inflection is the process of changing a word to reflect a particular grammatical role - a different case, plurality, tense, gender, etc. For verbs, this is also called "conjugation."

Inflection is what's happening when changing the masculine definite article "der" into "den", "dem", or "des" depending on the (pro)noun's case or role in the sentence. It's also what happens when changing a singular "der" to a plural "die."

Key tip: An article, adjective, pronoun and noun itself all must change to match the same case, on a noun-by-noun basis.

So what semantic information does this help to convey?

In addition to clarifying the noun's role in the sentence as explained above, also:

  • How many doers are doing the thing, and are there multiple things?
  • What gender (either in an actual biological sense or in the often arbitrary linguistic sense) are the doers and the things?
  • Which descriptive words apply to the doer and which to the things?

In English this information typically only requires pluralizing the noun/pronoun. In German, you must also change the article, because the noun doesn't always change.

Das Mädchen = the girl ... Die Mädchen = the girls

So why do I care?

Without these sorts of changes, the nouns can remain ambiguous, because German allows you to change the word order around in various ways that aren't possible in English.

Den Hund beißt der Mann.

If you don't recognize the cases & changes in articles, an English speaker might interpret this sentence from left to right as "The dog bites the man."

This is incorrect, because the sentence actually says: "The man bites the dog."

Den Hund (note the accusative article, indicating that this noun receives the verb) beißt der Mann (nominative article, indicating the Man is doing the verb).

This is equivalent to "Der Mann beißt den Hund," but places an emphasis on the fact that it was the dog (as opposed to something else) that the man bit.

Another example with pronouns could be:

"Er sieht sie." - He sees her.

"Sie sieht er." - He sees her. (Her, he sees).

"Sie sieht ihn." - She sees him.

"Ihn sieht sie." - She sees him. (Him, she sees).

By using cases and proper inflection, you can remove ambiguity, and also be sure exactly which noun is doing what to other nouns, regardless of the actual order of words in the sentence.

  • True - I'm certain there are tons of exceptions, mostly having to do w/ prepositions as you've shown. As I mentioned above, the prepositions dictate which case must be used, and take the place of other cases not used in German (locative, ablative) that deal w/motion, location, etc. My goal was merely to give a general overview of their purpose. I really do still struggle w/these concepts, precisely because English doesn't have them. This was as much an exercise for myself as it was to attempt an answer. Thanks for the feedback!
    – mc01
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 19:02

There are essentially three ways in which a language can indicate the function of a word in a sentence:

  • word order,
  • prepositions (and postpositions),
  • cases.

You can think of the latter as postpositions melted into the modified word. It may help to look at extreme hypothetical examples:

  • A language that indicates the function of a word purely by means of word order does not have any need for prepositions or cases. On the other hand, learning all the aspects of word order is probably quite difficult.
  • A language that indicates the function of a word entirely by means of cases does not need prepositions and it can use word order to express other aspects, e.g., emphasis (like German mostly does). Something similar applies if you swap cases with prepositions.

Now, languages are not intelligently designed but evolved and thus use multiple means of expressing the function of a word, e.g., all languages I am aware of use at least two of the above. Moreover, languages tend to contain unnecessary complications, e.g., using prepositions and cases for the very same word (which happens in German). This is not totally pointless, however, as redundancy eases parsing sentences for the brain and allows for communication to work if it is a bit incomplete.

German mainly uses prepositions and cases for indicating the function of a word, but also uses word order to some extent. The latter is also used for emphasis and some other grammatical aspects. So, sometimes cases allow you to express things that would require prepositions or a more rigid word order otherwise. On the other hand, you often have to apply a case without it conveying any additional information.

  • Do you have an example, where the word order produces emphasis? Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 15:32
  • @userunknown: Yes, but given that this is a minor aspect of my answer, adding an example here would create a dissonance in verbosity.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 16:01

The information cases provide cannot be succinctly addressed in a single answer. I try, therefore, to illustrate with the simplest example, the information that the cases (in German) provide.


The bird ate this animal.

If you don't have context, you can think of the animal as replacing a worm, but also a cat. . So, in English the order is the only thing, that tells you who ate whom. In German, using cases, inversion is possible: For in German you have information, via the case, who is the object and who the subject:

Der Vogel fraß dieses Tier. (der Vogel here in nominative)


Den Vogel fraß dieses Tier. (den Vogel here in accusative)

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    Note that English isn't ambiguous, the SVO sentence structure conveys the information via position whereas German uses cases to distinguish between subject and object.
    – Stephie
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 20:35

Cases don't really have a purpose, they arise naturally. English and French have lost them almost completely, but they are already developing new ones. Due to the loss of cases, the prepositions to and of (in French: à and de) are being used so much now that their original meanings are moving to the background. They are slowly turning into purely grammatical particles, and in French, de has already started merging with the following noun, i.e. becoming a case prefix.

The original Proto-Germanic case suffixes arose similarly in an earlier language which had postpositions rather than prepositions. (Postpositions are like prepositions, but they follow the noun to which they refer. English still has a few of them, such as ago; notwithstanding was originally a postposition but can now also be used as a preposition.)

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