I don’t understand which of the ending of sein is right on the following two sentences, and why.

  1. Jim baute seine Enkelin eine Sandburg am Strand.
  2. Jim baute seiner Enkelin eine Sandburg am Strand.

If the first one is right how can this be possible because it is in the dative case?

  • 2
    Context? Why should it be the first one? What is the supposed meaning? – Carsten S Jul 5 '16 at 18:20
  • It means "jim built his granddaughtera sandcastle on the beach" – Tomas Jul 5 '16 at 19:32
  • 1
    I’ve added eine before Sandburg in the example sentences. – Crissov Jul 5 '16 at 20:31
  • "Jim baute wem oder was (Dat.) wen oder was (Akk.) am Strand"? That's why Enkelin needs to be dative and Sandburg needs to be accusative. Then, look up declension table for "die/seine Enkelin". – Thorsten Dittmar Jul 6 '16 at 11:07

The verb is jemandem etwas bauen, with the thing you are building being in the accusative case and the person who you are building it for in the dative case. Remember that languages that have cases (such as German) are very strict in using them and rely strongly on them to avoid ambiguity. Thus, if Jim built his daughter a sand castle, the only correct translation keeping that meaning is:

Jim baute seiner Enkelin eine Sandburg.

This is with seiner Enkelin in the dative case and eine Sandburg in the accusative. You can check on sites like canoo.net what the inflection for sein is in different cases and with different noun genders.

Now your other example can still be understood, but unfortunately in the wrong way. Seine Enkelin cannot be dative; it can be either nominative or accusative. Both cases allow for an unintended interpretation.

Nominative interpretation

Jim{case unknown} baute seine Enkelin{nom} eine Sandburg{acc}

(I initially used case unknown for Jim here so I can expand the way of thinking.)

If the granddaughter is in the nominative case, she must be the subject. This is okay, because the verb form agrees in person and number, so the interpretation is valid. The sand castle must still be in the accusative case (a nominative sand castle doesn’t make much sense, but see below). We are left with assigning a case to Jim. The only really possible one is dative, meaning the sentence could be parsed as:

Jim{dat} baute seine Enkelin{nom} eine Sandburg{acc}

Therefore, it is the granddaughter doing the building and the sand castle is for Jim. This word order is possible but highly strained. Typically in ambiguous cases due to unmarked proper nouns, German strongly prefers to put the subject before the object, which is violated here. It creates a lot of tension and would only occur if at all to strongly stress Jim being the beneficiary of the sand castle.

Accusative interpretation

Jim{nom?} baute seine Enkelin{akk} eine Sandburg{akk?}

There are actually two ways to resolve this even weirder sentence. The first and simplest is to treat eine Sandburg as an apposition to seine Enkelin. Thus, Jim built his granddaughter. Jim’s granddaughter is, in fact, a sand castle. While I am also active over at Anime and Manga Stack Exchange, where it is not unheard of to draw, build or buy one’s waifu (a word built on the similar pronunciation of wife but typically with a bit of a different meaning), I have never heard of building a granddaughter. But crazy people will always stay crazy.

A second interpretation with seine Enkelin as accusative treats eine Sandburg as nominative (since bauen does not take two accusatives). This, as above, only allows for Jim to be in the dative case. Thus the interpretation is (and if you thought the former interpretations were strange, this is getting really strange):

Jimy{dat} baute seine Enkelin{akk} eine Sandburg{nom}

Ignoring for a second the fact that this word order is even more extremely uncommon (and I bet there will be comments under this answer calling it ‘wrong’ — which is isn’t from a formal grammatic point of view) and the fact that I wouldn’t even know how to pronounce it to make sure the listener gets what I would want to say, this is a valid sentence, too. It means that the sandcastle built Jim his granddaughter. And it also means that somebody probably has a very good dealer.

So always beware of correct case endings. While typically, people will understand you because the first part of this answer is most likely by a very significant margin, and they will just correct the wrong case in their heads (or on the paper), in less clear cases there is a strong possibility for misunderstandings.

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