I am a beginner learner, and I recently discovered the German (metal) song "Blut im Auge". I found out that "im" is a contraction of "in dem" which is okay, but then, why would we use the dative case in an incomplete sentence? Using the dative case in a sentence like "Ich leihe dem Freund mein Auto." is understandable since the friend is the receiver of the car, but in the case of "Blut im Auge" (not a complete sentence), how does the dative case work here? Does the eye receive blood? Why is it not "Blut in das Auge"?

Also, from a complete sentence view, why is the dative case used in expressing the location of an object? I saw this in another question in German Stack Exchange: "Mein Schlüssel ist im Auto." -> "My key is in the car." The car is not receiving anything, but why is it still in the dative case?

Sorry if my question is silly. I tried searching for the answer myself but to no avail. I'm just a beginner, and I just don't understand this. Thank you very much for reading this!

P.S.: While I will try my best to understand any German replies, I'm not sure if I'm on the level when I can understand German accurately, so if possible, I would like to request for English replies :) Thanks!

  • Dative in German is way more than just denoting receivership like in English.
    – tofro
    Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 10:36

3 Answers 3

  • Blut im Auge (blood in the eye)

    Where is the blood? - In the eye.

  • Mein Schlüssel ist im Auto. (My key is in the car.)

    Where is the key? - In the car.

In both cases you are asking with "where" for a location. So the part of speech you ask for is describing a location, and many languages have a special grammatical case for locations which is called locative case. But neither German nor English are such locative-languages. They don't have a locative case.

So you need a different construction. In German the replacement construction is:

  • Location = local preposition + object in dative case.

Der Jäger steht in dem Wald (im Wald).
Der Zettel hängt an dem Brett (am Brett).
Das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch.1
Hans versteckt sich unter der Decke.
Die Leute stehen vor der Kirche.
Der Mörder lauert hinter der Tür.

The hunter stands in the forrest.
The note hangs on the board.
The book lays on the table.
Hans is hiding under the blanket.
People stand in front of the church.
The murderer is waiting behind the door.

1) In southern regions like Austria also »Das Buch liegt am Tisch.«

The complete construction itself is an object too. It would be a locative object in languages with locative case, but in German such a type of object that begins with a preposition is called »Präpositionalobjekt« (prepositional object).

locations vs. directions in German

Other than English, German separates locations and directions very strictly by different cases (dative and accusative) and by different question words.

Note, than in English you can use where also to ask for directions too ("Where did he go?" - "He went away."). In German you use »wohin« instead of »wo« to ask for directions, and also the prepositional object that indicates a direction is different:

  • Direction = local preposition + object in accusative case.

Der Jäger geht in den Wald.
Ernst hängt den Zettel an das Brett.
Walter legt das Buch auf den Tisch.
Hans verkriecht sich unter die Decke.
Der Pfarrer tritt vor die Kirche.
Ilse schlüpft hinter die Tür.

The hunter goes into the forrest.
Ernst hangs the note on the board.
Walter places the book on the table.
Hans crawls under the blanket.
The priest goes in front of the church.
Ilse slides behind the door.

»Blut im (in dem) Auge« vs. »Blut ins (in das) Auge«

Both is correct, and both is »Blood in the eye« in English. But one is a location, the other is a direction.

  • Location:

    Er hat Blut im Auge.
    He has blood in the eye.

    Wo hat er Blut? - Im Auge (in dem Auge)
    Where does he have blood? - In the eye.

  • Direction:

    Er bekommt Blut ins Auge.
    He gets blood in the eye. (also: into the eye)

    Wohin bekommt er Blut? - Ins Auge (in das Auge)
    Where (whereto) does he get blood? - In the eye (into the eye)

Grammatical analysis of the complete sentence »Er hat Blut in dem Auge«:

  • er
    subject (every subject always is in nominative case)
    a mandatory completion of the Verb
    tells us who (or what) is performing the action that is represented by the verb
    personal pronoun, nominative case, 3rd person, singular, male
  • hat
    Verb, a form of »haben«
    must match with subject in person, number and gender (i.e. 3rd person singular male)
    tells us what the action of the sentence is.
  • Blut
    accusative object
    a mandatory completion of the verb
    a noun in accusative case, singular, neuter
    tells us what it is, that he has.
  • in dem Auge
    prepositional object
    an optional completion of the verb
    tells us where he has the blood.
    this prepositional object consists of:
    • in
      local preposition
      describing, that something is inside of something else.
      prepositions can not be inflected, i.e. they don't have gender, number, case, person or any other grammatical properties.
    • dem Auge
      dative object
      a dative object inside a prepositional objects that begins with a local prepositions tells us the location to which the preposition refers. (in case of »in«: Inside which thing is something)
      this dative object consists of:
      -- dem
      defined, dative case, neuter, singular
      -- Auge
      dative case, neuter, singular
  • Your answer was very detailed! Thank you very much for spending the time to answer. I really appreciate it! Thanks ^_^ Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 8:08
  • 5
    For those interested in historical linguistics: The indo-european language did have a locative, but it disappeared and in German it was replaced by the dative. Some languages (e.g. Polish) still have it.
    – RHa
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 9:52
  • 3
    Unfortunately this seems not to be 100% correct: The word "zu" is formed with the dative although it is a direction of movement: "Ich gehe zum Restaurant." Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 14:36
  • 2
    FTR, though it is correct (as the OP already noted) that “im” and “am” are, technically, contractions of “in dem” and “an dem”, the non-contracted forms are virtually never used, neither in colloquial nor formal contexts. The exception is when there is an emphasis on “dem”, i.e. “der Zettel hängt an dem Brett” means the note is pinned on that particular board (e.g. the board you're pointing your finger at right now, and not perhaps the one next to it). Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 20:19

Note that the word 'dative' originated to label a case in Latin, which, as noted above, also had a case called the 'locative' and another, more prevalent case called the 'ablative'. Partly due to the greater variety of cases in Latin, and therefore more specialised nature of their function, the cases in German don't map perfectly to the cases in Latin with the same name all the time. Many of the German dative case prepositions, for example, have Latin equivalents taking the ablative. The Latin word 'in', with the same meaning as English and German is an example. 'Im Auge' in German is therefore equivalent to 'in oculo' in Latin, where 'oculo' is the ablative singular, not the dative.

In short, the names of cases in German are not necessarily helpful, and the notion of the dative indicating a 'receiver' will often be a red herring.

An alternative name in German for the Dative case, is 'Der Wemfall (the 'whom case'). In many ways this is a more useful name, as it doesn't try to push a German case into being something else.

  • 4
    In fact, the receiver concept of dative will only be valid for the very most simple cases of sentences, without prepositions ("Der Mann gibt dem Hund den Ball"). This is fine for an initial understanding of dative, but nowhere near a general rule. Forget that connotation after it has helped you over the initial step.
    – tofro
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 8:59
  • Note also that "im Auge" is not an object. In "Blut im Auge" it's an attribute. In "Blut ist im Auge" it's a predicative expression.
    – RHa
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 11:33
  • I was really trying to capture that the name 'Dativ' or 'Dative' is somewhat arbitrary, so avoid overthinking it. Hence the recent edit. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 12:28
  1. Blut ins Auge (Akkusativ) = there is blood moving from outside the eye into the eye's inside
  2. Blut im Auge (Dativ) = there is blood present inside the eye and not crossing that border

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