I've been learning German since 7th grade. It's been 4 years since I've graduated 12th grade. Though I can guess which words and what forms of the words to use, I can't figure out the case charts. Nominative, Genitive, Dative, and Accusative are driving me insane. I'm an instinctual learner but this is about to drive me up the wall.

I keep trying to figure out why this part of the sentence doesn't belong in that classification and why that part is classified as that. Is there an explanation which hasn't been dumbed down and which doesn't use REALLY relative terms?

It aggravates me that after 9 years I still can't figure this out, even if I do get every guess correct on the conjugation, I can only rely on instincts so far before I need an absolute reason WHY.

So the problem is: I don't have a working definition of the cases which can't appear to work for other parts of the sentence.

  • What is your native language? – waldrumpus Aug 31 '12 at 8:49
  • English is my native language. I've always been pretty good at guessing words by how they felt to me and what the sounds implied from other languages/words. That's basically how I passed my English classes (and argued grammar application concepts with my English teachers) but for the life of me, I can't figure out these cases. I keep seeing examples which feel like they could be correct in multiple cases. All the definitions for the cases I've come across are extremely generic :(. – KI4JGT Aug 31 '12 at 9:15
  • Are you clear on the terms of direct vs. indirect object in English, since they are very similar? – waldrumpus Aug 31 '12 at 9:32
  • That's the thing. Direct object and indirect object make absolutely no sense to me :(. I know what they are and how they're used but not why they're assigned. I don't have a working definition of either one of them besides it's after this and before that? I need a literal definition something that's arguable but all I can find are the stupid rules that govern them. Something like, noun, person, place or thing. Commas mean this. Semi-colons mean that but I can't seem to find what direct and indirect mean at all. – KI4JGT Aug 31 '12 at 10:31
  • For example: She gave me a lightbulb She is subject me is indirect lightbulb is direct. Why is she not indirect as she is indirectly involved with the lightbulb. – KI4JGT Aug 31 '12 at 10:44

I sympathise completely and I had exactly the same problem at school. Forget about learning tables of articles for the time being, and think about pronouns in English: why is it ungrammatical to say "I gave she the pen" or "He is swimming with I"? Despite these phrases being ungrammatical, they can be understood. So in English there are the following pairs of pronouns:

  • I, me
  • you, you
  • he, him
  • she, her
  • it, it
  • we, us
  • they, them

The first type are nominative and used as the subject of verbs. They correspond directly with ich, du, er, sie, es, wir etc. So far so easy. Unfortunately the second type doesn't correspond directly with the dative or accusative in German; the accusative and dative ceased to be separate cases in English several hundred years ago. There is still a grammatical distinction between the direct and indirect objects in English, they just aren't flagged morphologically.

If you're familiar with programming, verbs are like functions, they take arguments. Some verbs don't take any i.e. are intransitive ("I swam"). Most other verbs usually have one argument: the direct object: "I bit him". Some verbs have an additional, optional second argument: the indirect object. So, "I passed the ball" and "I passed her the ball" are both possible. The "ball" is the direct object, "her" is the indirect object.

In German, the direct object is always in the accusative case, while the indirect object is always in the dative case. Note how, from the final example, I can also say "I passed the ball to her", which gives some clue as to the function of the indirect object.

The final twist is that prepositions usually force a case. For example, a noun following zu will always be in the dative, and a noun following durch will always be accusative. This will come with practice.

If you're wondering what all this is for, the most commonly heard example is that "der Hund beißt den Mann" and "den Mann beißt der Hund" are understood to mean the same thing in German, because the subject is marked with a nominative article and the direct object is marked with an accusative article. "The dog bites the man" and "the man bites the dog" are very different in English; in other words, we mark the subject, direct object and indirect object by their position in the sentence and not by changing their articles.

Once you understand the principle, the rest is just (a lot of) practice, as the other answers suggest.

  • 2
    Brilliant approach from a coder's view :) – Takkat Sep 2 '12 at 19:46
  • Yes, like Takkat said, brilliant! +1 – I'm with Monica Sep 4 '12 at 9:04
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    Like the OP I've struggled with cases since I have a good intuitive understanding of English but a horrible textbook knowledge of grammatical terms with which to explain things in any language. The idea of verbs as arguments to functions is fantastic & very helpful. – mc01 Jul 7 '14 at 16:11
  • But what if the cat bites the woman? ;) – Carsten S Aug 31 '15 at 9:06
  • Is it just me or are there misconceptions in this answer? For excample: Direct and indirect objects do not allways match Dativ and Akkusativ (e.g. "Ich bin bei Tim" Dat. "Ich gehe zu Tim" Akk. both work without another object thus accorrding to the answer they are direct object thus Accusativ - but they really aren't). Good rules of thumb though. – hajef Jun 7 '19 at 10:53

Maybe your problem is, that you are still thinking in your native language and that you then translate your (probably English) thoughts into German language. This will not work. It doesn't work in any pair of languages.

I am a native German speaker. I started learning English as a foreign language when I was 10. I had 8 years of English in school and I was really bad in English. It was more than one times that I was close to repeat the class because of my bad marks in English. All those strange rules, so far away from German grammar (which is not true, English and German are very similar).

After school I gave a dump on rules. When I talk to a friend, non of us is thinking of cases, articles and prepositions. We just talk and we do it in a grammatically correct manner (well, most times).

So, to improve my English, I watched movies with English soundtrack and English subtitles. My thought was: If American and British babies can learn English without learning any rules, just by using the language, I will be able to do the same.

I forced myself to think in English when ever I wanted to talk in English. After some time I found out, that I sometimes did produce correct English sentences which I could not translate into a German version that says exactly the same. Just because it is not always possible to translate a sentence from one language into another without changing its meaning.

So here are my hints:

Buy DVDs of movies that have a German synchronized soundtrack. Watch the movie in German. If you need subtitles, DO NOT use English subtitles. Use German subtitles!

Read articles in German Wikipedia. DO NOT try to translate it into English. Try to understand what is written there in German. If you don't understand it, read the English version of the same article (there is a link to other languages versions on the left side).

Read German newspapers and German books.

  • 1
    100% same way I did it, too. +1 – Korinna Aug 31 '12 at 9:40
  • I did this forever, which is why I can guess german words VERY often. My problem is, I want to know the rules but everywhere I look, I seem to find rules to explain the rules??? So unfortunately, I don't have an absolute rule as to why to use each case. – KI4JGT Aug 31 '12 at 10:38
  • There is no such absolute rule for german grammar. There is also no absolute rule for english grammar. Stop searching for it. Just use the language! Make mistakes, learn from your mistakes and try to avoid them next time. And then: Make some other mistakes. ;) This is how it works. – Hubert Schölnast Aug 31 '12 at 11:54

I remember, when i was in primary school and they started introducing cases. It is about the relation of a noun: being something, doing something or being used to do something, belonging to somebody. These relations lead to different forms of the noun. In German, we have four different cases.

First case: der Hund (the dog) -> You ask: Wer oder was? (who or what)

Second case: des Hundes (the dog's) -> Wessen? (Of whom?) e. g. the dog's dinner

Third case: dem Hund (the dog) -> Wem? e. g. Es gehört dem Hund.

Fourth case: den Hund (the dog) -> Wen? e. g. Ich streichle den Hund

As regards the third and fourth case, it is pure convention which case you use with a certain verb: jemande*n* streicheln (4th case), jemande*m* gehören (3rd case)

I live in Vienna, where people often confuse the third and the fourth case.


You sound frustrated. Frustration won't do you a favour in learning anything.

Language specific concepts which can't be found in your native language just can't be explained in your native language. Sounds absurd, but just think about it.

Would you try to explain in words how to do something like driving a car or riding a horse, so that at the end of your explaination the person can actually do these things without any problems?

Learning a foreign language is also about getting used to it and practicing until you can rely on your instinct. Read, read, read and listen, listen, listen. Get the instinct for the language. No matter if it is German or any other language.

  • Yes I would LOL. If you break something down enough, a person should be able to understand it without problem. I've been listening and reading for 9 years. I still don't get the cases. I know their definitions but I can't logically place the different sentence parts into those categorizations which placing them in other categories as well. – KI4JGT Aug 31 '12 at 10:40
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    @KI4JGT: Please never teach driving or riding. ;) – nem75 Aug 31 '12 at 13:52

I am really not sure as to what exactly you want to know. I will make an attempt to answer anyway :).

So first of... if you are looking for ONE definition for, say, Dative... there is NONE. Dative expresses a number of things, which do NOT necessarily have anything to do with one another. They might even seem contradictory. For instance: when using a preposition that can come with both cases, you use Dative when you talk about a fixed location, while accusative is used for a direction. Now without preposition, the dative usually is used for people receiving stuff, so they are a direction if you will... so there is NO WAY to boil that down to one concept. You think that sucks? Well, let's look at the English word to "at"... can you describe in one sentence what that means? I doubt it. Language grows weird and chaotic at times so I would recommend to accept the idea that Dative has 2 or even 3 definitions which apply in different situations.

As for direct and indirect object (your comments) ... She is not an indirect object for the simple reason that she is not an object at all. She is subject. She does stuff.The names direct and indirect are not ideal. You could also call it "first grade object" and "second grade object" or "ball" and "basket" and those names wouldn't be more fragile to logic questioning than direct and indirect... it is just a convention.

So if you want a rule, you have to live with a list for each case... just as for the English past perfect... I don't think there is ONE catch all rule there. That's how language is.

If I misunderstood your question, then I apologize.

  • You understood perfectly. Thanks very much for that but I can give you an example for "at" which seems to be a catch all. It's a preposition which is indicative of place particularly concerned with transportation to said place in specific dimensions. Again thanks though, you seem to know what I'm talking about. – KI4JGT Sep 2 '12 at 5:09

I learned them in "batches." The nominative and accusative cases are similar: der, die, das, die (nominative), and den, die, das, die (accusative). The only difference is in the masculine, der for nominative, and den for accusative.

Likewise, the genitive and dative are similar des, der, des, der (genitive), and dem, der, dem, den (dative). Change des to dem from genitive to dative in the masculine and neuter. The feminine form of both is der. Change der to den from genitive to dative in the plural.

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