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Consider the following German sentences, both of which my German teacher says are correct.

Elmar (13) ist nicht gut in Englisch.

A: Der Vater will dem Jungen helfen.

B: Der Vater will den Jungen schlagen.

Why is it such that 'Jungen' is in dative in the first sentence and accusative in the second sentence, when it in both cases is the father who wants to perform an action toward the boy. My teacher said that it is because 'helfen' is intransitive and 'schlagen' is transitive. However, I don't see why this should affect the case. Also, why is 'helfen' intransitive? Can't I just say "Ich helfe die Spinne." in response to someone who asks me what I'm doing? (Thus supplying an object).

  • David Voigt has correctly answered your question, but to maybe expand a bit on the feeling: Even though English does not have this distinction of cases, it is reflected in interrogative pronouns. "Whom does the father want to help?" vs. "Who does the father want to hit?" – Marc Vaisband Jun 1 at 19:00
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    @MarcVaisband -- In English, both of your sentences should begin with "Whom." So no distinction there – Phil Freedenberg Jun 1 at 21:54
  • @Phil Freedenberg Huh, you're right. I actually never knew. So, disregard my previous comment then (I guess I'm not deleting it to preserve the context, right?) – Marc Vaisband Jun 3 at 5:45
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German has four cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive). Which case an object receives depends on the verb and has to be learned. We have an excellent list of verbs with a dative object.

Your teacher's answer is not very helpful in that it basically says the same thing: you have to learn that helfen governs the dative and schlagen or unterstützen govern the accusative.

Note that transitive does not refer to verbs with exactly one object; it refers to verbs with a single accusative object that becomes the subject under passivization. By that definition, schlagen and unterstützen are transitive:

Der Vater unterstützt den Jungen.
Der Junge (subj., nom.) wird unterstützt.

Helfen is intransitive as it does not govern the accusative. Note that dative objects remain dative objects under passivization.

Der Vater hilft dem Jungen.
Dem Jungen (obj., dat.) wird geholfen.

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    Fair enough. So there basically isn't a logical rule that determines if a verb has dative / akkusative object? – AfterMath May 31 at 13:40
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    @AfterMath No rule. But note that verbs that govern accusative objects are more frequent than those that govern dative objects. It's similar to weak versus strong verbs: it is not predictable in which class a given verb falls, but one category is way bigger than the other. – David Vogt May 31 at 13:43
  • Okey. Thanks for clearing it up! 😊 – AfterMath May 31 at 13:44
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David Vogt is completely correct that you just have to memorize which case a verb takes, but I find it easier to make some sense of it if I consider a more complicated sentence, one that takes both a direct and indirect object. Consider

Fred brachte dem Jungen den Schuh.

Fred brought the boy the shoe. or

Fred brought the shoe to the boy,

where the direct object (der Schuh) is in the accusative, and the indirect object (der Junge) is in the dative.

When I look at a verb that takes only one "object" I ask whether that object is more like the boy or more like the shoe.

With the verb schlagen, the action seems more direct, so the accusative makes more sense. With a verb like helfen it feels like there is some unmentioned 'help' that is being provided, and the boy (in your helfen sentence) is more like the boy receiving the shoe -- so dative makes more sense.

Of course this is far from infallible, but I think that with learning a language, if a rule helps in at least two-thirds of the cases it's worth considering.

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  • Just to make things worse, "er schlägt ihn ins Gesicht' and "er schlägt ihm ins Gesicht" are both correct. (The second feels more natural to me, but that may be regional.) – Carsten S Jun 2 at 14:36
  • So what you are suggesting is that some of the verbs have a more direct action in their nature. The problem for my case then, is telling them apart. For example, would you consider 'Warnen' to be a direct of not-so direct action? Der Mann warnt den Jungen. What about 'schaden' ? Der Mann schadet dem Jungen. In these examples I might consider Warnen a less direct action. From a historical point of view I though Akk. was to denote direct object and Dat. was to denote indirect object, but in some sence this is undermined by verbs taking dative objects in my point of view... – AfterMath Jun 3 at 7:01
  • @CarstenS Yeah . . . . .That does not make the situation easier : ) – AfterMath Jun 3 at 7:04

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