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Translating this sentence "The parents are watching their children"

Die Eltern sehen ihren Kindern zu.

ihren Kindern is dative because of "zu" right? zusehen since the preposition "zu" is Dative
Okay so they are prefixes not prepositions

In this sentence however:

The parents are calling their children.

I expect:

Die Eltern rufen ihren Kindern an

Thinking that "an" is a preposition that can be both Dative/Accusative depending on if there is "movement", and since there is no movement, it should be dative.

However I get the following answer from DeepL and chatgpt (please dont question me using it, just if it's right or wrong):

Die Eltern rufen ihre Kinder an

This is the answer Chatgpt gives (If you know the answer you can skip this):

In the sentence "Die Eltern rufen ihre Kinder an.", "Die Eltern" is the subject of the sentence and is therefore in the nominative case. "Ihre Kinder" is the direct object of the verb "anrufen", which means that it receives the action of the verb. Direct objects in German are in the accusative case, so "ihre Kinder" must be in the accusative case.

In the sentence "Die Eltern sehen ihren Kindern zu.", "Die Eltern" is still the subject of the sentence and is in the nominative case. However, the verb "zusehen" requires an indirect object, which means that "ihren Kindern" is in the dative case. In this sentence, "ihren Kindern" is the indirect object because it is the recipient of the action of "sehen", which is being done to the children indirectly through the act of observing them.

So how should I think in the matter? You can maybe delete this post after since it can probably be explained with a grammar sheet or whatever, but I just don't know and I've really tried.

4 Answers 4

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Forget about the terms direct object and indirect object when it comes to German. Yes, they exist and the terms are applicable but that doesn't help you as a learner.

That is because you can't determine the direct object in a German clause easily. In English and Romance languages, there's a rule that the first object of a verb is its direct object.

This rule does not apply to German.

In German, the first object of a verb may be its indirect object. And verbs can take any case for their first object. And any case for their second object. Yes, the most common combination is a mandatory accusative object, which is the direct object, and an optional dative object, which is the indirect object. Same as in English, French etc.

BUT, there's

  • a hundred verbs with no accusative object but a mandatory dative object
  • a dozen verbs with a mandatory accusative and an optional genitive object
  • a dozen verbs with a mandatory genitive object
  • a dozen verbs with a mandatory accusative and a mandatory second accusative object
  • a dozen verbs with a mandatory nominative predicative

Many of those irregular verbs are common.

So you have to learn it by verb which objects it wants. And you also have to learn by verb whether it wants a location or a direction or either, as you are at it.


Die Eltern sehen ihren Kindern zu.

That item ihren Kindern is the dative object of the verb zusehen.

Die Eltern rufen ihre Kinder an.

That item ihre Kinder is the accusative object of the verb anrufen.

The terms indirect object and direct object could be applied but they don't help you at all. It's the first object in both examples.

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  • To be more specific, "ihre(n) Kinder" is a direct object by any reasonable definition of the term, but a direct object can have different cases in German depending on the verb. So "direct object" exists as a concept, but it's not a very useful concept for German. When there are two objects then it's almost always the case that the direct object is accusative and the indirect object is dative, but there are exceptions even to this seemingly basic rule.
    – RDBury
    Mar 11, 2023 at 22:15
  • No, ihren Kindern isn't a direct object. The test for that is what happens in the equivalent passive clause. By definition, direct objects become subjects in the passive clause. That's not what happens here. The passive clause is Ihren Kindern wird zugesehen. That's still dative. Not nominative. — Compare Der Vater ruft den Sohn an. It becomes Der Sohn wird angerufen. That's a direct object. It becomes the subject of the equivalent passive clause.
    – Janka
    Mar 11, 2023 at 23:19
  • The direct object is the person or thing that is acted upon by the subject. In English the direct object changes to the the subject in a passive sentence, but it German it's the accusative object. Of course you could just define the direct object to the the accusative object in German, but that doesn't help. Btw, I don't think that direct object is the first object in English. It's either (subject) (verb) (indirect object) (direct object) e.g. "I gave the dog a bone" or (subject) (verb) (direct object) to (indirect object) e.g. "I gave a bone to the dog."
    – RDBury
    Mar 12, 2023 at 3:12
  • First object is not about word order but about what happens when a particular verb in a clause has no, one, two objects. In English and Romance languages, if it has one object, that's by rule the direct object. This rule does not exist in German. The first object a verb takes may be the indirect (dative) object.
    – Janka
    Mar 12, 2023 at 9:28
  • — As I wrote, it makes little sense to talk about direct and indirect objects in German but if you do, you have to declare that object that becomes the subject in the passive clause the direct object because that's what the passive does to a clause: it makes the thing acted upon the subject.
    – Janka
    Mar 12, 2023 at 9:29
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The "zu" in the first sentence is not a word in itself, it's the prefix in the verb "zusehen" which has been separated and moved to the end of the sentence. It's not even a preposition really; you might call it a particle but I think it's more accurate to call it a separated verb prefix. Anyway, "zusehen" is a separable verb which happens to take a dative object, and that's why you get "ihren Kindern" in the dative. I don't know who or what Chatgpt is, but the information looks wrong to me.

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  • But isn't anrufen also a seperable verb? an-rufen. "Zu" as a preposition is at least always Dative, but "an" can be either accusative or dative. However if that is the case when they are apart of a seperable verb I don't know. Hence the question
    – nisse26a
    Mar 11, 2023 at 13:44
  • No, the zu in zusehen is not a preposition but a separable verb prefix. These are two different things.
    – RHa
    Mar 11, 2023 at 14:01
  • @RHa Isn't the same true for an- in anrufen?
    – nisse26a
    Mar 11, 2023 at 14:02
  • @nisse26a Right, the an in anrufen is also not a preposition.
    – RHa
    Mar 11, 2023 at 14:03
  • @RHa yes, I understand that either they are all prepositions or they are not and I checked a lot of sources and it seems like prefixes, even if they are prepositions, if they are in a seperable verb they dont work as prepositions anymore. So why then does zusehen become dative and anrufen not?
    – nisse26a
    Mar 11, 2023 at 14:09
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ChatGPT is right "anrufen" goes with a accusative while "zusehen" goes with a dativ.

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I don't know why everyone here makes it so complicated...

Thanks Helena for the answer. Would've given the solution to you if I could.

Simple answer to my question, they both are direct objects, but "zu" even when used as a prefix in a seperable verb tends to takes the dative case (zuhören, zulächeln, zustimmen...). So it was simply that the verb takes Dative and the 2 websites I checked didn't have a full list of Dative verbs

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