When you first started learning German, creating sentences such as Der Mann ist nett (The man is nice), you probably thought “gosh, this is easy!”
THEN, you run into sentences such as Ich sehe den Mann (I see the man) where der → den or ein → einen (not to mention what happens if you want to add in an adjective!)
It gets tough, fast!
On top of that, you’re introduced to the dative case, which possibly sparked only more confusion. At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “How in the world do you know when to put a noun into the accusative case or the dative?? HELP!”
I hear ya. We’ve all been there!
Fortunately, there are some pretty straightforward rules to what the accusative case is and how and when to use it. Keep reading!
In this article you’ll learn the following:
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could learn a new language and not have to do so much work with grammar?
Even those of us who are grammar nerds can find it a bit overwhelming at times, so I know all the grammar mumbo-jumbo can get painful really fast for the rest of you.
Unfortunately, you must learn at least the key grammar points if you want to speak German with any proficiency whatsoever. There’s just no way around it.
That said, I know you can do it! You can learn the most important things (and forget the rest) and it doesn’t even have to be so bad. Promise.
Learning what the German accusative case is (and how and when to use it) is essential. Since it’s not a grammar topic we really deal with in English, it might seem hard (or even dumb) at first.
But, there is a rhyme & reason to why German has a case system (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) and you are going to learn the crucial ins-and-outs of [the accusative part of] it in this article!
The accusative case can also be called the direct object case because it’s used whenever we talk about direct object.
Take a quick look at this overview of the 4 cases, the roles they signify, and what those roles do in a sentence (i.e. how they relate to each other):
A direct object is a person or thing that receives action from the subject.
I mow the grass.
He plants a garden.
You water the flowers.
You might find it really helpful to think of sentences as having ‘slots’ that we either have to (or optionally may) fill in:
subject + verb + direct object
If that resonates with you, then think of it like this: in any sentence, we have to fill up the ‘subject slot’ (nominative) first. There needs to be someone or something that will do something.
The next slot is then the verb — what the subject is doing.
Then, if there is additional information needed (or just wanted), we default to putting that word (or phrase, i.e. a collection of words) into the ‘accusative slot’.
So, with our example of I see the tree, I could have just a simple subject + verb, which is the most basic sentence possible: I see.
BUT I wanted to tell you WHO or WHAT I am seeing (who or what is the ‘recipient’ of my action of seeing), which is why I filled in the direct object (accusative) slot next: the tree.
Alright. Take yourself back to 5th Grade English with me: do you remember learning about direct and indirect objects?
You may have studied sentences that looked something like this:
I is the subject doing the action of giving.
The money receives that action: it is what is being given.
Her receives the direct object (the money), making her the indirect object.
So, the money in this example is in the accusative case — the ‘direct object slot’ in our sentence that we fill up after we’ve filled up the ‘subject slot’ (nominative).
In this example, we can think of ‘the money’ as being in the accusative case and ‘her’ as being what’s called dative case (for indirect objects) because then it lines up so perfectly with those two cases in German. And that feels satisfying and not so intimidating.
Really, in English we have just 2 cases: the subject (nominative) and the object (accusative & dative combined into what’s called the objective case).
In English, what is the subject and what is an object (direct or indirect) is signaled by the order of the words.
For instance, I could say:
In this case, the tall tree is the subject of the sentence.
But I could take that exact same phrase and plug it into a different spot in my sentence:
And in this instance, I is now the subject, which means that the tall tree is an object.
We could say that the tall tree in the 2nd sentence is the direct object specifically (which is then the accusative case), but it’s a somewhat pointless distinction because we could take the same exact phrase and plug it into a different sentence like this:
The same phrase, but in a different spot (and with the addition of a big hug) technically makes the tall tree the indirect object (dative case) of the sentence.
But, again, the words themselves didn’t change — just the word order. And that’s pretty simple. That’s why in English we lump the accusative and dative cases together. If it’s not the subject, it’s an object (objective case) and that’s about all we need to know in English.
But in German there is a distinction between the accusative and dative cases. Little markers that I call ‘grammar flags’ (declensions) would be put on the the tall tree to signal when the tree is the subject, or direct object, or indirect object.
On the most basic level, the accusative case is used as the marker for direct objects. In this way (and this way only), the accusative case in English and German are the same. In English, we can sometimes split hairs and talk about accusative vs. dative. But in German, the distinction is always made.
Again, in English, who is doing what to whom is indicated simply by the word order. The words (e.g. the tall tree) don’t change, just the position of them.
In German, though, the role of every noun in a given sentence is ‘flagged’ by little grammar changes (called declensions) to the words that come in front of the noun.
There are two types of words that come in front of nouns: determiners and adjectives.
Determiners are little words (a, the, some, many, all, every, etc.) that tell us how many or which one.
Adjectives are words that describe some feature of the noun (e.g. big, flat, rough, new, green, etc.).
In German, when we put a noun into the accusative ‘slot’ in our sentence, the determiner and/or adjective(s) will take declensions, such as all these instances of -en:
(I see the tall tree)
In order to put a noun (e.g. Mann) into the accusative ‘slot’, you need to know the right ‘grammar flags’ (declensions) to use. We actually have two types of declensions: strong & weak.
Furthermore, declensions change based on:
Yikes! I know that sounds a bit intense, but there are some quick-n-easy declension patterns you can learn that actually make the accusative case totally manageable.
All determiners and adjectives used to indicate gender / case work with just two types of declensions: strong & weak.
Strong declensions better (but not flawlessly) indicate the gender/case of the noun because they are the most varied.
Weak declensions do not indicate the gender/case of the noun because they have almost no variation (there are just two options for any gender/case combo: -e or -n).
Look at this accusative case snippet of my all-in-one declensions chart. Notice the for the strong declensions, the for the weak declensions.
Note that the feminine, neuter, and plural strong & weak declensions are all the same as the nominative case! Or, in other words: the only spot on our chart where the accusative declensions are any different from the nominative declensions is with masculine nouns.
Our standard is that an ‘e’ gets added in front of every declension that isn’t an -e already. (I’ve left them out of the chart in part to make it look less overwhelming.) So, for example, we need an –en and –en in the masculine accusative and an –en for the plural accusative weak declension.
But in the feminine & plural, we have an -e strong declension. We’re not going to add an extra ‘e’. And we are going to apply the -e declension a little differently dependent on if we’re using the definite article (‘the’) or any other determiner.
Feminine & plural’s strong declension -e gets added onto to determiners such as jed- (every), welch- (which), kein- (not any) as is, to look like this: jede, welche, keine. Easy!
BUT! (Here’s the oddball part:) If you want to use the definite article (‘the’), it will be die in both instances (feminine & plural). The important part is still the -e declension, it just has the ‘i’ in front of it in these spots (just as in the nominative case): die. Got it?
The final oddball spot on the accusative declensions chart is in the neuter. The strong declension is an -s. It’s going to follow our rule and add an ‘e’ in front of it for any determiner other than the definite article (‘the’): jedes, welches, keines.But the definite article will add an ‘a’ instead: das.
There are 4 total declension patterns that help us use the declensions chart properly.
Notice a general preference for strong declensions over weak ones. 😀
Pattern #1 is the most universally applicable (i.e. used with both singular & plural nouns in all cases; and with no special restrictions). Example shortly!
Pattern #2 is used in just 3 instances (masculine nominative, neuter nominative, and neuter accusative) and only if the determiner is specifically an ein-word determiner. However, it is still very commonly used declension pattern! More on this soon. 🙂
Pattern #3 is used only with plural nouns or collective / non-countable nouns (e.g. water, rice, love). See example below!
Now, we want to see how this graphic of 4 declension patterns interacts with the All-In-One Declensions Chart. Let’s look at some examples to bring this all home!
Look at our example with the tall tree again:
(I see the tall tree).
Our direct object here is den großen Baum. So, it is in the accusative case slot.
We have a determiner (den) and an adjective (großen).
The den is technically the ‘strong’ declension and the 3 adjectives all have the ‘weak’ declension.
Do you see the strong declension (-n) on the determiner (‘the’ = den)? Do you see listed under the in the masculine?
Baum is a masculine noun, so you learn it with the article der. Der Baum (the tree) is technically in the nominative case because we learn all German nouns with their nominative (subject) case versions of ‘the’ (der [masc.], die [fem.], and das [neut.]).
So, in front of the Baum, we change the -r on der into an -n to make it den. Now our masculine ‘the’ (der) is in the accusative case instead of the nominative. Look at this comparison of the nominative and accusative case declensions:
Then, do you see the -n weak declension on all of our adjectives (großen)? Do you see it listed under in the declensions chart?
The ‘root’ form of the adjective is groß. So, we take it and put the weak declension onto it. Just remember that we need to add an -e first!
Can you see with this example how it all fits together? How den großen Baum is in the accusative case, taking a strong declension on the determiner and a weak declension on the adjective as dictated by declension pattern #1?
Making sense? Great. Now it’s onto the one oddball we discuss here (you can read here to learn about ‘rulebreaker’ plural determiners) — declension pattern #2!
Remember that this declension pattern is relevant in the accusative case only as concerns neuter nouns!
For example, we could say:
(I plant a sweet, little tree).
Although Baum (tree) is a masculine noun, Bäumlein (little tree) is a neuter noun because of the diminutive -lein (for more on this, read the neuter group / form sections in my gender guide!)
If we were to say Ich pflanze DAS süße Bäumlein (I plant THE sweet little tree), we would still be using declension pattern #1. BUT ‘a’ is what is called an ein-word. And now special rules apply!
Remember above when we were talking about determiners? Well, there are two types of determiners: der-words and ein-words.
EIN-words: ein (a), irgendein (any), kein (not a / any), and all possessive pronouns.
DER-words: all other determiners. For example, welch- (which), dies- (this), jed- (every).
REMEMBER: if the determiner is not an ein-word, it’s a der-word by default.
Working with the neuter accusative is one of just three instances that this distinction between der-words and ein-words matters — all the rest of the time, determiners are just determiners.
(Well, sort of. With declension pattern #4, we also draw a distinction between 2 types of determiners (not quite exactly der- and ein-words, though).
But in the neuter accusative, if you use an ein-word, you need to use declension pattern #2: the ein-word determiner takes no declension at all, which forces the adjective (süß) to take the strong -es (süßes).
Do you see how pattern #2 fits in with our declensions chart?
The spot with is for ein-words only. Then, the following adjectives (if present) scoot over into the very next category, which, in this instance, is the .
(I see tall trees.)
Since this sentence fits in with declension pattern #3, we have no determiner — just an adjective (große).
Instead of Baum (singular), we’re now talking about Bäume (plural). So we need to use the strong declension from the plural side of our declensions chart (-e) for our adjective (groß).
Since one of our rules is that the gender/case of the noun must be indicated by the determiner (if present) or by the adjectives (if a determiner isn’t present), that’s why we see the the adjectives with the strong declensions here.
For your reference, here is the graphic for our basic patterns again. Remember, right now we’re looking at an example of pattern #3:
Now you know the strong & weak declensions for direct object nouns (therefore in the accusative case). Thankfully, only the declensions for masculine nouns are any different from the nominative case, so that’s a breeze!
You’ve seen how a couple basic rules about how gender/case is indicated in German gives us 3 declensions patterns for which declensions (strong or weak) the determiner and/or adjectives need.
You’re now also armed with some example sentences that flesh out exactly how to use the different declensions (including our one exception case with ein-words in the neuter accusative!).
So, now you know how to use the accusative case in German, but you need to also learn when to use it and … that’s right, it’s not just when there’s a direct object!
Unlike in English, in German, the accusative is also used …
If you want more information on these many applications of the accusative case, keep reading! For a quick summary of the most important features of the accusative case, read the Main Takeaways below. I also recommend you check out my Study Tips section!
The accusative case in German is important. It’s also confusing because it’s used so differently from English. Stay with me! We’re going to hash this out.
In this section, you will learn about the accusative case in connection with:
There are verbs that can ‘stand alone’, such as sit, cough, run, laugh, and more. We can say simply I sit, I cough, I run, I laugh. No extra information is needed. These are still complete sentences.
Verbs that can ‘stand alone’ like this are called intransitive because there is no transitioning from the subject through the verb to an object.
However, there are verbs that require an object — they can’t ‘stand alone’. These verbs are called transitive verbs because there is transitioning from the subject through the verb to the object.
For example, we can’t say just I buy, I wash, I offer, etc.We have a sense that we’re left hanging, right?
That’s because it’s essential that we add in the information of what we’re buying / washing / offering. And that what is a direct object in the accusative case! 🙂
Anytime a verb requires an object (transitive verbs), you need to default to putting that object in the accusative case. This is an important principle! Remember it!
Here are a few examples:
Ich besuche den Mann / ihn. (I visit the man / him).
Ich besuche die Frau / sie (I visit the woman / her).
Ich besuche das Kind / es (I visit the child / it). — Yes, ‘children’ are ‘it’s in German!
There are also lots of verbs that can function either transitively OR intransitively. For example, sleep, eat, sing, read, and many more. We can say simply I sleep, I eat, I sing, I read, etc. BUT we can also optionally add on a direct object:
Ich schlafe (I sleep) or … Ich schlafe den Schlaf der Gerechten (I sleep the sleep of the just!)
Some verbs (intransitive) don’t need objects at all. BUT when they either require or optionally take objects (transitive verbs), we default to putting those objects into the accusative case.
There are 5 prepositions that are always accusative: durch (through), für (for), gegen (against), ohne (without), um (around).
Prepositions are always at the start of what are called prepositional phrases.
Some English examples would be with my best friend, at the grocery store, through the tunnel, without you, around the mulberry bush.
This concept of prepositional phrases is important because, when we see an accusative preposition, it means that the whole following prepositional phrase needs to be put into the accusative case.
What is the whole prepositional phrase? Well, it might include a determiner and/or adjective(s) that come between the preposition and the noun.
For example, if we have the prepositional phrase under the red chair, it breaks down like this:
under (prep) + the (det.) + red (adj.) + chair (noun)
Understanding what words make up the whole prepositional phrase is crucial because we have toproperly signal that the whole prepositional phrase is in the accusative case.
And to do that, we have to put ‘grammar flags’ (declensions) on … do you remember which words? That’s right: the determiner and/or adjective(s).
Check out these few, quick examples:
Ich fahre durch die hektische, lärmende, ausgedehnte Stadt(I drive through the hectic, clamorous, spread-out city).
Ich habe die Kette für dich gekauft (I bought the necklace for you).
Hast du was gegen Kopfschmerzen? (Do you have anything for headaches?)
Ohne mich kommst du gar nicht weiter! (You won’t get any further without me!)
Spring bitte nicht um den Tisch herum! (Please don’t jump around the table!)
You can see that sometimes the accusative preposition is followed directly by the noun. Other times, by a determiner. Still other times by a determiner and multiple adjectives. In other sentences, you see the preposition followed only by an accusative pronoun.
For an in-depth look at each preposition, read my guide on accusative prepositions.
Adverbial phrases of time in the accusative case are used to express duration of time OR a specific point in time / period of time.
Sometimes, these ways of expressing time involve prepositions, sometimes not.
Specific Time Examples: jeden Tag, nächste Woche, letztes Jahr, kommenden Donnerstag, einen Augenblick, Anfang, Mitte, Ende
Ich arbeite jeden Tag (I work everyday).
Ich besuche London nächste Woche (I’ll visit London next week).
Das Baby wurde schon letztes Jahr geboren (The baby was born last year already).
Wir sehen uns kommenden Donnerstag (We’ll see each other this coming Thursday).
Warte bitte nur einen Augenblick! (Please wait just a minute!)
AnfangMai musste ich ins Krankenhaus (At the beginning at May, I had to go to the hospital).
Mitte Juni wurde ich endlich entlassen (I was finally released mid-June).
Ende Juli musste ich aber meinen Mann ins Krankenhaus bringen!(At the end of July I had to bring my husband to the hospital, though!).
Of course, using the basic form of the determiners (jed-, nächst-, letzt-, etc.), you put on the correct declension that then matches the gender of the noun (e.g. Tag, Woche, Jahr).
As a reminder, here is the accusative snippet of our case chart:
Duration of Time Examples: den ganzen Tag, die ganze Zeit, viele Monate, drei Jahre, den ganzen Winter —Note: any of these can be followed by lang, über, or hindurch for emphasis.
Ich arbeite den ganzen Tag lang (I work all day long).
Wo warst du denn die ganze Zeit? (Where were you the whole time, then?)
Wir bleiben viele Monate in Berlin (We are staying in Berlin for several months).
Wir wohnten drei Jahre in New York (We lived in NYC for three years).
Den ganzen Winter über hat es täglich geschneit! (It snowed daily all winter long!)
A few prepositions — auf, über, gegen and bis — can also be used in the accusative to talk about time [Note: there are other adverbial phrases of time that are in the dative case].
Note that auf is a two-way preposition (i.e. either accusative or dative; more on that soon!). When used in a time expression, auf (+ accusative) indicates a period of time that starts now:
Sie fliegt auf eine Woche in Paris(She’s flying over [now, today] to Paris for a week).
Über is also a two-way preposition, but used in time expressions, it always takes the accusative and has the meaning of over, as in:
Wir bleiben übers Wochenende (We’re staying over the weekend).
Note that übers is a contraction of über + das (neuter accusative)
Bis is sometimes considered an accusative preposition, but, really, it is always followed either by another preposition (e.g. zu, which is dative), which then determines the case of the noun OR bis is followed by other ‘time information’ that’s already in the accusative anyway (not because bis makes it take the accusative).
Wir bleiben hier bis nächste Woche (We’re staying until next week).
Bis jetzt habe ich nur die erste Seite geschrieben (Up until now, I’ve written only the first page).
Du darfst bis 15 Uhr spielen (You may play until 3 o’clock).
Gegen is always an accusative preposition and, in time expressions, can mean either just before / toward a certain time or simply around a certain time (less common).
Wir kommen gegen 2 Uhr an (We’ll arrive shortly before / around 2).
Ich fahre gegen Mittag los (I’m taking off around noon).
Gegen Monatsende muss ich einen neuen Job finden!(Toward the end of the month, I need to find a new job).
Some prepositions (+ accusative) are also used in idiomatic phrases (e.g. I’m waiting FOR you in German is Ich warte AUF dich. Auf should NOT be translated as ‘for’, but it is the correct preposition in this idiomatic situation). For more on this topic, keep reading!
We use the accusative to cost about how much something weighs, how long/wide/deep it is, how much it costs, etc. Sometimes the accusative case is obvious; other times, not.
Der Korb voller Äpfel kostet 20 Euro(The basket of apples costs 20 Euros).
Das Baby wiegt schon 10 Kilo(The baby weighs 10 Kilos already!).
Das ist mir keinen Cent wert (That’s not worth a cent to me).
Ich bin erst 10 Jahre alt (I’m just 10 years old).
Die Stadt ist einen Kilometer breit (The city is a kilometer wide).
German distinguishes between the process of something/someone getting from A to B and the state of being there.
When the movement to somewhere is emphasized, the accusative case is used: auf den Tisch (on the table) as in Ich setze das Buch auf den Tisch (I’m setting the book on the table).
When the position of a person or object is emphasized the dative case is used instead: auf DEMTisch (on the table), as in Das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch (The book is lying on the table).
Did you notice the same translation of ‘on the table’ despite the 2 different German versions of auf den/dem Tisch?
Exactly! We don’t have an English equivalent for distinction that German makes, so it’s a topic that deserves extra attention.
So much attention, actually, that I’ve written a whole other guide all about accusative vs. dative as concerns movement vs. position. Heads up: this is where two-way prepositions (e.g. auf) come into play!
Most greetings and wishes are put in the accusative case because the subject is implied. It’s not always a most perfect fit (e.g. with Vielen Dank), but just imagine a Ich wünsche Ihnen/dir (I wish you) in front of each of these:
Guten Morgen (good morning)
Guten Tag (good day)
Guten Abend (good evening)
Gute Nacht (good night)
Gute Besserung (get well)
Vielen Dank (many thanks)
Herzlichen Glückwunsch (congratulations)
Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr (Happy New Year!)
Frohe Weihnachten (Merry Christmas!)
In addition to verbs that either require or optionally take a direct object, there are even a handful of verbs that take two accusative objects.
This is rare (usually there’d be an accusative and then a dative object in German), which is why we’re talking about it here in the special exceptions section!
The most common double accusative verbs are kosten (to cost), fragen (to ask), bitten (to request), lehren (to teach).
Es (nom) + kostet + mich (acc) + mein ganzes Geld (acc). (It [will] cost me all my money).
Ich (nom) + frage + ihn (acc) + etwas Privates (acc). (I’m asking him something private).
Ich (nom) + bitte + dich (acc) + darum (acc). (I’m asking you for that/it).
Sie (nom) + lehrt + mich (acc) + meine erste Fremdsprache (acc). (She’s teaching me my first foreign language).
We’ve talked about defaulting to using the accusative next, after the nominative ‘slot’ is filled. For example, with a transitive verb that requires an object: we default to putting that object into the accusative (not the dative).
We’ve seen even how certain prepositions are always paired with the accusative — if we see one of those prepositions, we can know that an object in the accusative case is coming!
Similarly, there are certain adjectives (words that describe nouns) that get paired with the accusative case.
BUT, this is a special exception because accusative adjectives are rare.
Most adjectives get paired with the dative case, so it makes sense to memorize these few accusative adjectives and then default the rest to the dative!
etwas/jemanden los sein/werden (to be/get rid of something/someone)
Endlich bin ich ihn los! (I’m finally rid of him!)
Erst gestern wurde ich die Kopfschmerzen los (I got rid of my headache just yesterday).
etwas/jemanden satt sein/haben (to be sick of something/someone)
Ich habe dich aber wirklich satt! (I am so sick of you!)
Ich bin dein ewiges Nörgelei echt satt! (I am so sick of your endless nagging!)
etwas wert sein (to be worth something)
Das ist deine Zeit gar nicht wert. (It’s not at all worth your time.)
Das Konzert ist den Eintrittspreis leider nicht wert. (The concert is unfortunately not worth the cost of admission).