Learning some basic German words and phrases on Duolingo is one thing. But once you start delving into the dative case, that’s when you know you’re a serious German student!
As an English speaker, you might be feeling like this whole ‘dative’ concept is fairly strange. In English, we do use it (well, at least, we can), but it’s not a very important topic.
I know it can feel daunting, but the dative case doesn’t have to be that scary. You can totally do this! Plus, German is a very cool language (but you know that already 😉) so it’s worth it.
- how the dative case works in both English and German
- verbs, adjectives, and prepositions that signal the dative case
- tips and tricks for mastering the accusative smarter & faster
What is the Dative Case?
Like all the other cases (nominative, accusative, genitive), we can think of the dative case as being a particular ‘slot’ in any given sentence that gets filled up (in this case —pun intended– with the indirect object).
All nouns play a role in their sentences that is relative to the other nouns in the sentence. Case is what we use to ‘flag’ these roles so we know who is doing what to whom.
German uses the dative case a lot; but English uses it very rarely (because we use something else instead)…
How the Dative Case Works in English
Both German and English sentences can have people/objects to/for whom action is taken.
Based on our chart above, we know that those people/objects must be the indirect object, right? This is the dative case after all!
Well, in German it’s pretty straightforward: indirect objects are put into the dative case. Period.
In English, however, we have two options: use the dative case OR use a prepositional phrase.
In English, we can use the dative case with verbs that are about giving/taking or speaking, in a broad sense. So, this can include verbs such as to offer, to provide, to lend, to send, to answer, to command, to advise, to assure, etc.
Here, we see the dative case at work in this give someone something setup. Sally is the indirect object, who is the recipient of the car (direct object) being given by Frank (subject).
But we can also say:
In this version, we see the prepositional phrase to Sally. This second sentence has the same meaning as the first AND is just as equally an option: to give something to someone.
And that’s the sum of the dative case in English! It doesn’t come up often in the first place and even when it does, we can still choose to avoid the dative case and use a prepositional phrase instead.
In German, not only do we not have this flexibility; but the dative case is used in many, many more ways!
In English, we could say ‘forget about the dative case, you don’t truly need it!’ But in German, there’s no getting away with not using the dative case. So, if learn it you must, let’s do it!
How the Dative Case Works in German
English uses word order or prepositional phrases to indicate who / what is the indirect object. But German uses a very different system.
In German, the indirect object 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 dative ‘slot’ in our sentence, the determiner and/or adjective(s) will take declensions, such as these instances of -m, -n, -s:
Ich singe meinem schläfrigen Baby ein sanftes Schlaflied vor. (I sing a soft lullaby to my sleepy baby).
In order to properly signal that a noun (e.g. Baby) is the indirect object in the dative ‘slot’, you need to know the right ‘grammar flags’ (declensions) to use.
BUT … heads up! Declensions change based on:
- the gender of the noun
- which case it’s in
- what type of words are in front of the noun
- how many of each type are in front of the noun
Yikes! I know that sounds a bit intense, but there are some quick-n-easy declension patterns you can learn that actually make the dative case totally manageable.
Dative Case Declensions
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 dative case snippet of my all-in-one declensions chart. Notice the for the strong declensions, the for the weak declensions.
Note that the dative case weak declensions are all the same. There is more variety with the strong declensions, although in the dative case we do have identical strong declensions for the masculine and neuter.
All of these declensions could be listed as –em, -en, -er, -en, etc. But I leave all the ‘e’s out of the chart in part to make it less visually overwhelming. Just remember to add them in whenever you’re plugging determiners or adjectives into the chart!
Knowing what case you need (e.g. dative) and which gender your noun has (i.e. masculine, feminine, neuter, or ‘plural’ ← functions like a 4th gender in terms of taking its own specific declensions) is a GREAT start.
But then you still need to know when to use the listed strong declension or weak declension…
Good news! There’s a graphic for that. 😁
4 Declensions Patterns
As you take a look at this graphic of the 4 (and only ever 4!) declension patterns used in German, make note that there is a general preference for the strong declension, since it more clearly indicates the all-important info of the case of the noun.
Pattern #1 is the most universally applicable (i.e. used with both singular & plural nouns in any case; and with no special restrictions). Example coming up soon!
Pattern #2 is used only if the determiner is specifically an ein-word determiner and only in just 3 instances, none of which are relevant to the dative case!
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!
Declension Pattern #1 Example:
Our indirect object here is dem traurigen Hund. So, it is in the dative case slot.
We have a determiner (dem) and an adjective(traurigen).
Do you see the strong declension (-m) on the determiner (‘the’ = dem)? Do you see on the declensions chart how the -m is listed under ?
Hund is a masculine noun, so you learn it with the article der. Der Hund (the dog) 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 Hund, we change the -r on der into an -m to make it dem. Now our masculine ‘the’ (der) is in the dative case instead of the nominative.
Then, do you see the -n weak declension on traurigen? Do you see it listed under in the declensions chart?
The ‘root’ form of sad is traurig. So, we take traurig and put the declension onto it. In front of most declensions, we need to add an -e first.
Can you see with this example how it all fits together? How dem traurigen Hund is in the dative case, taking a strong declension on the determiner and a weak declension on the adjective as dictated by declension pattern #1?
Declension Pattern #3 Example:
(I give bones to sad dogs, literally ‘I give sad dogs bones’)
Since this sentence fits in with declension pattern #2, we have no determiner — just an adjective (traurigen).
Instead of Hund (singular), we’re now talking about Hunden (plural). So we need to use the strong declension from the plural side of our declensions chart (-n) for our adjective (traurig).
Wait! Isn’t the plural of Hund just Hunde? Yes, if you’ve you’re read my guide on Plural Formation, you know that der Hund takes just an -e plural (like most masculine nouns), but Plural nouns in the dative case take an extra -n (unless the noun already ends with one OR if the noun ends with an ‘s’, like Autos).
That’s why in this example you see Hunden and not just Hunde. It would be Hunde in all other cases (nominative, accusative, and genitive), but dative case plurals will add on an -n if there’s not one there already (many nouns form their plurals in any case with -(e)n).
Whew! Glad we got that cleared up.
OK! Back to our adjective declension: traurig becomes traurigen. Even though we’re using a different sentence pattern, our adjectives are taking the same -(e)n declension as it did in our first sentence example.
It just so happens the weak declension in the masculine dative and the strong declension in the plural dative are identical.
In fact, if you look over the declensions chart again, you can see several declensions (especially all the weak ones) that are the same.
If you want more information on the many applications of the dative case, keep reading! For a quick summary of the most important features of the dative case, read the Main Takeaways below. I also recommend you check out my Study Tips section!
In this section, you will learn about how the dative case (and its declensions) is used:
- as the required indirect or sole object of a verb
- as a optional dative with other verbs
- to indicate possession
- with dative reflexive pronouns
- in conjunction with many adjectives
- paired with many prepositions
- in time expressions
- in special cases with unexpected English equivalents
There are 3 basic categories of dative verbs:
- Verbs that require ONLY the dative
- Verbs that require BOTH the dative & accusative
- Verbs that require the accusative and take an OPTIONAL dative
In the ‘What You Need To Know’ section, we talked briefly about the 2nd category: verbs that require both a direct AND an indirect object, for example, when someone gives someone (dative) something (accusative). These are the only types of verbs for which we have direct English equivalents.
But there are common German verbs that –instead of taking the accusative, like we would expect– require a dative object. Check out these examples:
Ich helfe ihm (I help him).
Ich folge dir (I follow you).
Du fehlst mir (‘You are lacking from me’; I miss you).
Er gefällt mir (‘He pleases me’; I like/approve of him).
In these examples, ihm, dir, and mir are all pronouns in the dative case.
These dative verbs simply have to be memorized as exceptions from our general rule (that after filling the nominative ‘slot’ with a subject, we fill up the accusative ‘slot’ with a direct object next). If you don’t already know how to conjugate verbs (including dative ones!) to ‘agree’ with their subject noun / pronoun, read here!
Dative of Reference / Benefaction
The 3rd category of verbs is thankfully more straightforward. These are verbs that must have a direct object (accusative) receiving the action from the subject (e.g. I open the door), but optionally may reference whom/what is affected by that action (e.g. I open the door for my mother), which is then put into the dative.
In English, as established earlier, we prefer to put this information into a prepositional phrase (for my mother), but in German, it’s a dative object with our standard nominative + verb + dative + accusative word order: Ich öffne meiner Mama die Tür.
We can use this same sort of sentence and refer to ourselves as the person affected, e.g. Ich kaufte mir ein neues Kleid (I bought myself a new dress). Just as in this example, any sentence in which the subject is also the person to/for whom action was taking needs to use a dative reflexive pronoun.
We’ve talked about defaulting to using the accusative (after the ‘subject slot’, the nominative is fill up) and about the dative and genitive being exception cases.
Well, that gets turned around in this instance!
Most adjectives that are connected to particular cases (nerd lingo: that ‘govern’ particular cases) are paired with the dative. Here are a few examples of dative adjectives:
I knew that already — Das war mir schon bewusst.
I didn’t want that — Das war mir unerwünscht.
I understand that — Das ist mir verständlich.
Note the interestingly different sentence structure. In English, I is the subject of the sentences, but in German, that (das) ist! We’re saying essentially That was already known to me, That was undesired by me, and That is understandable to me.
Instead of having the active subject (I), these German constructions can be thought of as being passive: something is happening to the subject. It’s not that I understand something, but that something is being understandable to me.
German used many of these passive-sort of constructions (that always use the dative!), so make a mental note of that and stay on the lookout for more!
There are prepositions that are always dative (so, the nouns coming after them will be in the dative case) and there are some prepositions that are dative when the sentence’s emphasis is on location / static position of someone or something (more on this later).
First, the 9 common prepositions that are always dative. They are aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, gegenüber. (Note: there are 14 others that are uncommon and therefore don’t concern us right now.)
This means that anytime you have one of these prepositions, the whole phrase (determiner / adjective(s) / noun) will be in the dative case, with the ‘grammar flags’ (declensions) to match.
BUT there are also the two-way prepositions (an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen, entlang) that are used with the dative case to indicate movement from A to B. This is such a big topic that we address it in a separate guide.
Dative Time Expressions
There are various German time expressions with dative prepositions (bei, nach, seit, von, zu) and with two-way prepositions (vor, in, an) that, for these time expressions, are used in the dative vs. accusative.
Note that all these prepositions are used in other contexts, too, in which their meanings might be very different. Below are some quick examples of each of these prepositions specifically in this context of time expressions.
- bei is used with nouns of what is taking place:
bei ihrer Geburt (at her birth)
- nach usually means ‘after’ or ‘later’:
nach vielen Jahren (after many years)
- seit corresponds to ‘since’ or ‘for’:
Sie ist seit 2 Monaten hier (She’s been here for 2 months)
- von can generally translate to ‘from’:
von Zeit zu Zeit (from time to time)
- zu is used with holidays and to denote specific or limited periods:
zu jeder Zeit (at any time)
- in refers to a specific period or length of time:
in der Nacht (at night)
- vor corresponds to ‘ago’ or ‘before’:
vor langer Zeit (a long time ago)
- an is used in combo with days and parts of the day:
an Wochentagen (on weekdays)
Possession of body parts & clothing
A German formulation that is odd to English speakers how the dative case is used to talk about parts of the body or articles of clothing.
For examples, in English we say I wash my hands. If we translate the German equivalent, it is I wash myself the hands. Interesting, huh?
Ich wasche mir die Hände (‘I wash myself the hands’; I wash my hands).
Du hast dir ins Bein geschnitten! (‘You cut yourself the leg’; You cut your leg).
Ich ziehe mir die Jacke aus (‘I take myself the jacket off’; I take off my jacket).
Sie setzt sich den Hut auf (‘She put herself the hat on’; She put on her hat).
With these examples, you can see how body parts and clothing items are said with ‘the’ — not with the possessive pronouns (e.g. my, your, his, etc.) that we use in English.
You can also notice how the dative comes into play by marking the person to/for whom the action (direct object) was taken. I wash (for) MYSELF the hands.
Note how similar formulations are used to talk about someone doing action for someone else, too. For example, Die Mutter zieht dem Baby einen Body an (The mother puts a onesie on the baby). Die Mutter wäscht dem Baby die Hände (The mother washes the baby’s hands).
- Both English and German use the dative case to signal the indirect object of the sentence.
- English can use an alternate construction (a prepositional phrase) that is not an option in German.
- German also has many other uses for the dative case.
- The dative case has its own unique set of strong and weak ‘flags’ (declensions) put on the determiners & adjectives in front of the indirect object:
- The requirement to put the following noun into the dative case might be signaled by a verb, adjective, or preposition. In some instances of dative case usage, we break our typical rule that the 2nd noun (after the subject) defaults to being in the accusative case.
- The dative case is also used in many time expressions and in special cases such as talking about body parts or articles of clothing.
- A dative noun (incl. reflexive pronouns) may be used to reference the benefactor of the subject’s action, as in I opened the door for my mother or I bought myself a new dress.
It’s necessary to memorize the strong & weak declensions for the dative case. Then, I recommend practicing them by first writing some sample sentences and then trying to also use the dative case in conversation.
The very best way to get used to all the different cases (incl. their declensions) and the variety of ways they’re used beyond just signaling subject vs. object, etc. is to regularly expose yourself to original German sources.
I have practiced what I’m preaching here, and it works. In fact, so much of my German is natural to me (like a native speaker) that I’m honestly learning a ton about the nitty-gritty grammar explanations because I’m writing various guides for you.
A lot of the info I’m presenting to you I know correctly intuitively, due to lots of exposure to original German media like I’m recommending to you. You can develop an intuitive grasp for German, too!
This means listen to German music. Watch German shows & movies. Read German books (no matter how simple — meet yourself wherever you’re at!).
Listen to German music
Find music you can enjoy listening to a LOT. Take the time at some point early on to look up even some of the words you don’t understand so you can at least have an idea what’s been sung about. (Hint: a great place to start is with nouns — they’re always capitalized, so that stands out nicely!)
It’s great to consciously listen to music, really trying to pick out everything you can. But you can also just have German music playing in the background and you’ll still benefit from it!
For example, you’ll subconsciously pick up on the natural way to say things in German (vs. taking how we’d say it in English and then trying to translate it word-for-word into German which can easily get you into trouble).
Watch German shows & movies
As far as shows & movies go, it’s OK if you don’t understand everything! Don’t stress about it. Let yourself use subtitles at least some of the time. Ideally, watch the same episode or movie multiple times — each time you’ll see how you understand more than the last time (but with fewer crutches).
For anything you’re listening to, even when you don’t understand every word, you are soaking in authentic German pronunciation (you don’t have to speak with an American accent! Promise!) as well as authentic German sentence construction.
Read German books
Although books don’t have the auditory component, they still have a lot to offer. You’ll still be learning German grammar & syntax without even realizing it. And you can more easily take books at your own pace, looking up words as you go along.
Something else I like about reading a variety of books is that each author has their own body of vocabulary / phrases they gravitate toward. So, once you look a new word up, you have a good chance of coming across it several times yet (good practice!).
Last point on books: don’t be too proud to read children’s books. In fact, as a beginner student, one of the better books you could look at would be a children’s picture dictionary!
If a book is so advanced that you don’t understand every 3rd word, you will lose motivation (reading a book is obviously not a passive activity like listening to music can be). Pick something easy so you can feel encouraged. You’ll gradually read harder and harder books, just like you did in English (but this time around, it won’t take you 10ish years — promise!)