German Nominative Case: Your Essential Guide

Are you looking to start figuring German ‘cases’ out?

Starting with the nominative case is the best place to start AND … good news: you actually know some of the nominative case already! 😃

Every time you learn a der, die, or das in front of a German noun, you’re using the nominative case — that’s knowledge and experience we can work with!

In this guide, you’ll learn the following:

  • exactly what the nominative case is
  • why the ‘case system’ in general matters
  • when & how to use the nominative case
  • how der die das are a springboard to more learning

Section 1: The Basics
What you need to know to start getting the hang of the nominative case

I’m going to assume you’ve been learning German nouns. And hopefully you’ve been pairing each one with a der, die, or das (<– if not, start that now! I’ll tell you why!).

The vast majority of the time, when we use a German noun in a given sentence, we have to indicate two things about that noun, namely, its …

  1. gender
  2. case

There’s truly no good reason for German nouns to have a gender — that’s just the way it is. Every noun has one of 3 genders: masculine, feminine, or neuter. 

We see this reflected in the words der (masculine), die (feminine), and das (neuter). 

While the noun’s gender is pretty meaningless (but still has to be accounted for — rats!), the noun’s case is VERY important information.

What is noun case?

Knowing the assigned (and predictable, but rarely intuitive) gender of each German noun is half of the battle of using a noun in a sentence.

The other half: plugging that noun into the German case system.

Cases can be a bit of a scary topic for English-speakers learning German, but I have simplified it for you as much as possible! Promise! 👍

‘Cases’ is a grammar term for ‘slots’ in a sentence that get filled up with nouns.

Which ‘slot’ the noun goes into depends on what role that noun is performing in the sentence.

In German, we have 4 different roles a noun might play. Which means there are 4 different cases we need to choose between to find the right ‘slot’ for each noun in our sentence.

Chart on how nouns work in a sentence with their cases, roles, and description.

As you can see in the graphic, when a noun fills up the nominative ‘slot’, it is the subject of the sentence — is the person, place, thing, idea, etc. that is doing something, like this:

In the course of learning German, it will be essential that you learn at least the first 3 cases: nominative, accusative, dative (the genitive is less important because its usage in everyday German is nearly non-existent).

Why case is important

German and English structure sentences very differently and understanding how & why is essential.

In English, we use word order to indicate the role of each noun (or who is doing what to whom, for example).

If we say the man owes the woman a thousand dollars, that means something very different from the woman owes the man a thousand dollars, right? Why?

Because of word order. That’s all that changed: the man and the woman simply swapped places … but then the whole meaning changed!

But in German, making those same word swapperoos wouldn’t change the meaning at all. Whoa! That’s cool. Check it out:

The meaning of both of these sentences is still that the man owes the woman (and before you think ‘der Frau’ was a typo, read my Dative Case Guide; otherwise, just trust me for now!).

German has more flexible word order precisely because of the case system!

Der Mann and der Frau are in distinctly different cases. Any German would know that it’s the man who is the subject (nominative) and the woman who is the indirect object (dative). But how so?

How is case indicated?

Let’s circle back to the concept of der die das, which are 3 ways (masculine, feminine, and neuter) of saying ‘the’ in the nominative case. Maybe you’ve seen a der die das chart similar to this one:

This chart (and many others) is common in conventional German study. Take special note of the final letters — they are always one of FIVE options: -m, -r, -n, -s, -e.

Those final letters (called declensions) are the super-important parts! All the information about noun case is in those final letters! Declensions are what indicate case (and gender).

OK, so now think again on our sentence about the man owing the woman a thousand dollars: Der Mann schuldet der Frau ein Tausend Dollars (or also Der Frau schuldet der Mann ein Tausend Dollars).

This is where the two ‘der’s are coming from on the conventional der die das chart:

REMEMBER: we must indicate the gender & case of every German noun in order to use it correctly in a sentence!

All I want you to notice for now is that the ONLY time we can put a der in front of a masculine noun (e.g. Mann) is if that masculine noun is in the nominative case. See it? 

Der Mann has to be the subject of the sentence! If Mann played any other role in the sentence, we would no longer use der in front of it (but rather den, dem or des). 

Is it clicking? Do you see what I mean about those final letters (-m, -n, -r, -s, -e) called declensions being what indicate the gender & case of the noun?

All-In-One Chart

Instead of spelling out the der die das (and other ways of saying ‘the’), we can boil things down to their essentials.

And what are the essentials? RIGHT. The very last letters, which are called declensions.

This is a chart of just declensions, which you can (and should!) use in your German studies because it’s good not only for der die das, etc., but also replaces another 10 conventional charts!

Do you see how the single letters listed in the All-In-One Chart are the exact same declensions at the end of each of the der die das variants?

BRILLIANT.

Next, you’re going to learn how to use this All-In-One Chart to specifically for the nominative case.

You’ve taken in a lot already and you’re doing great! You must know how to use the nominative case if you want to speak German with any level of proficiency. And …

Good news: the work you’re putting in with the nominative case will pay out huge dividends when you learn the other cases, too! They all operate on the same principles and use the same terminology.

This is going to be awesome. Keep reading!

Section 2: Putting it into practice
When & how to use the nominative case.

So, you know how to say the 3 versions of the in the nominative case: der, die, das.

That’s a great start, but … how do you say other things in the nominative case? Likethis table (is short) or that door (is brown) or which pillow (is mine)?

I’m so glad you asked! 😀

Just like there are different ways of saying ‘the’ in German, there are also different ways of saying words such as this, that, which, some, many, each/every, and all. 

And what makes them different? You got it! The gender and case of the noun the follows.

We’ve got to put declensions on words such as this, that, some, many, etc. In fact, we need to put declensions on some additional words, too (and we’ll cover that!).

REMEMBER: declensions tell us the case of the noun (e.g. nominative), which is crucial to understanding the meaning of the sentence.

(And, yes, declensions tell us the gender of the noun, too; but that doesn’t actually impact the meaning of anything — it’s just a wacky thing about German nouns that we have to deal with.)

Let’s dig into which declensions are used in the nominative case and how, shall we?

How to Use the Nominative Case

In order to properly signal that a noun (e.g. Mann) is the subject in the nominative ‘slot’, you need to know the right declensions to use.

Here is a snippet of All-In-One Chart from above, now just for the nominative case:

BUT … heads up! Declensions change based on:

  • the gender of the noun (<– knew that)
  • which case it’s in (<– knew that)
  • what type of words are in front of the noun (<– that’s new!)
  • how many of each type are in front of the noun (<– that’s new!)

Yikes! That might sound intense, but a few principles & patterns are all you need for smooth sailing in the nominative case (and in the others!). Here we go!

Words that need declensions

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 nominative ‘slot’ in our sentence, the determiner and/or adjective(s) will take the specific declensions that say ‘hey! this noun following is a masculine noun and it’s in the nominative case!’

Notice the -r and -e:

Der nette Mann heißt Berti. (The nice man is named Berti.)

Nominative 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).

Notice the  for the strong declensions, the  for the weak declensions.

Note that the nominative case weak declensions are all the same for singular nouns (plurals here are the oddball with a weak -n declension).

Notice that there is more variety with the strong declensions!

Do you see how der fits under the in the masculine? And how die fits under the in the feminine? And how das fits under the in the neuter? (And then it’s die in the plural again; more on this below in the Common Mistakes section.)

That means that the -r, -e, and -s endings you see on the words der, die, das are strong declensions!

Use This Chart with Other Determiners

Let’s look at some other determiners plugged into the chart. Here are their basic, ‘root’ forms that we then add the declensions to: dies- (this), jen- (that), jed- (every)

masculine: dieser Tisch (this table), jener Tisch (that table), jeder Tisch (every table)
feminine: diese Tür (this door), jene Tür (that door), jede Tür (every door)
neuter: dieses Kissen (this pillow), jenes Kissen (that pillow), jedesKissen (every pillow)

Do you see the strong endings on each of the determiners? (bolded)

Do you also see how each time there’s an ‘e’ inserted between the ‘root’ determiner and the strong declension? Good eye!

Except when we’re saying ‘the’ (der, die, das) OR when an ‘e’ is the declension itself, we have to always add an ‘e’ between the determiner (e.g. dies-) and the declension (e.g. -r, combined: diesEr).

I leave the ‘e’s out of the chart so it doesn’t look so visually overwhelming. And to honor the special rules that apply when saying ‘the’ — because even though the vowels change, the declensions stay the same and that’s the main point!

So, know you understand the strong declensions in the nominative case … but what about the weak ones? And what’s the deal with the no declensions?? Well, that’s up next!

Basic Declension Patterns

You can plug your determiners and/or adjectives into the All-In-One Declensions Chart by putting on the correct declensions for each possible pattern, as listed in this graphic:

Pattern #1 is the standard — you can see the strong declension taking priority by being required on the determiner. IF any adjectives are present they get off the hook with the weak declension.

Pattern #2 is basically just pattern #1, but shifted over to the left — this is an exception pattern that is used ONLY with ein-word determiners (<– explanation coming up) and ONLY in the 3 specific spots on the chart listed (masculine nominative, neuter nominative, neuter accusative).

Patterns #3 and #4 are nothing to concern yourself with right now. 😉

Declension Pattern #1 Example: 

Der nette Mann singt gut (The nice man sings well).

Our subject here is Der nette Mann. So, it is in the nominative case slot.

Mann, of course, is a masculine noun. So that’s the section of the declensions chart we need to look at. Here it is again so you don’t need to scroll up:

We have a determiner (der) and an adjective(nette). This is how we know we’re dealing with declensions pattern #1.

Do you see the strong declension (-r) on the determiner (‘the’ = der)?

Then, do you see the -e weak declension on nette? Do you see it listed under … in the declensions chart?

The ‘root’ form of nice is nett. So, we take nett and put the weak declension onto it.

Can you see with this example how it all fits together?

Der nette Mann is a masculine noun phrase in the nominative case, taking a strong declension on the determiner and a weak declension on the adjective as dictated by declension pattern #1.

Explaining Declension Pattern #2:

The 2nd declension pattern is an exception situation that — in the nominative case — applies just to masculine and neuter nouns.

In order to teach you about this, you need to learn one last bit of terminology.

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 possessives.

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.

Up until now, all the examples of determiners we’ve worked with have been der-words.

But declension pattern #2 deals with ein-words specifically!

Working with the masculine nominative (as in the upcoming example — wait for it!) 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.

But in the masculine nominative, 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 to take the strong -r declension!

Here, again, is the declensions pattern chart for your review:

And here are the declensions again:

Do you see how pattern #2 fits in with our declensions chart?

Declension Pattern #2 Example:

OK, so now for an actual masculine nominative example!

Ein netter Mann soll gut singen. (A nice man should [be able to] sing well).

Ein netter Mann is the complete noun phrase (Mann is our masculine noun).
Ein is an ein-word determiner (‘a’) and netter is an adjective.

Do you see how ein has no declension at all? And how the ‘root’ adjective nett has the strong -r ending?

Compare the phrase Ein netter Mann with our first declensions patterns example: der nette Mann. 

Do you see how the noun is the same — Mann — but the declensions on the determiners & adjectives are different because of our our declensions chart and declensions patterns interact?

For a quick summary of der, die, das and the nominative case, read the Main Takeaways below. I also recommend you check out my Study Tips section!

Common Mistakes

As a native English speaker, wrapping your head around the concept of each German noun having 1 of 3 genders can be a tall order. There is a lot here to learn!

On top of that, the nominative case (that we use to talk about all those new nouns!) is idiosyncratic with its 3 different declensions patterns (good thing we have our handy graphic and also our snippet of the all-in-one declensions chart to help us out!).

But … just when you think it’s all starting to make sense, you realize you see die all over the place. Are those really all feminine nouns?

Good catch!

Die is how to say ‘the’ in front of both feminine singular nouns … and all plurals nouns! That’s the part that can trip us up.

It’s easiest to see this at work with some examples:

der Tisch → die Tische (the table → the tables)
die Tür → die Türen (the door → the doors)
das Kissen → die Kissen (the pillow → the pillows)

Everytime we want to say ‘the’ with a plural noun, we use die. It doesn’t matter what the gender of the singular form of the noun was! Masculine nouns use die in the plural, and so do neuter & feminine.

Of course, you can see with the example of die Tür → die Türen how die is used in the feminine singular still, just as we’d now expect!

So, now you won’t be surprised and confused when you start coming across plural nouns and you see die being used for ‘the’.

Main Takeaways

  1. der, die, das are three ways of saying ‘the’ in German.
  2. How to say ‘the’ (and other words) changes based on the gender and case of the noun.
  3. ALL nouns have a gender: either masculine (der), feminine (die), or neuter (das).
  4. ALL nouns also have a case — there are four in German, but we’re concerned right now just with the nominative case, which is used to signal which noun is the subject of the sentence.
  5. You need to always know the gender of every noun you learn — otherwise, you won’t be able to use it correctly in a sentence.
  6. The gender of nouns is not determined by some quality of noun being “masculine”, “feminine”, or “neuter” — but, rather, by what noun group the noun belongs to (e.g. is a type of tree? Then it’s probably a feminine noun) OR what noun form it has.
  7. Noun forms are suffixes (word endings) that are associated with one gender over the other two, e.g. the suffixes -chen and -lein are always neuter, so nouns that end with either of these forms will be neuter nouns (that you learn with ‘das’).
  8. In German, who does what to whom (or, which role a noun is playing in the sentence relative to other nouns) is not determined by word order like in English, rather …
  9. The words that come in front of nouns take little changes to them that indicate the noun’s gender & case.
  10. There are two types of words that come in front of nouns: determiners and adjectives.
  11. The changes these words take are called declensions and there are two types: strong & weak. There are various rules, patterns, and charts that help us know which declension to put on which word and when!