German Cases: Your Essential Guide

When I first started learning German, I remember discovering noun genders and thinking ‘OK, got it! Some nouns are masculine (der), some are feminine (die) and some are neuter (das). That’s not so hard. What’s all the fuss?!’

THEN, I started noticing that a noun I learned as masculine — for example, der Stein (stone) — was sometimes written in a sentence as den Stein, dem Stein, or even des Steines. WaitWHAT?!

Sound familiar?

What ARE those differences about anyway?

Why would der sometimes change to den, dem or des?

Well, my friend, welcome to the wonderful topic of German Noun Cases.

So, what is case? What do the terms nominativeaccusativedative, and genitive mean?

Buckle up! In this all-in-one guide, I’m going to answer all your questions on German noun case AND help you build the confidence to actually use them correctly.

In this article you’ll learn the following:

  • how case works in English and in German
  • how to identify subjects, (in)direct objects, and possessives
  • how to correctly plug any noun into the German case system
  • shortcuts you’re not hearing about anywhere else
  • special exceptions, so you’re not taken by surprise

What You Need To Know

The German case system is one of the trickiest aspects of the language — at least, if you’re a native English speaker.

Fifth Grade English may not have been your favorite class. Perhaps you don’t feel you learned much grammar in the first place and that you really don’t remember much now.

If that’s you, then this whole idea of noun cases probably sounds extra foreign, complicated, and intimidating.

Well, good news! This first section is all about jogging your memory on the English side of this topic.

Then, after you get a handle on how noun case works in English, then we’ll talk about how it works in German, and it won’t be nearly as scary then.

In fact, the basic concept of noun case is extremely comparable in German and English. It’s just functionally that there are many differences. Same idea, applied differently.

Keep reading for a simple definition (with examples!) of noun case, in general, and then a look at how it works in English and then in German.

What is Noun Case?

The case of each noun in a sentence indicates what role it is playing in the sentence and therefore also shows its relationship to (i.e. how it’s interacting with) the other nouns in the sentence.

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

Think of the four cases as ‘slots’ in a sentence that we must/may fill up with nouns.

We could have a sentence this simple:

The noun frank is nominative in the sentence frank drives.

Or a sentence this complicated:

Notice in the simple sentence example how the nominative is the most independent case: the subject can stand all by itself (with just a verb, too; no other cases necessary).

In contrast, the genitive is dependent on another case — it must be paired with a noun in the nominative, accusative, or dative.

In summary, noun cases are slots in our sentence that we fill up with whatever role belongs in to them (e.g. the subject fills up the nominative case). The purpose of noun case is to indicate the relationship between the nouns in the sentence (i.e. how they’re interacting with each other).

There are similarities and and also differences between how English and German use noun case. Let’s look at each individually.

How Cases Work in English

One reason why English speakers find the German noun case system challenging is because German makes a distinction between the accusative and the dative that we very rarely have in English. Normally, in English, we combine these 2 cases into the objective case.

Not only does German have an extra case than English does, but German and English distinguish one case from another differently.

In English, case is indicated primarily by word order. Both of these sentences use the exact same components, but the meaning is changed because the word order is changed:

The man gives the child to the woman.
The child gives the woman to the man.

In fact, you could scramble the same nouns (the man, the woman, the child) to form a total of SIX sentences, all with different meanings.

This means that English has very rigid word order. Because if the word order changes, the meaning changes.

German is the exact opposite! German has very flexible word order without the meaning of the sentence changing. How does German do that? Find out below!

How Cases Work in German

The second reason why German noun case is often scary to English speakers is because German is an inflected language.

This means that the words that come in front of nouns require small changes that indicate which case the noun is in.

For example, remember my story about der Stein? Look at how the der in front of Stein slightly changes dependent on which case Stein is in:

der Stein = subject (in the nominative case)
den Stein = direct object (in the accusative case)
dem Stein = indirect object (in the dative case)
des Steines = possessive (in the genitive case)

Remember that the different cases are ‘slots’ in our sentence that get filled up with nouns that play different roles in relationship to each other. Check out our Stein in different roles:

Stein as the subject:


(The stone belongs to my uncle)

Stein as the direct object:


(I would like to have the stone)

Stein as the indirect object:


(I heard about the stone just now)

Stein as possessive:


(The weight of the stone is too much for me)

Since small changes to der ‘flagged’ the different role (and, therefore, case) of Stein, we can mix the word order all around without changing the meaning of the sentence.

These small changes, which we’ll call declensions from here on out, give us a lot of word order flexibility and also a great deal more precision than we’re used to in English.

But all this grammar fun comes at a cost.

The various declensions we need to use 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

Whoa. That’s a lot to keep track of.

We’ll cover all the details you need to know in the Digging Deeper section below.

Digging Deeper

You’ve been introduced to what the German case system is (and how it differs from English), but now you need to learn the ins-and-outs of how it works so you can use it for yourself!

Every language needs to somehow establish who is doing what to whom in any given sentence.

Whatever role a noun plays determines which case that noun is put into. Cases are slots in sentences that get filled up with different nouns that interrelate to each other.

We determined that English signals case through rigid word order.

German, on the other hand, has flexible word order because it uses declensions to signal which noun is playing which role in the sentence.

So now the million-dollar question: which words need declensions? Hint: it’s not the nouns themselves (except in these instances)!

German has two types of words that need declensions: determiners and adjectives.

Let’s take a closer look!

Words that need declensions

Except in a handful of specific instances, the nouns themselves don’t change dependent on what case (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) they are in. Rather, the words in front of the nouns take the ‘grammar flags’ (declensions) that indicate case.

The words in front of nouns are called modifiers because they modify (describe) the noun. We can split modifiers into just two groups: determiners and adjectives.

Determiners can be subdivided into der-words and ein-words, which is a relevant distinction in just a few exception instances (more details below).

There are 4 basic patterns for which modifier takes which declension (none, strong, or weak):

Patterns #1 and #3 are most standard. Pattern #2 is for our handful of exception instances involving specifically ein-word determiners.

I know this sounds like a lot, so let’s break it down into different sections on determiners, adjectives, and the declensions they take. Let’s go!

What are determiners?

Determiners are little words such as the, a, every, this, that,any, which, such (a), many (a).
Determiners tell us which one or how many of whatever noun it comes in front of.

Determiners are very important little words, though, because we can hardly say anything without them!

The two primary concepts for Determiners are:

  1. There can be only ONE determiner in front of a noun.
  2. Determiners fall into two groups: ein-words and der-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.

What are adjectives?

Adjectives, in their basic or ‘root’ form, exist outside of the case system. They ‘stand alone’ (not in front of a noun) and so they do not take declensions:

The girl is tall — Das Mädchen ist groß.

NERD ALERT: ‘Stand-alone’ adjectives are properly termed predicate adjectives. They always come after the main verb, for which we have limited options: ‘to be’ (sein), ‘to remain’ (bleiben), ‘to become’ (werden), and a handful of verbs that refer to the five senses, as in the egg tastes rotten (Das Ei schmeckt verfault).

However, when it comes to the German case system, we are interested in the adjectives that come in front of nouns (nerd lingo: attributive adjectives).

The tall girl is named Susie — Das große Mädchen heißt Susie.

In English, adjectives keep the same, basic or ‘root’ form regardless of position (stand-alone or in front of nouns). But German adjectives move and change form!

German adjectives that come in front of nouns (attributive) are simply stand-alone (predicate) adjectives with added declensions!

Did you notice the -e that got added onto groß when it changed from ‘standing alone’ to being in front of the noun? That -e is a declension!

To be precise, it is a weak declension. So, what is that all about?

What are ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ declensions?

REMEMBER: determiners & [attributive] adjectives take declensions that indicate the gender/case of the following noun.

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: -e or -en).

Look at this chart. Notice the  for the strong declensions, the  for the weak declensions, and the for the  no declensions? That’s right! We’ll explain that soon.

All-in-One Declensions Chart

Important Tip on How to Use This Chart

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 and repetitive.)

So, for example, we need an –er in the masculine nominative and –en (twice) in the masculine accusative. This is why, if we ‘plug in values’ into this part of the chart, we would get results like this:

Masculine Nominative: DerMann ist nett (The man is nice).
Masculine Accusative: Ich mag diesen nettenMann (I like this nice man).

Do you see what I mean about inserting the ‘e’s?

-e declensions

But in the feminine/plural nominative & accusative, 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! For example:

Feminine Nominative: JedenetteFrau heißt hier willkommen (Every nice woman is welcome here).

So, no extra ‘e’s! Just the strong declension listed in the chart.

Special ‘the’ exceptions

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 the nominative & accusative: die. Got it? For example:

Feminine Nominative: Dienette Frau heißt hier willkommen (The nice woman is welcome here!)

The final oddball spot is in the neuter nominative & accusative. 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.

Neuter Nominative (but, again, the same principle applies in the neuter accusative, too):

Jedes nette Kind ist sehr beliebt (Every nice child is well liked).
Das nette Kind ist sehr beliebt (The nice child is well liked).

Summary

So, the all-in-one chart is simplified to make it super-easy to memorize and also so you can see how the strong & weak declensions are always the same, regardless of what determiner or adjective you’re using.

All you have to do is remember to insert an ‘e’ before each declension except in these situations:

  • when an ‘e’ is the declension listed (don’t add another one)
    • also recall the special exceptions for saying ‘the’ (die) in the feminine nominative & accusative and the plural nominative & accusative
  • when saying ‘the’ (das) in the neuter nominative & accusative (you’re adding an ‘a’ instead).

4 Declension Patterns

Conventionally, about 10 different charts of various determiners, adjectives, and pronouns are learned separately, with all the declensions already added on — that’s ~160 words to memorize.

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

Strong Declension = 1st priority

You can see in these 4 declension patterns (<– the ONLY four that exist, BTW!) that there is a general preference for using the strong declension as the first priority:

Pattern #1: required determiner takes the strong declension; optional adjective(s) take the weak.
Pattern #3: required adjective(s) — the only pre-noun word present — take the strong declension.
Pattern #4: required determiners (<– only specific plural ‘rule-breaker’ ones) take the strong declension (just like pattern #1) … but the optional adjectives here do, too.

That leaves us with just pattern #2, which is an exception to this general preference for the strong declension taking priority.

Oddball Pattern #2

Remember when we talked about determiners and you learned about the 2 subcategories of der-words and ein-words? Well, now you’re going to learn why we have those subcategories.

Determiners function the same way — that is, there is no functional difference between der-words and ein-words — except in 3 instances.

ein-word vs. der-word

It matters if your determiner is a der-word or an ein-word when you have a …

  1. masculine noun in the nominative case
  2. neuter noun in the nominative case
  3. neuter noun in the accusative case

In just these three spots on our all-in-one declensions chart, you can see three .

This is because, in just these 3 instances, an ein-word determiner will have no declension at all! For these 3 exception instances, we use basic declension #2 from our graphic above.

Examples

Here are some isolated (i.e. not full sentences) examples of ein-word determiners in those three spots on our chart. Notice the lack of declensions on the determiners.

Masc., Nom.: Ein Mann (a man), Unser Vater (our father), Kein Hund (no dog)
Neut., Nom.: Mein Pferd (my horse), dein Kind (your child), ihr Baby (her/their baby)
Neut., Acc.: Sein Messer (his knife), euer Haus (ya’lls house), Ihr Auto (Your car)

Now, notice in the following examples how the adjectives here take strong declensions:

Masc., Nom.: Ein kleiner Mann (a short man), Unser lieber Vater (our dear father), Kein einziger Hund (not a single dog)
Neut., Nom.: Mein schwarzes Pferd (my black horse), dein krankes Kind (your ill child), ihr junges Baby (her/their young baby)
Neut., Acc.: Sein scharfes Messer (his sharp knife), euer neues Haus (ya’lls new house), Ihr kaputtes Auto (Your broken car)

In other words, in just these 3 exception spots, we shift everything to the left IF we’re using an ein-word determiner: the ein-word determiner takes  and any following adjectives take .

Look at the 4 Basic Declension Patterns again:

Even in our 3 exception instances, our determiners & adjectives still don’t mix (<– that happens only in pattern #4, which is also a bit of an oddball!) and the adjectives (if present) always follow the determiner by filling up the very next available category to the right.

Summary

In the German case system, typically only two types of words take the ‘grammar flags’ (declensions) that tell us the gender & case of the following noun:

Determiners (e.g. the, a, some, a few) tell us how many or which one.
Adjectives (e.g. red, big, dainty, ugly) describe the noun.

There are 2 types of determiners we need to know: ein-words and der-words.
There are 2 types of adjectives we need to know: predicate and attributive.

As far as using the case system goes, only attributive adjectives matter. They are essentially predicate adjectives with ‘little added grammar bits’ (declensions) added onto the ends of them.

Determiners and attributive adjectives are applied to the case system by taking strong or weak declensions.

Strong declensions more clearly indicate gender/case.
Weak declensions are too vague to indicate gender/case.

In terms of when to add on which declension, there are a handful of general principles & patterns at play in all but 3 except cases (masc. nom.; neut., nom.; neut., acc.).

The 4 German cases

It’s the moment we’ve all be waiting for!

You have a lot of crucial terminology you have under your belt now. Let’s take all this new knowledge and see how to actually use it.

Now it’s time to take your new understanding of determiners and adjectives, combined with the gender of the noun in question, and stick it all into the right case.

Keep reading for a breakdown and examples of all four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) for masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns.

Read here for or a complete discussion of every instance of declensions ever (including all special situations!).

Nominative (Nominativ):

  • the nominative case is what is used to mark the subject of the sentence.
  • every standard German sentence will have a subject (and a verb) even if any additional information (e.g. a direct object in the accusative case) remains optional.
  • the determiner and/or adjective(s) in front of the noun take declensions to ‘flag’ the gender/case of the noun.

See these two sets of examples (with der and ein, respectively) along with the nominative case snippet of our all-in-one chart for your easy reference.

The chubby boy is named Berti — Der pummelige Junge heißt Berti.
The rich woman is named Maria — Die reiche Frau heißt Maria.
The tall child is named Anna — Das große Kind heißt Anna.

You can see not only the der, die, das, with which you are familiar, but also the adjectives. Note that all three attributive adjectives have an -e added onto their ‘stand-alone’, predicate versions: groß, pummelig, reich.

Now look at these examples using ein. Remember that in the masculine & neuter nominative, any ein-word determiner takes no declension. That’s why the following adjective is also shifted over to take the strong declension.

Ein pummeliger Junge küsst mich — A chubby boy kisses me.
Eine reiche Frau küsst mich — A rich woman kisses me.
Ein großes Kind küsst mich — A tall child kisses me.

Read the full nominative case guide here.

Accusative (Akkusativ):

  • After we’ve filled the nominative case slot with a subject, we default to putting the next noun into the accusative case as a direct object.
  • There are different declensions for masculine / feminine / neuter / plural nouns when in the accusative vs. the nominative.
  • It is still the determiner and/or adjective(s) in front of the direct object that indicate the gender/case of the noun.

Here is the accusative case snippet of our all-in-one declensions chart:

Compare these examples (with ‘der-words’) to the chart:

I see the chubby boy — Ich sehe den pummeligen Jungen.
I see the rich woman — Ich sehe die reiche Frau.
I see the tall child — Ich sehe das große Kind.

Did you notice that only the masculine accusative has declensions that are any different from the nominative case? Look at the nominative and accusative case snippets together. Do you see it now?

Now, look at our same accusative examples, but with an ein-word determiner. Remember that we have our final exception case here, with the neuter accusative! The ‘ein’ takes no declension and the adjective must then take the strong declension.

I see a chubby boy — Ich sehe einen pummeligen Jungen.
I see a rich woman — Ich sehe eine reiche Frau.
I see a tall child — Ich sehe ein großes Kind.

Read the full accusative case here.

Dative (Dativ):

OVERVIEW:

  • Put a noun into the dative case if it is the indirect object in the sentence.
  • We don’t have anymore ‘no declensions’ exceptions to concern ourselves with.
  • ALL determiners (and all adjectives, of course) will function exactly the same!

Here is the dative case snippet of our all-in-one declensions chart. Notice in both sets of the following examples, ALL determiners take the strong declension and ALL adjectives take the weak declensions.

I help the chubby boy — Ich helfe dem pummeligen Jungen.
I help the rich woman — Ich helfe der reichen Frau.
I help the tall child — Ich helfe dem großen Kind.

Did you also notice that the declensions for masculine and neuter nouns are identical? Check out the chart snippet again and compare the following examples (with ‘ein’, though that makes no difference now — the declension patterns are the same):

I help a chubby boy — Ich helfe einem pummeligen Jungen.
I help a rich woman — Ich helfe einer reichen Frau.
I help a tall child — Ich helfe einem großen Kind.

Read the full dative case guide here.

Genitive (Genitiv):

OVERVIEW:

  • The genitive [possessive] case is used to indicate the owner of something/someone or to otherwise demonstrate a connection between two nouns.
  • The German genitive noun nests inside to the right of one of other 3 cases
  • IF there is only an adjective (no determiner), it breaks our typical rules by taking the weak declension of Category 2.

Here is the genitive snippet of our all-in-one declensions chart.

Compare the chart snippet to the declensions you see below. Note in the following examples that der Vater (father) has been added:

The chubby boy’s father is nice — Der Vater des pummeligen Jungens ist nett.
The rich woman’s father is nice — Der Vater der reichen Frau ist nett.
The tall child’s father is nice — Der Vater des großen Kindes ist nett.

Remember that the genitive case nests inside another case (in these examples, within the nominative). To jog your memory, check out again my example sentence from much earlier (The weight of the stone is too much for me):

Now, when using an ‘ein-word’, we need to rework our sentences yet a bit more so that they make any sense at all:

A chubby boy’s father must be nice — Der Vater eines pummeligen Jungens muss nett sein.
A rich woman’s father is nice — Der Vater einer reichen Frau muss nett sein.
A tall child’s father must be nice — Der Vater eines großen Kindes muss nett sein

Just as in the dative, notice that the strong and weak declensions for the masculine AND neuter genitive are identical! Yippee! Less to memorize!

Read the full genitive guide here.

How to pick the right case

It’s all well and good to learn how the 4 German cases work in isolation, but how do they work together? How do you know which one to use when?

As you may have guessed, German is more complicated than English when it comes to building sentences using case. But with some tips and tricks, you’ll be able to handle it!

First, a happy reminder: the nominative is the easiest case, with the fewest uses. It flags the subject of the sentence (and we have to have one), and that’s it! So, whatever you’re wanting to say, the principle of ‘use the nominative first’ is a good starting point.

Second, the good news: the genitive case is basically obsolescent (dying out). It’s used still in formal registers (e.g. legalese; academia). But there’s always another, simpler, more common way to formulate the same idea using either the accusative or dative.

So, that really just leaves us with the more specific questions of when to use the accusative vs. dative. I’m so glad you asked! The answer is …

Sentence Construction Patterns

There are certain patterns of sentence construction that help remove the confusion. We need to be on the lookout for particular verbs, adjectives, and prepositions that are paired specifically with either accusative or dative.

Verbs

For example, certain verbs require either an accusative OR dative object be connected with them. And some verbs require both accusative AND dative objects.

sehen (to see) + accusative: Ich sehe den Mann (I see the man).
helfen (to help) + dative: Ich helfe dem Mann (I help the man).
geben (to give) + dative + accusative: Ich gebe dem Mann das Geld (I give the man the money).

Here are some shortcuts for knowing which verbs take which objects:

  • It’s a very short list of verbs that take accusative & dative objects; memorize them!
  • Similarly, it’s faster to memorize a list of common verbs that take dative objects because…
  • All the rest of your verbs (the bulk of them!) can then default to taking the accusative!
Adjectives

There aren’t nearly as many adjectives as there are verbs that pair with one case over another. But heads up that in this case, most adjective-case pairings involve the dative case, so it’s easier to memorize the relatively short list of adjective-accusative pairings and default the rest to dative.

Prepositions

Lastly, we have the topic of prepositions that pair with accusative or dative. Here, we have 3 different options:

The short of the story with prepositions-case pairings is that you have to learn which prepositions fall under each of those 3 categories. There are many, many sentence constructions that involve prepositions! This is such a big topic, we have a separate guide on prepositions.

Summary

You can deduce the correct case for any noun with a few simple principles that apply to almost any situation.

  1. The subject (nominative) comes first. If you think of a sentence as ‘having slots to fill’, fill up the nominative slot first.
  2. Default to putting the next noun in the accusative ‘slot’, except
    • after a dative verb
    • after a dative (or two-way functioning as dative) preposition

Those few principles will guide you true in the vast majority of situations! You’ve got this now!

Main Takeaways

There are four cases in German: nominative (subject), accusative (direct object), dative (indirect object), and genitive (possessive).

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

Determiners and/or adjectives preceding any given noun in a German sentence take ‘grammar flags’ (a.k.a. strong and weak declensions) that signal to us which case the noun is in.

Because German is an ‘inflected’ language with these grammar flags signaling who is doing what to whom, word order in German is much more flexible than in English.

Our all-in-one chart requires that you memorize just 19 ‘grammar flags’ that cover all determiners and adjectives in front of any noun (masculine / feminine / neuter / plural) in any case (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive).

If we think of sentences as having ‘slots’ we need to fill, fill up the nominative (subject) slot first. Then, default to filling up the accusative next except after a dative verb or dative preposition.

Study Tips

Let me start by telling you what not to do.

Do not memorize each isolated noun in all four cases (e.g. der Stein, den Stein, dem Stein, des Steines). That is a terrible waste of time.

Not only would you have to learn 4 versions of ‘the’ stone, but also of ‘a’ stone and ‘my’ stone, etc.; not to mention how things change if you add adjectives (e.g. your black stone, his big stone) or if there are only adjectives (i.e. no determiners) in front of the noun (e.g. Small stones are choking hazards). And then you’d have to also memorize the 4 plural versions with all those variations, too. Ay yi yi.

If you’re feeling confused, that’s exactly the point. No no no. Learn smarter, not harder!

Instead of overzealously separating different determiners and adjectives into more charts than are needed, memorize just this ONE chart with the 19 declensions that you apply to any determiner, any adjective that comes in front of a noun (based on its gender and case).

Learning the patterns (and the simple rules of usage) of this all-in-one case chart allows you to efficiently just plug in determiners and adjectives wherever in the chart they need to be. BOOM!

Bonus Tip: Make your life even easier by first concentrating only on the 15 declensions that cover everything but the genitive case (you rarely need this case, so save it for down the road!).