German Cases — Understanding verbs, subjects, and objects

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German Cases — Understanding verbs, subjects, and objects

If you’re reading this, you’re under 40 years old, and you’re from an English-speaking country, you probably have at least two things in common with most of the readers of this blog. You’re interested in learning German or improving your German. The other thing is that you never really learned English grammar. Sure you just know it, you grew up with it and now you’re learning German and it all seems so confusing.

The good news is that German grammar isn’t that difficult in the big scheme of things. The start is hard, because there are more rules, but there are fewer exceptions to those rules. And again, I want to emphasize that you simply try. Speak whenever and wherever you can.

One of the questions I get asked on a regular basis even from students at A2 and B1 levels coming from other language schools is:

“I know I can already do quite a bit in German, but I still don’t understand this nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive stuff. We don’t have this in English. Can you explain it to me?”

I always answer with, yes. Yes, these grammatical cases exist in English, and yes, I can explain them.

When you understand these cases, you’ll be better able to understand German sentences and construct better ones.

Let’s look at deconstructing a German sentence to get a better understanding. This is a 5 step process. We’ll use this example sentence below:

Die nette junge Mutter gibt dem guten Freund ihres ältesten Sohnes ein neues Buch.


Identify the verb in the independent clause (der Hauptsatz). Why do we need to do this? Because if you don’t know where the verb is you can’t find the subject. Where do you find the verb in a German independent clause? In the second position. Remember here that the second position doesn’t mean second word, but second grammatical position.

VERB = gibt = geben 3rd person singular (to give)

2. SUBJECT (Nominative/Nominativ)

Once you’ve identified the verb, you’re close to finding the subject (das Subjekt). Where is the subject in a German Hauptsatz? It’s either on the right or the left of the verb. Therefore in position one (1) or position three (3). Again a position is not simply a word.

The question you need to ask, and this is why you isolated the verb first is:

  • “Wer oder was + VERB?” (Who or what + is VERBing?)
    • The answer to that question is the subject. Your subject is in the nominative.
  • Wer oder was gibt? (Who or what is giving?)
    • die Mutter (the mother) = SIMPLE SUBJECT
      • die nette junge Mutter (the nice young mother) = COMPLETE SUBJECT

3. DIRECT OBJECT (Accusative/Akkusativ)

So now you have the subject and the verb. You know who is doing what. What is the direct object though? The direct object is the thing that the verb is being done on to. Not all verbs and therefore not all sentences have a direct object. Remember also the accusative prepositions (bis, durch, entlang, für, gegen, ohne, um)

To find the direct object you need to ask this question:

  • “Wen oder was + VERB + SUBJEKT?” (Who or what is the SUBJECT + VERBing?)
    • The answer to this question is the direct object, which is in the accusative case.
  • Wen oder was gibt die Mutter? (Who or what is the mother giving?)
    • ein Buch (a book) = SIMPLE OBJECT
      • ein neues Buch (a new book) = COMPLETE OBJECT

4. INDIRECT OBJECT (Dative/Dativ)

Now that we know who is doing what and have also identified the direct object we’re well on our way to understanding the complete sentence. Now geben (to give) usually has an indirect object, that is a recipient of the thing being given (the book). Not all verbs need an indirect object and, therefore not all sentences will have a dative component. Because German still has a clear signal for the dative (declination of articles, adjectives, and nouns) often the preposition which may be present in English can be left out. Prepositions are also often used to convey other information regarding time, manner and place. Remember our German dative prepositions (aus, ausser, bei, gegenüber, mit, nach, seit, von, zu).

To find the indirect object you need ask yourself this question:

  • “Wem oder was + VERB + SUBJEKT + DIREKTES OBJEKT?” (To whom or what is the SUBJECT + VERBing + the OBJECT?)
    • The answer to this question is the indirect object, which is in the dative case.
  • Wem oder was gibt die Mutter ein Buch?(To whom or what is the mother giving a book?)
    • dem Freund (the friend) = SIMPLE INDIRECT OBJECT
      • dem guten Freund (the good friend) = COMPLETE INDIRECT OBJECT

5. POSSESSIVE CASE (Genitive/Genitiv)

The genitive the grammatical case that marks a noun as modifying another noun. It often marks a noun as being the possessor of another noun. This is a fascinating case as it is starting to die out of usage and is being replaced by the dative preposition von. This is why so many German speakers will say in English “The mother from/of my wife…” for instance instead of “My wife’s mother…” And there you have an English example of the genitive “wife’s”. Of course there are also genitive prepositions that can add more information to sentences and there are also genitive adverbs. In the above example though we are dealing with a possessor relationship. Generally not every piece of a sentence is in a possessive relationship. By the time you get to this stage you’ll see that there are pieces that you haven’t labelled yet, so this is what you’re looking for.

To find the possessor (genitive) you need to ask yourself this question:

    • The answer to this question will be the genitive.
  • Wessen Freund ist das? (Whose friend is this?)
    • ihres Sohnes (her son’s) = GENITIVE
      • ihres ältesten Sohnes (her oldest son’s) = COMPLETE GENITIVE

*Masculine and neutral Nouns generally take an -s/-es ending when they are in the genitive.

General German Sentence Structure:

If we look at standard German sentence structure in cases it looks like this:


German is a Time Manner Place (TMP) language so if we want to add more information the general structure may look like this:


I wrote general, because German is a very flexible language. You can place any of the 6 pieces in position 1 as long as the verb stays in position 2 and the subject stays next to the verb. The piece you place in position 1 is being emphasized. As German-is-easy commented, the rule for TMP at the end after the Object is not a fix rule. It can be changed and often TIME comes between the INDIRECT OBJECT and the OBJECT.  The more you practice and learn, the more natural the word order will come to you as well.


Let’s practice asking for specific pieces of information and isolating specific

Der Schweizer Akrobat Freddy Nock mag spektakuläre Dinge — zum Beispiel Weltrekorde.

  1. find the verb.
  2. find the subject.
  3. write the question asking for the object.

Ein guter Ort dafür ist natürlich Deutschlands höchster Berg, die Zugspitze.

  1. find the verb
  2. does this verb take an object?
  3. which cases are used in this sentence?

In fast 3000 Metern Höhe ist Nock auf dem Seil der Gletscherbahn gelaufen — ohne Balancierstange.

  1. find the verb
  2. find the subject
  3. find the place

Für die 995 Meter vom Zugspitzplatt bis zur Bergstation hat er fast eineinhalb Stunden gebraucht.

  1. find the verb
  2. find the subject
  3. write the question asking for the object

Warum der 47-Jährige diese extremen Dinge tut?

  1. find the verb
  2. find the subject
  3. write the question asking for the object

Sie machen ihm Spass.

  1. find the verb
  2. find the subject
  3. write the question asking for object
  4. write the question asking of the indirect object

Sein Motto: “Das Unmögliche möglich machen.” Mit seiner Aktion möchte Nock auch Geld für ein UNESCO-Projekt in Bangladesch sammeln. Der Weltrecord an der Zugspitze war nur der erste von vielen: In sieben Tagen wollte der Akrobat sieben Rekorde machen, auch in Österreich und in der Schweiz. Funktioniert hat das Projekt nicht ganz: In Thörishaus bei Bern konnte er am fünften Tag nicht mit einem Fahrrad auf einen Seil fahren: Es war zu fettig. Aber Nock kann improvisieren: Ganz in der Nähe, am Jungfraujoch, hat er dann spontan zwei Rekorde gemacht. Leider war dann am siebten Tag am Thunersee im Berner Oberland das Wetter zu schlecht. Nock musste warten. Am Ende waren es sieben Weltrekorde — in acht Tagen.

Text from Deutsch Perfekt, 11/2011 pg. 6

Ein englischer Bericht mit vielen Bildern: NewlySwissed.


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  1. JackyJacky05-20-2012

    There is always an exception… I am nearly 50, from Switzerland but brought up in England and in my days at school we were taught grammar! I love your blog and brilliant explanations, much clearer than any text book! Thank you!

  2. German-is-easyGerman-is-easy05-20-2012

    That is a tough subject to tackle… even more so when it it boiled down into one article… so chapeau for that.
    A minor nitpick though: I think that for sentences with a transfer the general order would have time before the direct object, if the subject is in position one.

    Ich habe meiner Mutter gestern ein Buch geschenkt.
    Ich gebe meinem Bruder ein bisschen Geld heute abend.

    Shifting the time behind the direct object sounds even a bit wrong to me. Also manner and place after the direct object do not feel that natural but it is not as strong.
    I don’t really know how to modify this general structure, … I always just say “time as early as possible and place as late as possible, but not even that will guarantee for a nice sounding sentence. I think the verb wants to have exactly 1 object (indirect or direct) very close by and then can come all the manner and place stuff before the other object (if there is one) closes the “object-parantheses” … It is really complex because there are so many special cases and I think one has to just get used to it… but the system you suggested (S-V-iO-O-T-M-P) will lead to weird sounding phrases ALL the time and I think you should change it.
    But appart from that good article, and I think it’s great that you include exercises 🙂

  3. Joan DolanJoan Dolan11-03-2012

    I’m a native English speaker just starting to study German. Is there any place I could the correct answers to the exercises. That would help me so much.

  4. Joan DolanJoan Dolan11-03-2012

    Sorry. I left a word out of my question. The question is is there any place I could find the correct answer to the exercises.

    • Will post the answers in the morning. Gute Nacht 🙂

      • Lösungen:
        1. Verb = mag
        2. Subjekt = (Der Schweizer Akrobat) Freddy Nock
        3. Frage: Was mag Freddy Nock?

        1. Verb = ist
        2. Nein, sein braucht kein Objekt
        3. Nominativ & Genitiv

        1. Verb = ist … gelaufen
        2. Subjekt = Nock
        3. Ort = In fast 3000 Metern Höhe

        1. Verb = hat … gebraucht
        2. Subjekt = er
        3. Frage: Was hat er gebraucht?

        1. Verb = tut
        2. Subjekt = der 47-Jährige
        3. Frage: Was tut der 47-Jährige?

        1. Verb = machen
        2. Subjekt = sie
        3. Objekt Frage: Was machen sie?
        4. Indirektes Objekt Frage: Wem machen sie Spass?

  5. maya menonmaya menon05-28-2013

    Excellent site – this really helps – I am struggling to learn this language at the age of 45 🙁

    • Danke fürs positive Feedback. Wenn Du Fragen hast, kannst Du sie uns per E-Mail senden. Wir tun unser Bestes sie schnell zu beantworten. Toi toi toi beim Lernen.

  6. JulieJulie06-26-2013

    Vielen vielen dank! Mein Gehirn ist ein bisschen großer. Das ist SO schwer für mich…und Sie haben das besser gemacht. xoxo -Julie

  7. MarkMark07-18-2013

    Thank you, that is by far the clearest explanation of the 4 cases I have read. I have been really struggling with this but thanks to you I think I will finally get my head around this. Thanks again for taking the trouble to explain it in such a clear way! 🙂

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