1. Objectives

In this unit, in the context of simple sentences that involve all four German cases, you will learn how to:

  • Identify the case, number and gender of nouns, pronouns, definite articles, indefinite articles, and question words.
  • Identify and translate genitive-case noun chains.
  • Identify and translate dative-case objects.
  • Use present-tense verb forms to identify whether the corresponding subject must be first, second, or third person, and singular or plural.
  • Translate sentences that use es gibt or man.
  • Translate nouns that are formed from adjectives.
Last revised on September 10, 2014.

2. Genitive and Dative Cases

Whereas English has only tiny traces of three noun cases (nominative, objective, and possessivelink opens in new window), German is thoroughly dependent on four noun cases. Beyond nominative and accusative, which were covered in Unit 1, we now add the genitive and dative cases.

Genitive

Genitive case signals a relationship of possession or “belonging to.” An example translation of this case into English might be from das Buch des Mannes to “the man’s book” or “the book of the man.” In English, possession is usually shown by either an ending (apostrophe +  s) or with the preposition “of.” In German, the genitive case is primarily recognized from article forms and sometimes from noun endings.

Masculine Feminine Neuter
definite article das Buch des Mannes
(the man’s book) 
das Buch der Frau
(the woman’s book)
das Buch des Mädchens
(the girl’s book)
indefinite article das Buch eines Mannes
(a man’s book)
das Buch einer Frau
(a woman’s book)
das Buch eines Mädchens
(a girl’s book)
Plural
definite article die Bücher der Frauen
(the women’s books)
indefinite article die Bücher keiner Frauen
(no women’s books)

Note:

  1. The noun in the genitive case follows the noun which it modifies.
  2. des and eines are useful forms to remember because they are completely unique to the singular genitive case and are thus helpful as starting points to figure out the grammatical structure of a sentence.
  3. Masculine and neuter nouns change forms in the genitive case (when singular). The noun endings –s or –es are added (-s for polysyllabic nouns, –es for monosyllabic).


Genitive Noun Chains

In formal or scientific German you will sometimes encounter chains of genitive-case noun phrases which are straightforward to read, but can be awkward to translate into smooth English. For example:

die Bücher der Professorinnen der Universität
(the books of the women professors of the university)

Use sentence diagramming to help you keep the relationships straight when working with long genitive noun chains:

main noun: die Bücher
      modified by: der Professorinnen
            modified by: der Universität

Dative

Dative case is used for the indirect object of sentences and with certain prepositions (prepositions are covered in Unit 5). First review the concept of “indirect object” in English. An example is: “The woman (subject) gives the man (indirect object) the book (direct object).” Here we can see that English relies on the order of those two nouns to signal which noun is the direct vs. indirect object. Or consider: “The woman gives the book to the man,” in which English relies on the preposition “to” to signal that the man is getting the book, not the book getting the man!

In German, word order is much more flexible. You need to be able to distinguish which phrases are in dative case and which are in accusative case, because this – rather than word order or prepositions as in English – is often what communicates the meaning of the sentence to the reader. Case distinctions can in fact communicate a variety of meanings, as you will learn throughout this course.

Masculine Feminine Neuter
definite dem Mann der Frau dem Mädchen
indefinite einem Mann einer Frau einem Mädchen
Plural
definite den Männern
indefinite keinen Männern

Some sample sentences:

Masculine Die Frau gibt dem Mann das Buch.
The woman gives the book to the man.
(or:) The woman gives the man the book.
Feminine Der Mann gibt der Frau das Buch.
Neuter Die Frau gibt dem Mädchen das Buch.
Plural Die Frauen geben den Männern die Bücher.

Don’t forget the word-order rules from Unit 1. The first example sentence above may also appear in the following forms, but will still have the exact same meaning, although a subtle emphasis is slightly different in each sentence.

Dem Mann gibt die Frau das Buch.
Das Buch gibt die Frau dem Mann.

Think of this as German taking advantage of the expressive freedom granted by the use of cases and endings, a freedom we don’t have in English.

Points to remember:

  1. dem and einem (i.e., the -m ending) are unique to dative singular, and are thus useful anchors when reading a sentence.
  2. Dative plural always adds an –n to the plural form of the noun if one does not already exist, e.g., den Männern (dative n) but den Frauen
  3. Many singular nouns appear sometimes with an optional -e ending in the dative case only. Examples: dem Staate, nach Hause, im Grunde
  4. When grammar and real-world sense are insufficient to clarify which parts of a sentence are nominative or accusative, you can assume that the subject of the sentence will be the one positioned closer to the verb than the object or indirect object. See for example the first example of the pair above, “Dem Mann gibt ….

Memorization

Now is a good time to begin memorizing the article forms for all four cases, three genders, and plural. You will find that it’s much, much simpler to memorize the meanings of the handful of different articles than to learn to recognize the multiple unique forms (plural, genitive, etc.) of every noun in the German language. By Unit 4 you will have finished learning about all the types of word endings associated with the four noun cases, three genders, and singular/plural status. Article forms and word endings give you essential information about a German sentence even before you recognize what individual words mean. Section 3 of this unit gives you a handy chart. As soon as you have these internalized, you’ll start saving yourself a lot of dictionary time and mental work.

Dative Verbs

Some frequently used verbs whose objects always appear in the dative case are:

antworten (to answer)

Der Junge antwortet dem Polizisten mit “Ja.”
The boy answers the policeman with “Yes.”

danken (to thank)

Das Kind dankt seiner Großmutter.
The child thanks its grandmother.

glauben (to believe)

Die Frau glaubt dem Mann nicht.
The woman does not believe the man.

helfen (to help)

Dem Passagier hilft die Flugbegleiterin.
The woman flight attendant helps the male passenger.

gehören (to belong to)

Das Geld gehört dem Staate.
The money belongs to the state.

gefallen (literally “to be pleasing to,” but often translated as “to like”)

Shakespeares Schauspiele gefallen mir sehr.
(informal context:) I really like Shakespeare’s plays.
(formal context:) I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays very much.

Familiarize yourself, by looking up the example verbs above, with how your dictionary indicates when verbs take a dative object. How can you tell which English translation you should use, and what special abbreviations does your dictionary use in these cases?

Common Nouns with Endings in the Singular

The singular forms of certain masculine nouns (such as Mensch, Student, Herr, Nachbar, Polizist, and Junge) will take an –n or an –en on the end in all cases but the nominative. These special nouns are sometimes called “n” nouns. Thus, for example, Student becomes Studenten in sentences such as Ich glaube dem Studenten and Das ist das Buch des Studenten. Because these singular nouns can be easily confused with their plural forms (which are often exactly the same: for example, the plural of der Student is die Studenten), you can see why your reading success is dependent on paying close attention to all the case markers on display in every sentence.

Last revised on August 10, 2017.

3. Definite and Indefinite Article (All Cases)

The following charts summarize the article forms and noun spelling changes across all four cases. What you need to memorize is the "range of meanings" of each article. For example: Whenever you encounter der, you need to know that you are dealing with either nominative masculine, dative feminine, genitive feminine, or genitive plural. This reading skill is sometimes going to be crucial for understanding the structure of German sentences.

Definite Article

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative der die das die
Accusative den die das die
Dative dem der dem den + n
Genitive des + s/es der des + s/es der

Indefinite Article

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative ein eine ein keine
Accusative einen eine ein keine
Dative einem einer einem keinen + n
Genitive eines + s/es einer eines + s/es keiner

Remember:

  1. das and ein always indicate singular.
  2. des and eines are unique to singular genitive.
  3. dem and einem are unique to singular dative.
  4. die with nouns ending in –en is always plural.

Difference from English Usage

As you can see, German definite articles – in all their variety – carry a lot more information than does our one-size-fits-all, English "the." Accordingly, German uses definite articles more often than English does. This is particularly important for you to consider when a German sentence makes a universal statement. In English we signal a universal statement by avoiding "the" and/or using plural forms of nouns. German, however, often still needs the noun articles in order to clarify the sentence syntax. So it is up to you to interpret whether a statement is universal or not from the context and sense of the sentence.

Der Katzenschwanz ist ein Indikator für die unterschiedlichen Stimmungen der Katze.
The tail of a cat is an indicator of the various moods of a cat.
[or:] Tails of cats are indicators of the various moods of cats.

Die Freiheit der Meinung erlaubt aber nicht die Verächtlichmachung von Religionen.
Freedom of thought does not, however, permit the disparagement of religions.

The second example is a quotation from an online discussion forum in Germany. Your own knowledge of English tells you that translating the first phrase as "The freedom of the thought" would be inappropriate (because it doesn’t make sense, right?).

Similarly, German speakers may use definite articles with proper nouns or specific individuals (which we don’t do in English) in order to clarify sentence syntax. This usually occurs in more informal situations. For example:

Nein, Willi, das gehört der Mutter.
No, Willi, that belongs to Mom (or: to your mother).

Dem Karl verdanke ich die blauen Flecken hier.
I owe these bruises here to Karl.

The reverse is not true, however. You must always understand a German noun that has no article just as you would an English noun that has no article (like Religionen in the earlier example above).

Finally, do not over-apply this rule. When inclusion of the definite article in German does make sense to carry over in to your English translation, you must do that. Imagine if the German sentence had omitted the definite article: if that would give you a different meaning, then clearly you need to respect the fact that the German sentence chose to include the definite article.

Last revised on July 14, 2016.

4. Pronouns (All Cases)

As you begin memorizing the articles for the four German cases, it may help to simultaneously be memorizing the pronouns for the four cases, since articles and pronouns share some patterns of case and gender-specific spellings. It may all "make sense" as you begin to recognize the spelling patterns. Memorizing the articles and pronouns for the four cases, three genders, and plural is a tedious but necessary and relatively small-scale task for learning to read German.

You should be able to find complete charts of all the article and pronoun forms in a reference section within your German-English dictionary. Meanwhile, here is a pronoun chart:

Nominative Accusative Dative
Singular ich I mich me mir
du you dich you dir
er he / it ihn him / it ihm
sie she / it sie her / it ihr
es it es it ihm
Plural wir we uns us uns
ihr you euch you euch
sie they sie them ihnen
Sing./Plural Sie you Sie you Ihnen

Compare the article charts. Some example similarities to note which aid your memorization task: –m as in ihm is always dative singular, –r as in ihr dative singular, –en as in ihnen and Ihnen dative plural.

Points to remember:

  1. Remember the tip from Unit 1, section 5: that German is very consistent about using the appropriate, gendered pronoun to refer to inanimate nouns, not just for people and animals. That’s why all of the third person singular pronouns can mean “it” as well as “him” and “her”.
  2. Pronouns agree in gender and number with the noun to which they refer, and are therefore useful clues for understanding sentences and especially for shared references across multiple sentences. Let pronouns be an easy, reliable way for you to get case, gender, and number information.
Last revised on June 21, 2016.

5. Present Tense of Regular Verbs

“Regular” verbs are simply those which follow the most common pattern of conjugation. Some grammar books refer to these verbs as “weak” verbs. Thus, using spielen (to play) as our model the present tense is formed as follows:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich spiele (I play) wir spielen (we play)
2nd du spielst (you play) ihr spielt (you play)
3rd er/sie/es spielt (he/she/it plays) sie/Sie spielen (they/you play)

For our purposes the third person singular and plural forms are the main ones. Thus, the ending –t indicates singular and the ending –en plural.

Should the stem of the verb end in –t or –d, for example, warten (to wait) and finden (to find), the stems of which are wart- and find-, then the verb is conjugated as follows:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich warte/finde wir warten/finden
2nd du wartest/findest ihr wartet/findet
3rd er/sie/es wartet/findet sie/Sie warten/finden

The only differences then are in the singular, second and third person, where an –e is added so that we can append the personal endings –st and –t.

Note: The majority of verbs in German form their present tense in the way shown for our example spielen.

Remember that the German present tense can be translated variously: “he does play,” “he is playing,” “he plays,” or even – depending on time information given in context – “he will play,” “he has played,” or “he has been playing.” Note that all of these translations still share the meaning that the action is taking place at the “present moment” (although that can be defined by a specific future time reference) – whether the action is ongoing, starting, finishing, or only momentary is what you need to interpret from context. In any case, German present tense never indicates a completed, past event.

Last revised on September 4, 2014.

6. Present Tense of Irregular Verbs

Irregular verbs (also called “strong” verbs) change their root form as they are conjugated. For the most part, they form their present tense in exactly the same way as regular verbs. Thus “he swims” is er schwimmt, “they swim” sie schwimmen.

Some irregular verbs, however, will undergo a change in the stem vowel in the present tense singular, second and third person, for example: du gibst (you give) and er gibt (he gives) are conjugations of geben (to give). The importance of this change to the reader of German is that you will have to recognize that the meaning of, for example, gibst, will be found under the dictionary entry for geben. You should remember that there are four patterns of vowel changes in case you need to look up a verb in the dictionary:

Example verbs
infinitive > 3rd person sing.
Vowel change
geben > gibt e > i
stehlen > stiehlt e > ie
halten > hält a > ä
laufen > läuft au > äu

A list of the most common irregular verbs (strong verbs) is included in most dictionaries and grammar books. You do not have to memorize all the verb changes for reading purposes. The present tense singular, both second and third person, of these verbs will still carry the endings described above for weak verbs, ending in –st or –t.

There is one notable exception: the modal verbs, which are covered in Unit 10, and the verb wissen (to know a fact). The latter is conjugated in the present tense as:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich weiß wir wissen
2nd du weißt ihr wißt
3rd er/sie/es weiß sie/Sie wissen
Last revised on July 13, 2015.

7. More Question Words

The genitive and dative forms of wer (who) are wessen (genitive: “whose”) and wem (dative: “to/for whom”). Examples:

Wessen Hund ist das?
Whose dog is that?

Wem gehört der Hund?
To whom does the dog belong?

Last revised on November 7, 2014.

8. “es gibt” and “man

es gibt

es gibt = “there is” and “there are.” Example:

Es gibt jetzt zwei Zeitungen in Darmstadt.
There are now two newspapers in Darmstadt.

man

The pronoun man can be translated directly as “people,” “they,” and “one”.

Man sagt, es regnet.
They (people) say it is raining.

Sometimes it makes more sense in English to use an even more abstract way to translate man, by using English passive voice. For example:

In schlechten Zeiten kürzt man die Budgets.
In bad times, budgets are reduced.

Keep in mind that the essential meaning of man is that the speaker cannot or does not want to specify a subject for the sentence’s main verb. The next two examples contrast a situation calling for direct translation with one requiring a more abstract translation:

Wie sagt man “Hund” auf Englisch?
How does one say “Hund” in English?

Man sagt, daß Deutsche pünktlich sind.
It is said that Germans are punctual.

Last revised on September 2, 2014.

9. Adjectival Nouns

Word Formation

These sections of the textbook help improve your speed during the skimming phase of reading and gradually build vocabulary.

Many adjectives, particularly those expressing abstract ideas, can be formed into neuter nouns according to the pattern which follows below. These adjectival nouns get modified by adverbs rather than by adjectives, in agreement with the normal relationship of adverbs to adjectives, including adverbial usages of words such as viel (much) and nichts (nothing).

nichts Gutes nothing that (is / was) good
viel Interessantes (much / a lot) that (is / was) interesting
wenig Schönes little that (is / was) (beautiful / pretty / nice)
etwas Neues something that (is / was) new

The original adjectives, “gut,” “interessant,” “schön,” and “neu”, are capitalized and appear (for our current purposes) with an –es ending. By Unit 4 you’ll learn to recognize the other endings these adjectival nouns will get when they’re used in genitive and dative cases. Just remember that adjectival nouns are spelled – and take their own modifiers – as if they were modifying some (absent) neuter noun, but otherwise they function as that neuter noun.

Last revised on September 4, 2014.