Unit 2: Cases, Present Tense
Whereas English has only tiny traces of three noun cases (subjective [nominative], objective, and possessive – link 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 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.
|das Buch des Mannes
(the man’s book)
|das Buch der Frau
(the woman’s book)
|das Buch des Mädchens
(the girl’s book)
|das Buch eines Mannes
(a man’s book)
|das Buch einer Frau
(a woman’s book)
|das Buch eines Mädchens
(a girl’s book)
|die Bücher der Frauen
(the women’s books)
|die Bücher keiner Frauen
(no women’s books)
- The noun in the genitive case follows the noun which it modifies.
- 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.
- 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).
- Proper nouns have an added –s ending to indicate genitive case (example: Deutschlands Kanzlerin), but if the proper noun already ends in s, then you will see no change in spelling. Apostrophes are not used in German.
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 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.
Some sample sentences:
|Die Frau gibt dem Mann das Buch.
The woman gives the book to the man.
[or:] The woman gives the man the book.
|Der Mann gibt der Frau das Buch.
|Die Frau gibt dem Mädchen das Buch.
|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:
- dem and einem (i.e., the -m ending) are unique to dative singular, and are thus useful anchors when reading a sentence.
- 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
- Many singular nouns appear sometimes with an optional -e ending in the dative case only. Examples: dem Staate, nach Hause, im Grunde
- 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 ….”
Now is a good time to begin memorizing the article forms for all four cases, three genders, and plural.
You will soon realize that it’s much, much easier to memorize the meanings of the handful of case- and gender-specific articles and word endings than to learn all the possible spellings (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. The next section of this unit gives you a handy chart. As soon as you have this reading skill fairly automatic, you’ll start saving yourself a lot of dictionary time and mental work.
Some frequently used verbs whose objects always appear in the dative case are:
Der Junge antwortet dem Polizisten mit “Ja.”
The boy answers the policeman with “Yes.”
Das Kind dankt seiner Großmutter.
The child thanks its grandmother.
Die Frau glaubt dem Mann nicht.
The woman does not believe the man.
Dem Passagier hilft die Flugbegleiterin.
The woman flight attendant helps the male passenger.
Das Geld gehört dem Staate.
The money belongs to the state.
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.