German All-in-One For Dummies, with CD
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All languages have ways of showing what role a noun plays in a sentence. In English, a noun’s position in the sentence tells you how it’s being used. In German, the endings on the adjectives and articles that accompany the noun, which are based on case, tell you the noun’s function in the sentence. Here’s a quick overview of the German cases and the relationship they have with nouns, articles, and pronouns.

Understanding the basics of German cases

In grammar, cases indicate the role that nouns and pronouns play in a sentence. Case is important in German because four types of words — nouns, pronouns, articles, and adjectives — go through spelling changes according to the case they represent in a sentence. German has four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. The following table breaks them down based on function.

Case Case Function
Nominative Used for the subject of a sentence
Used for predicate nouns
Accusative Used for the direct object of a sentence
Dative Used for the indirect object of a sentence
Genitive Used to show possession, ownership, or a close

Definite and indefinite German articles and Their cases

German has three words — der, die and das — for the definite article the. To make matters more confusing for someone learning German, these three definite articles change spelling according to the case of the noun that they appear with in a sentence.

The same is true for the indefinite articles. Just as English has two indefinite articles — a and an — that you use with singular nouns, German also has two indefinite articles (in the nominative case): ein for masculine- and neuter-gender words and eine for feminine-gender words.

Another similarity with English is that the German indefinite article ein/eine doesn’t have a plural form. Depending on how you’re describing something plural, you may or may not need to use the plural definite article. Consider the following generalized statement, which requires no article: In Zermatt sind Autos verboten. (Cars are forbidden in Zermatt [Switzerland].)

The following table shows you the definite articles and the corresponding indefinite articles (nominative case):

Gender/Number Definite (the) Indefinite (a/an)
Masculine der ein
Feminine die eine
Neuter das ein
Plural die (no plural form)

German personal pronouns and their cases

The biggest difference between German personal pronouns and English personal pronouns is that you have to distinguish among three ways to say you: du, ihr, and Sie. Other personal pronouns, like ich and mich (I and me) or wir and uns (we and us), bear a closer resemblance to English.

The genitive case isn’t represented among the personal pronouns because it indicates possession; the personal pronouns represent only people, not something those people possess.

Check out the following table for a list of the personal pronouns. Notice that you and it don’t change in English and the accusative (for direct objects) and dative (for indirect objects) pronouns are identical. The table lists the distinguishing factors for the three forms of you — du, ihr, and Sie — in abbreviated form. Here’s what the abbreviations mean: s. = singular, pl. = plural, inf. = informal, form. = formal.

Nominative (nom.) Accusative (acc.) Dative (dat.)
ich (I) mich (me) mir (me)
du (you) (s., inf.) dich (you) (s., inf.) dir (you) (s., inf.)
er (he) ihn (him) ihm (him)
sie (she) sie (her) ihr (her)
es (it) es (it) ihm (it)
wir (we) uns (us) uns (us)
ihr (you) (pl., inf.) euch (you) (pl., inf.) euch (you) (pl., inf.)
sie (they) sie (them) ihnen (them)
Sie (you) (s. or pl., form.) Sie (you) (s. or pl., form.) Ihnen (you) (s. or pl., form.)

About This Article

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About the book authors:

Wendy Foster teaches Business English, German, French, and intercultural communication skills. She also does editing for online German education programs. Wendy received her degree in German studies at the Sprachen-und-Dolmetscher-Institut in Munich and later her MA in French at Middlebury College in Paris.

Paulina Christensen has been working as a writer, editor, and translator for more than 10 years. She has developed, written, and edited numerous German-language textbooks and teachers' handbooks for Berlitz International. Dr. Christensen recieved her MA and PhD from Dusseldorf University, Germany.

Anne Fox has been working as a translator, editor, and writer for more than 12 years. She studied at Interpreter's School, Zurich, Switzerland, and holds a degree in translation. Most recently she has been developing, writing, and editing student textbooks and teacher handbooks for Berlitz.

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