Essential German Grammar – The Four Cases

The German language, which comes from Latin and former Romance languages, is a highly inflected language. Nouns, pronouns and adjectives are inflected in the four following grammatical cases.

Case Question word Part of the sentence
Nominativ (nominative) Wer/was? (who/what?) Subject of the sentence
Genitiv (genitive) Wessen? (whose?) Possessor of something
Dativ (dative) Wem? (whom?) Indirect object*
Akkusativ (accusative) Wen/was? (Who/what?) Direct object**

* The dative indirect object indicates to whom something is given and when this object is given to someone.
** The accusative direct object indicates the thing that is directly given to someone or that is receiving a certain kind of action.

Nouns

Nouns are determined by their gender, case and number. The definite and indefinite articles also change with the noun, according to the corresponding case in which it occurs in a sentence.

Example: Der Stuhl (masculine, the chair)

Case Singular Plural
Nominative Der Stuhl Die Stühle
Genitive Des Stuhles Der Stühle
Dative Dem Stuhl Den Stühlen
Accusative Den Stuhl Die Stühle

If you want to say that a chair is given to someone, you use the nominative case by asking yourself “What is given to someone?” → Der Stuhl

If you want to say whose thing it is, you use the genitive case and ask yourself “Whose is it?” → Des Stuhles

Example:
Wessen Beine sind das? | Whose legs are these?
Die Beine des Stuhles | The chair’s legs

This also represents the English possessive “s”.

Example:
Annettes Vater ist Ingenieur. | Annette’s father is an engineer.
There is a tendency to use the dative instead of the genitive.

Example:
Von wem sind die Beine? | The legs of whom are these?
Vom Stuhl Or Dem Stuhl seine | From the chair Or The ones of the chair

If you want to say to whom something belongs, you use the dative case. You ask yourself the question “To whom does this belong?” → Dem Stuhl
Finally, the accusative case is used when you want to say that you have seen or used something. Ask yourself “Who did you see? What did you use?” → Den Stuhl
The same cases apply for feminine and neutral nouns. You ask yourself the same questions. Only the cases and the inflected nouns and articles are listed below.
Example: Die Frau (feminine, the woman)

Case Singular Plural
Nominative Die Frau Die Frauen
Genitive Der Frau Der Frauen
Dative Der Frau Den Frauen
Accusative Die Frau Die Frauen

Example: Das Bild (neutral, the picture)

Case Singular Plural
Nominative Das Bild Die Bilder
Genitive Des Bildes Der Bildern
Dative Dem Bild Den Bildern
Accusative Das Bild Die Bilder

Pronouns

German pronouns can replace nominal phrases and are also inflected in the same case, gender and number as the noun the pronoun is replacing.

Example:
Die Bücher sind schwer. | The books are heavy.
Sie sind schwer. | They are heavy.

This guide addresses only the personal pronouns in detail:

Singular Plural Formal
Case First person Second person Third person
English I you he she it we you they you
Nominative ich du er sie es wir ihr sie Sie
Accusative mich dich ihn sie es uns euch sie Sie
Dative mir dir ihm ihr ihm uns euch ihnen Ihnen
Genitive meiner deiner seiner ihrer seiner unser euer ihrer Ihrer

Adjectives

The adjectives always agree with the noun phrase in German. For this reason, the adjective is also inflective and the inflection depends on the gender, case and number of the corresponding noun.

Example: (only singular)

Der junge Mann | The young man (Nominative)
Das Buch des jungen Mannes | The book of the young man (Genitive)
Das Buch gehört dem jungen Mann. | The book belongs to the young man. (Dative)
Ich sehe den jungen Mann. | I see the young man. (Accusative)

The adjective has to be feminine or neutral if the accompanying noun or noun phrase is feminine or neutral.