German Tips & Tricks

Understand the German Dative Case

The German dative case’s slogan: “I come receiving gifts”. No, not ‘bearing gifts’, receiving gifts and just like this case confuses idioms, it confuses us.

This case can become quite complicated since it is used for the indirect object. (If you haven’t read my post on cases yet, it might be a great idea to have a peek at that one first before you read on. Especially if you have trouble identifying the nominative and accusative cases.)

Now you might be asking that if the dative case is only used for the indirect object it can not be that complicated? This is true, but only if you know how to identify the indirect object, which is where most people get lost.

What is the Indirect Object?

This object is the one receiving gifts. So, let’s say it is the child on Christmas eve. In that case, the direct object is the gift and the subject Santa.

Santa gives a gift to the child.

Ok, but I can say the same thing like this:

Santa gives the child a gift.

Does this mean that the child is now the direct object and the gift the indirect object? No, the meaning of the sentence stays the same and this is why the gift is still the direct object and the child the indirect object.

The German Dative Case Made Easy

Take a quick look at this case table. The articles in each block are the ones you will use to precede a noun in the case displayed on the left (you will either use the definite or the indefinite one depending on the meaning of your sentence).

Nominative Caseder / eindie / einedas / eindie / eine
Accusative Caseden / einendie / einedas / eindie / eine
Dative Casedem / einemder / einerdem / einemden / einen
Genitive Casedes / einesder / einerdes / einesder / einer

So, let’s take the sentence from the previous example and try to write it in German.

Santa – der Weihnachtsmann (Masculine)

gives – gibt

a gift – ein Geschenk (Neuter)

to – an

the child – das Kind (Neuter)

But now we have to consider the table above. With each of the above nouns I used the article that is used in the nominative case, but when forming a sentence in German that is not how it will be used.

Subject: der Weihnachtsmann

Direct Object: ein Geschenk

Indirect Object: das Kind

As we said before: the subject will be in the nominative case, the direct object accusative and the indirect dative. We said that all of them are currently in the nominative case, right? This means that the subject is already in the correct case and the others are wrong.

A neuter noun, similar to the nominative case, will still take either ‘das’ or ‘ein’ in the accusative case. ‘Ein Geschenk’ will thus stay ‘ein Geschenk’. (Just note that this is not the case with all of the genders. In the accusative the masculine articles changes.)

In the dative case, a neuter noun will take either ‘dem’ or ‘einem’ as its article. This means that ‘das Kind’ will, in fact, be ‘dem Kind’.

Now for the sticking together of the actual sentence:

Der Weihnachtsmann gibt ein Geschenk an dem Kind.

Cool, ‘ja’? And what I like even more is that you can, similar to English – switch the objects around without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Der Weihnachtsmann gibt dem Kind ein Geschenk.

Did you see that I did not change the articles? This is because the gift is still being given to the child, which means that the gift is still the direct object and the child the indirect object.

Dative Pronouns

Sometimes, however, when using the dative case we do not use nouns. For example in English we might say: “Santa gives a gift to him”, right? In German, instead of saying ‘to him’ we will use ‘ihm’ which is the dative personal pronoun for ‘er’ (he).

Personal Pronouns in the Dative Case

ich (I)mir (to me)
du (you, informal singular)dir (to you, informal singular)
er (he)ihm (to him)
sie (she)ihr (to her)
es (it)ihm (to it)
wir (we)uns (to us)
ihr (you, plural informal)euch (to you, plural informal)
sie (they)ihnen (to them)
Sie (you, singular or plural formal)ihnen (to you, singular or plural formal)

Using this table you can use any ‘person’ to say the same sentence. Let us once again use our Santa example (merely because I long for Christmas).

Der Weihnachtsmann gibt ihr ein Geschenk. (Santa gives her a gift.)

Der Weihnachtsmann gibt uns Geschenke. (Santa gives us gifts.)

Relative Pronouns in the Dative Case

When talking about relative pronouns, we have to know what they are and when to use them. Yet, to be able to do that we have to take a step backwards and look at what clauses are as well as the types of clauses that there are.

There are two types of clauses; main and subordinate clauses. Main clauses are the main sentence and can stand on its own. Subordinate clauses give extra information about the content of the main sentence, but cannot stand independently. An important thing to note is that both of these has at least a subject and verb.

Relative pronouns (who, whom, whose and that) are used in a type of subordinate clause called a relative clause. They are usually used at the beginning of the clause and are, unlike with English, always used to connect the main and relative clauses. A comma is always used to precede these clauses. We also have to change the word order of the sentence by moving the conjugated verb to the end.

GenderDative Case

Here is an example of how they are used (and note that the noun in the reflexive clause is also dative):

Ich habe das Geschenk, dem Weihnachtsmann dir gegeben hat. – I have the gift that Santa gave you.

Something to Note About the Changes of Pronouns in the Dative Case

The changes that occur in pronouns during case changes are similar to those of the articles. In the dative case the masculine article ‘der’ changes to ‘dem’. The personal pronoun for him, ‘er’, changes to ‘ihm’. The resemblance is that both has an ‘m’ at the. Changes in the neuter and feminine genders are similar. The feminine ‘die’ changes to ‘der’ which correlates with ‘ihr’. ‘Das’, similar to ‘der’ changes to ‘dem’, thus is the dative personal prounoun for it ‘ihm’. ‘They’ and ‘Sie’ follows the same pattern. They use ‘ihnen’ which end in ‘en’ just like ‘den’ which is the plural definite article used for plural nouns in the dative case.

The reason why I like this so much is that the dative personal pronouns for ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ is very similar: ‘ihm’, ‘ihr’, ‘ihm’. Linking them to the article makes it less confusing.

Words That Make Us Use the German Dative Case Without a Direct Object.

Now comes the tricky part. Sometimes a sentence does not have two objects and although this might seem normal, it is not. The reason being that usually when there is only one object that object is in the accusative case, right? Not in these cases. Sometimes there is a verb or preposition used in the sentence that indicates movement and then we will use the dative for the object. This is because these words implicate movement and means that the noun will now be regarded as an indirect object.

Dative Prepositions

Dative-Only Prepositions

ausfrom, out of
seitsince (time), for
vonby, from
mitwith, by
außerexcept for, besides
beiat, near
nachafter, to
zuat, to
gegenüberacross from, opposite

Dative or Accusative Prepositions

anat, on, to
aufon, onto, to
hinterbehind, to the back of
inin, into
nebenbeside, next to
überabove, over
unterunder, underneath
vorin front of

As we said earlier, the dative noun is the receiving object. This means that it is static. The direct object (accusative), however, is the object being carried over and is this why it implicates movement.

This leads to the conclusion that if one of the prepositions which can either be accusative or dative indicates movement, it is accusative. Otherwise, it is dative. Here is an example of ‘in’ used as dative and accusative:

Dative: Die Jacke ist in dem Schrank. – The jacket is in the closet.

Accusative: Das Kind geht in the Schule. – The child goes to school.

Dative Verbs

These verbs work the same as the above prepositions. All of them are always followed by the dative case, for example:

Das Wetter gefallt mir. – I like the weather.

ähnelnto resemble
antwortento answer
auffallento stand out, to make an impression
ausweichento evade
befehlento order, to command
begegento meet someone
beistehento stand by, to support
dankento thank
dienento serve
drohento threaten
einfallento come to mind, to think of something
entgegento reply, to retort
erlaubento allow, to permit
erscheinento appear
erwidernto reply
fehlento be missing
folgento follow
gefallento please (someone)
gehorchento obey
gehörento belong to
gelingento succeed
genügento suffice, to be enough
geratento advise
geschehento happen, to occur
glaubento believe (someone)
gleichento closely resemble (someone or something)
glückento succeed, to work out
gratulierento congratulate
helfento help
lauschento eavesdrop
misslingento fail
mundento taste good
nützento be of use (to someone)
passento fit
passierento happen
ratento advise
schadento damage, to do harm
schmeckento taste good
schmeichelnto flatter
sich nähernto approach
trauento trust
vertrauento trust, to confide in, to rely on
verzeihento forgive
weichento yield to, to make way for
widersprechento contradict, to gainsay
winkento wave (to someone)

This is it, my dearest reader. I hope that somehow I could show you the light at the end of the tunnel regarding the dative case.


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