Understanding Cases

Probably the main reason people think German grammar is hard is because of the cases. If you’ve never encountered a language with cases before, the concept is pretty confusing.

Essentially, cases are an explicit way to show the subject, object, and indirect object of the sentence.

Because of that, German sentences can have more varied word orders than in languages with no cases.

English actually preserves a tiny bit of the Germanic case system in its pronouns.

We say “she saw him” and “he saw her.” In each of those short sentences, we change the pronoun to mark its case. “He” and “she” are subject forms, and “him” and “her” are object forms.

That’s as far as it goes in English.

German has four cases instead. But it’s really not too hard. And to German natives or advanced learners, it feels just as easy as knowing when to say 'he' or 'him' in English. The German cases are:

Nominative, which marks the subject. It’s the “default” case, i.e words in the dictionary are already in nominative case.
Accusative, which marks the direct object. Only masculine nouns change their articles or adjective endings in the accusative case.
Dative, which marks the indirect object. It’s considered a “difficult” case, but that’s only because all three genders change for the dative case.
Genitive, which is used for showing possession. The Genitive case is slowly falling out of use in spoken German. People nowadays tend to use dative constructions instead. Still, everyone knows how to use it.

Here’s a sentence with all four cases represented:

Ich gebe dir den Hund meines Vaters.
I give you the dog of my father.

See the Articles section down below for a full table of the way the articles change in German to represent the case. Usually, the article is the only thing that changes.

However, there are a few small sets of nouns that actually change their form. They tack on an extra ending to more explicitly mark their case. This is actually how cases work in the majority of Indo-European languages – it’s a little bit unusual that the articles are the main thing to change in German.

The most obvious change is that most masculine and neuter nouns simply add an -s or -es in the genitive case. The genitive masculine/neuter article is des, which makes it pretty easy to remember: der Mann, des Mannes.

Most masculine nouns that end in -e undergo another change, namely, they add an -n in every declension except for nominative. Remember, most nouns that end in -e are feminine to begin with, so we’re not talking about a huge set here.

der Junge den Jungen dem Jungen des Jungen

A few other nouns don’t fall into specific patterns and must be memorized as “N-Declension” nouns:

das Herz
the heart

mit meinem ganzen Herzen
with my whole heart

der Bauer
the farmer

Meistens sehe ich den Bauern in seinem Wald.
I usually see the farmer in his forest.