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Accusative or dative: These rules will help you

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While the use of the nominative and genitive are relatively easy for most to understand, there is often a lot of confusion when it comes to the accusative and dative. For many, it is not clear whether a verb requires dative, accusative or perhaps even both cases. 

In German, verbs often determine the case of the objects in the sentence. In this way, the dependencies of the objects on the verb are described and the sentence begins to make sense. This sounds complicated, but it is actually quite logical. Let’s first take a brief look at the basics of a sentence.

What does a German sentence consist of?

A complete sentence consists of a subject and a predicate. German sentences can also be very short. The important thing is that the sentence makes sense. A predicate can consist of one or more verbs. The subject in a sentence is always in the nominative case, the first case.

Peter arbeitet.
Maria hat getanzt.

Let’s look at another example:

Peter kauft.
Maria macht.

Watch out: These two examples are not complete sentences. Additional information is missing for the sentence to make sense. To do this, we have to ask „wen oder was kauft Peter?“ or „wen oder was macht Maria?“. This information is then in the accusative. Because Peter buys something. Maria makes something.

Peter kauft den Apfel.
Maria macht einen Deutschkurs.

When do I need accusative?

First the good news: most verbs require an object in the accusative. You can ask for objects in the accusative with the question „Who or what?

Peter kauft den Apfel. → Wen oder was kauft Peter? → Den Apfel.
Maria macht einen Deutschkurs. → Wen oder was macht Maria? → Einen Deutschkurs.

But why „den Apfel“ and not „der Apfel“ or why „einen Deutschkurs“ and not „ein Deutschkurs“? Depending on the case, the article changes in the German language. This makes the connections in a sentence understandable. In this table you will find the articles for the nominative and accusative:

ArtikelGenus/NumerusNominativAkkusativ
der, die, dasmaskulinder ApfelPeter kauft den Apfel
feminindie BananePeter kauft die Banane
neutraldas AutoPeter kauft das Auto
Pluraldie ÄpfelPeter kauft die Äpfel
ein, eine, einesmaskulinein ApfelPeter kauft einen Apfel
feminineine BananePeter kauft eine Banane
neutralein AutoPeter kauft ein Auto
Plural- ÄpfelPeter kauft Äpfel
dieser, diese, diesesmaskulindieser ApfelPeter kauft diesen Apfel
feminindiese BananePeter kauft diese Banane
neutraldieses AutoPeter kauft dieses Auto
Pluraldiese ÄpfelPeter kauft diese Äpfel
kein, keine, keinesmaskulinkein ApfelPeter kauft keinen Apfel
femininkeine BananePeter kauft keine Banane
neutralkein AutoPeter kauft kein Auto
Pluralkeine ÄpfelPeter kauft keine Äpfel

You see, only the masculine articles change. All other articles remain the same. Now let’s look at verbs that need a dative object.

When do I need a dative?

Again, there is good news. In everyday life, we use fewer than 50 verbs that require the dative. But how do you recognise them? Complements in the dative usually indicate people, animals or a specific destination. This is an important rule that works in 90% of cases:

If the verb only makes sense with people or animals, you need the dative. In all other cases, you use the accusative. Let’s look at a few examples:

sehen: You can see people, animals, but also trees, houses and much more. → Accusative

helfen: You can help people and animals. But not a house or a street. → Dative

zustimmen: You can agree with people and animals, but not with a house or a garden. → Dative

suchen: you can search for people, animals, objects, places and much more. → Accusative

antworten: You can answer to people and animals, but not to a bus or a train station. → Dative case

Peter hilft dem Mann. → Wem oder was hilft Peter? → Dem Mann.
Maria antwortet der Frau. → Wem oder was antwortet Maria? → Der Frau.

Der Frau? Yes, you have seen correctly. In the dative case, all articles change, as you can see in the following table:

ArtikelGenus/NumerusNominativAkkusativ
der, die, dasmaskulinder MannPeter hilft dem Mann
feminindie FrauPeter hilft der Frau
neutraldas MädchenMaria antwortet dem Mädchen
Pluraldie FrauenMaria antwortet den Frauen
ein, eine, einesmaskulinein MannPeter hilft einem Mann
feminineine FrauPeter hilft einer Frau
neutralein MädchenMaria antwortet einem Mädchen
Plural- FrauenMaria antwortet - Frauen
dieser, diese, diesesmaskulindieser MannPeter hilft diesem Mann
feminindiese FrauPeter hilft dieser Frau
neutraldieses MädchenMaria antwortet diesem Mädchen
Pluraldiese FrauenMaria antwortet diesen Frauen
kein, keine, keinesmaskulinkein MannPeter hilft keinem Mann
femininkeine FrauPeter hilft keiner Frau
neutralkein MädchenMaria antwortet keinem Mädchen
Pluralkeine FrauenMaria antwortet keinen Frauen

When do I need the dative and accusative?

You may have wondered whether you can use some verbs with accusative and dative. The answer to this question is yes. Some verbs even need two objects.

Let’s look at an example:

Peter schenkt. → Wen oder was schenkt Peter? → Ein Auto.
Peter schenkt ein Auto. → Wem oder was schenkt Peter ein Auto? → Dem Mann.
Peter schenkt dem Mann ein Auto.

Note: A sentence must make sense. To do this, you have to put the necessary information into the sentence. „Peter schenkt ein Auto“ does not make sense. We don’t know who he is giving it to. Therefore, we still need a dative object.

Another example:

Maria kocht. → Wen oder was kocht Maria? → Ein Gulasch.
Maria kocht ein Gulasch. → The sentence also makes sense without a dative object. We can still insert additional information
→ Wem oder was kocht Maria ein Gulasch? → Dem Mann.
Maria kocht dem Mann ein Gulasch.

Note: In this case, the sentence also makes sense without a dative object. But you can insert a dative object.

But be careful, this does not work with all verbs:

Maria sieht. → Wen oder was sieht Maria? → Einen Film.
Maria sieht einen Film. → Wem oder was sieht Maria einen Film? → This makes no sense. A dative complement is not possible.

If you are not sure whether you can insert a dative object, check your sentence with these rules. This way you will quickly see if the sentence makes sense or not.

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