Understanding grammar will help you on your way to foreign language fluency. In the German language, prepositions are much more complex in their use than are English prepositions. In English, for instance, we do not have to consider case when using prepositions, except when they are used with pronouns. In German, since the concept of case is much stronger, nouns and pronouns are governed by prepositions which must take definite cases. There are certain prepositions which always take one and only one case.
Some view grammatical case and declension as intimidating topics. This need not be the case, as these are quite logical topics. It’s important that you have a solid understanding of these terms, so before we dive into their application in German, let’s first define them and make sure you understand the underlying concepts.
Grammatical case, or simply “case” for short, defines how a word functions in a phrase or sentence. In English, there are three grammatical cases:
Nominitive (also known as Subjective)
Accusative (also known as Objective)
Genitive (also known as Posessive)
The nominative case refers to subjects in phrases or sentences—these are the nouns that are doing the action of a verb. The accusative case refers to direct objects—these are nouns that are directly receiving the action of a verb. The genitive case is limited to pronouns, and shows possession. Let’s look at a quick example in English to illustrate these concepts:
Do you see him? No, I see his car.
In this sentence, “you” is in the nominative case, because “you” are doing the action – seeing. The word “him” is in the accusative case, because “him” is receiving the action of the verb—it is “him” that is being seen. In the second part of the example above, “his” is in the genetiv case. The word “his” shows that “he” owns something—the car.
This last point serves as a segue into the concept of declension. As noted above, the word “his” is the genitive case of “he”. When a word is modified as it moves from one grammatical case into another, this is referred to as declension.
Declension in English is very week, and is largely limited to possessive pronouns.
He — him — his
She — her — her (no change)
They — them — their
These are all examples of declension in the English language.
To summarize, grammatical case defines how a word functions in a phrase or sentence, and declension is the process of modifying a word to place it into a different case.
Now that we’ve defined these concepts, let’s move on to understand how they apply to the German language.
German is governed by four grammatical cases, which are summarized below. Modifications of words from the nominative case into other grammatical cases is done through declension. The nominative case is how words appear in dictionary form.
Nominitive: Used for words that are subjects of a phrase or sentence
Accusative: Indicates that a word is the direct object of a verb
Genitive: Demonstrates possession
Dative: Indicates that a word is the indirect object of a verb
Of course, this is just a brief summary; a more detailed explanation of each German grammatical case is provided below.
The nominative case is the simplest of German grammatical cases. As previously stated, the nominative case is used for words that are the subject of German phrases or sentences. It is appropriate to think of the nominative as the “base” case in German grammar [How to Learn German Grammar]. Words in the nominative case do not experience any declension, and are written exactly as they appear in dictionary form.
The accusative case is used primarily to show that a noun is the direct object of a verb and is receiving the action of that verb. In German, certain prepositions always take the accusative case.
Common German prepositions that always take the accusative case:
bis — to (until, as far as)
ohne — without
durch — through
um — around
für — for
wider — against (contrary)
gegen — against (positionally)
Note that with the exception of the nominative “base” case, all grammatical cases in German are marked by declensions. These declensions affect nouns and their definite articles, pronouns and adjectives. Declensions will be covered in the next section of this text.
The genitive case is used to convey possession or inclusion. Generally speaking, the German genitive case corresponds to English phrases formed with the preposition “of”. Similar to the accusative case, there are certain German prepositions that always take the genitive case.
Common German prepositions that always take the genitive case:
anstatt — instead of
trotz — despite (in spite of)
während — during
wegen — on account of
The dative case is used primarily with indirect objects– these are nouns that do not receive the action of a transitive verb, but are affected by the action of the transitive verb. An example of an indirect object in English can be seen in the following sentence: I gave my sister the book.
In this example, “my sister” is the indirect object. “My sister” does not receive the action of the verb—it is the book (the direct object) that is given, but “my sister” is affected by the verb’s action. She has now received “the book”.
Certain prepositions always take the dative case in German. A list of the more common prepositions is provided below.
Common German prepositions that always take the dative case:
aus — out of/from
bei — at/by
mit — with
nach — after
seit — since
von — from (of)
zu — to
Other prepositions, however, take more than one case, depending upon their context or situation. The following prepositions take either the dative or accusative case:
||at, on, to||auf —
||before, in front of|
||in, into||über —
||under, among||zwischen —
With these prepositions, the dative case expresses action that takes place in a fixed position or location, while the accusative expresses motion toward or into a place. It is the difference, inexact English, between in and into, or on and upon. This is an important distinction in German and must be observed. Study the examples that follow:
Sie steht auf der Brücke. — She is standing on the bridge.
Sie läuft auf die Brücke. — She is running (on)to thebridge.
Wir sind in in der Kirche. — We are in the church.
Wir gehen in die Kirche. — We are going into the church.