Declension in German Grammar – the Four Cases

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Guide to German Cases

Ever wondered why it’s der Computer in some sentences but den Computer in others? Or why we sometimes write der Straße instead of die Straße? You’re not alone! The reason is the German noun cases (Fälle or Kasus); they make us change the endings of certain words depending on their role in the sentence.

German has four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive.

The case of a noun is determined by certain verbs and prepositions. To show the case, we change the endings of the article, pronoun and adjective that accompany the noun.

This page is an introduction to the German cases; it answers basic questions like what is a case, how to recognise the different cases and when to use each one.

To learn the different declension endings for each case, go to our pages all about the declension of nouns and articles, pronouns or adjectives.

What are the German cases?

We can think of the four noun cases as categories that show the grammatical role that each noun plays in a sentence.

Don’t worry if this sounds complicated at first, you probably know more about cases than you realise — English has them too.

Let’s start by using an English sentence to illustrate the basic meaning of the cases:

The boss (N) explains the tasks (A) to the leader (D) of the team (G).
  • (N) = Nominative Case: the noun that performs the verb
  • (A) = Accusative Case: the noun that receives the verb
  • (D) = Dative Case: the noun to whom/for whom the action is destined
  • (G) = Genitive Case: the noun has a relationship of possession with another noun (’s or of in English)

How to identify the German cases

Now, let’s address the cases one by one (in German this time!). We’re going to use the masculine noun der Schreibtisch as our example:

What is the nominative case?

The nominative case is the basic form of the noun (the endings don’t change). We use the nominative for the subject of the sentence; i.e., the person or thing that ‘does’ the verb.

Ask who? or what? (wer?/was?) to determine the nominative.

Der Schreibtisch sieht schön aus.The desk looks nice.
was sieht gut aus? → der Schreibtisch

Jump to the signal words for the nominative.

What is the accusative case?

The accusative case is for the direct object; i.e. the person or thing that ‘receives’ the action of the verb.

Ask what? (wen?/was?) to find the direct object.

Ich nutze den Schreibtisch jeden Tag.I use the desk every day.
was nutze ich jeden Tag? → den Schreibtisch

The main change we see with the accusative is that der/ein becomes den/einen with masculine nouns.

Das ist ein Schreibtisch.That is a desk. (nominative)
Ich habe einen Schreibtisch.I have a desk, (accusative)

Skip ahead to the signal words for the accusative.

What is the dative case?

The dative case is for the indirect object. We ask to whom/which? or for whom/which? (wem?) to find the indirect object.

Ich gab dem Schreibtisch eine neue Farbe.I gave the desk a new colour.
wem gab ich die neue Farbe? → dem Schreibtisch

Jump to the dative signal words.

What is the genitive case?

The genitive case indicates possession or belonging. The genitive case has a similar meaning to the English ’s or of. Ask whose? (wessen?) to find the genitive.

Das Bein des Schreibtisches ist kaputt.The leg of the desk is broken.
or: The desk’s leg is broken.
wessen Bein ist kaputt? → das Bein des Schreibtisches

Skip ahead to the signal words for the genitive.

Why do we need the German cases?

The cases keep German sentences organised. The case of the noun indicates its role in the sentence, which allows for a flexible word order.

As you can see from the examples above, we may write der Schreibtisch, den Schreibtisch, dem Schreibtisch or des Schreibtisches depending on the case. This is called declension (Deklination) or inflection; the process of changing the endings of the words attached to the noun (or sometimes even the noun itself) according to the case.

These different word endings mean that we can change the word order of German sentences without altering the meaning:

Die Chefin erklärt ihrem Team die Aufgaben.The boss explains the tasks to her team. (original word order)
die Projektleiterin: subject (nominative), dem neuen Mitarbeiter: indirect object (dative), die Aufgaben: direct object (accusative)
= Ihrem Team erklärt die Chefin die Aufgaben.The boss explains the tasks to her team. (word order 2)
= Die Aufgaben erklärt die Chefin ihrem Team.The boss explains the tasks to her team. (word order 3)

But look what happens if we take the same example in English:

The boss explains the tasks to her team. (original word order)
=/= Her team explains the tasks to the boss. (word order 2)
different meaning; now her team is the subject
=/= The tasks explain the boss to her team. (word order 3)
this word order does not make sense in English

English indicates the case/role of the noun via word order, meaning that the structure of the sentence is fixed. Thanks to the German declension endings, we always know the role of the noun, regardless of its position in the sentence.

We’re not going to cover the specific declension endings here, but you can find and practise them on our pages dedicated to adjectives, pronouns and nouns.

Order of accusative and dative objects

Although German word order is flexible, we have to pay attention to the order of accusative and dative objects.

Generally, the dative comes before the accusative.

Die Teamleiterin erklärt dem neuen Mitarbeiter die Aufgaben.The team lead is explaining the tasks to the new colleague.
dative before accusative

Sometimes we place the accusative object first if it fits better with the previous sentence.

Unser Team hat viele wichtige Aufgaben. Die Teamleiterin erklärt die Aufgaben gerade dem neuen Mitarbeiter.Our team has a lot of important tasks. The team lead is explaining the tasks to the new colleague.
accusative object (die Aufgaben) comes before the dative to refer back to the previous sentence

However: if one of the objects is a personal pronoun, it must come first, regardless of the case.

Die Teamleiterin erklärt ihm die Aufgaben.The team lead explains the tasks to him.
Die Teamleiterin erklärt sie dem neuen Mitarbeiter.The team lead explains them to the new colleague.

If both objects are personal pronouns, the accusative object comes first.

Die Teamleiterin erklärt sie ihm.The team lead explains them to him.
not: Die Teamleiterin erklärt ihm sie.

When to use the German cases

Now you’ve got the basics down, we can look more closely at when to use which case.

In addition to the function of the noun, certain verbs, adjectives and prepositions act as signal words for specific cases, which can make choosing the correct case as a non-native speaker a whole lot easier!

When to use the nominative

The subject of the sentence always appears in the nominative case. In addition, we use the nominative after:

  • the verbs sein, werden and bleiben
Das ist ein großes Problem.This is a big problem.

When to use the accusative

The accusative case is used for the direct object of the sentence. Signal words for the accusative are:

  • all transitive verbs (verbs that take a direct object); common examples include: besuchento visit, essento eat, fragento ask, habento have, kaufento buy, kennento know, sehento see, tragento carry/wear, vergessento forget …
Wir haben viele wichtige Aufgaben.We have a lot of important tasks.
  • with the following prepositions: durchthrough, … entlangalong, fürfor, gegenabout/around, ohnewithout, umaround
Wir fahren durch den Tunnel.We’re driving through the tunnel.

When to use the dative

The dative case is used with an indirect object. Signal words for the dative case are:

  • the following verbs: antwortento answer, dankento thank, folgento follow, gefallento like, gehörento belong, gehorchento obey, glaubento believe, gratulierento congratulate, helfento help, leidtunto be sorry, vertrauento trust, verzeihento forgive, wehtunto hurt, widersprechento contradict, zuhörento listen, zustimmento agree, liegento lay, sitzento sit, stehento stand
Die Klasse hört dem Lehrer zu.The class is listening to the teacher.
  • the following prepositions: ausfrom, aus … herausout of, außerbesides, beiat, dankthanks to, gegenüberopposite, mitwith, nachafter, seitsince, vonfrom, von … ausfrom, zuto, bis zuup to, … zufolgeaccording to
Ich arbeite bei einer großen Firma.I work at a big company.

When to use the genitive

We use the genitive case to express possession as well as with the following signal words:

  • the verbs: jemanden einer Sache anklagen/beschuldigen/bezichtigen/überführento sue/blame/accuse/convince someone of something, sich einer Sache brüsten/enthalten/rühmen/schämen/erinnern/freuento brag about/refrain from/boast about/be ashamed of/remember/be happy about something, einer Sache gedenken/bedürfento commemorate/need something
Der Verdächtige wird des Mordes beschuldigt.The suspect is accused of murder.
  • the adjectives: sich einer Sache bewusst seinto be aware of something, einer Sache kundig/(un)würdig/überdrüssig sein to be knowledgeable/(un)worthy/tired of something
Wir sind uns unserer großen Verantwortung bewusst.We are aware of our big responsibility.
  • certain prepositions of place: außerhalbbeyond/outside of, innerhalbwithin, linksto the left of, nördlichto the north of, oberhalbabove, östlichto the east of, rechtsto the right of, südlichto the south of, unterhalbbelow, westlichto the west of
Meine Stadt liegt nördlich des Flusses.My city is north of the river.
  • certain prepositions of cause and reason: angesichtsin light of, anlässlichon the occasion of, aufgrund/auf Grundbecause of, kraftby virtue of, mangelsfor lack of, trotzdespite, wegenbecause of, zwecksin order to
Trotz des schlechten Wetters gehen wir in den Park.Despite the bad weather we’re still going to the park.
  • prepositions ending in -seits: beiderseitson both sides, diesseitson this side of, jenseitsbeyond
Der Bahnhof liegt diesseits des Flusses.The station is on this side of the river.
  • prepositions that mean regarding or according to: betreffsconcerning, bezüglichregarding, hinsichtlichregarding, lautaccording to
Wir schreiben Ihnen bezüglich ihrer Miete.We are writing to you regarding your rent.
  • other genitive prepositions: abzüglichminus, anhandwith/by means of, anstattinstead, anstelle/an Stelleinstead of, ausschließlichexclusively, einschließlichincluding, entlang …along, exclusiveexcluding, inklusiveincluding, ungeachtetunnoticed, unweitclose, währendduring, zuzüglichplus …
Ein Mitarbeiter ist während des Meetings eingeschlafen.One colleague fell asleep during the meeting.

Exceptions with the genitive prepositions

After certain genitive prepositions (inklusive/einschließlichincluding, exklusive/ausschließlichexcluding, etc.), the noun can stand alone (i.e. without an article or adjective). In this case, we use the dative with plural nouns or the nominative with singular nouns.

Die Bewerbung sollte inklusive Anhängen nicht länger als 10 Seiten sein.The application shouldn’t be longer than ten pages including attachments. (dative)
Die Bewerbung sollte inklusive Anhang nicht länger als 10 Seiten sein.The application shouldn’t be longer than ten pages including the attachment. (nominative)

Check out our German-language page on cases and their signal words to learn more.

Accusative or dative?

Direct vs. indirect object

When a sentence has two objects, we need to decide which one takes the accusative (= direct object) and which takes the dative (= indirect object).

Take a look at the following example:

Die Teamleiterin erklärt dem neuen Mitarbeiter die Aufgaben.The team lead explains the tasks to the new colleague.

The verb erklärento explain takes a direct and an indirect object. This is the same in English; you explain something (= direct object) to someone (= indirect object).

  • The direct object is in the accusative; usually this is something non-living (etwas; in our example: die Aufgaben). Without a direct object, the sentence does not make sense.
Die Teamleiterin erklärt die Aufgaben.The team lead explains the tasks.
but not: Die Teamleiterin erklärt dem neuen Mitarbeiter.
  • The indirect object is in the dative case and is usually a person (jemandem; in our example: dem neuen Mitarbeiter). In English, the indirect object is often introduced by to or for.
Die Teamleiterin erklärt dem neuen Mitarbeiter die Aufgaben.
she explains the tasks to the new colleague

Exceptions: Verbs that take two direct objects

The following verbs always take two accusative objects, even when one thing is a person: abfragento quiz, angehento concern, fragento ask, kostento cost, lehrento teach, nennen/schimpfento call

fragen → Er fragte mich viele komische ask → He asked me a lot of strange questions.
kosten → Es kostet dich richtig viel cost → It will cost you a lot of money.

Which case to use with times in German

We express time (wann?) with the accusative or the dative, depending on the context

  • without a preposition, time markers appear in the accusative
    Jeden Morgen bringt sie Obst mit.Every morning, she brings some fruit.
  • with a preposition, time markers appear in the dative
    Am Morgen bringt sie Obst mit.In the morning, she brings some fruit.
    preposition am = dative

Wo vs. Wohin: Two-way prepositions in German

Certain prepositions of place are followed by the accusative in some sentences and the dative in others. These are known as Wechselpräpositionen or two-way prepositions.

The German two-way prepositions are:

  • an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen

So how do we know when to use the accusative and when to use the dative after a two-way preposition? It depends on whether we are expressing a direction or a position:

  • use the accusative when expressing a direction, movement or motion towards something (wohin?)
Wir gehen heute Abend in die Oper.We’re going to the opera tonight.
Wohin gehen wir?
  • use the dative when expressing a position or location (wo?)
Wir haben deine Eltern in der Oper getroffen.We met your parents at the opera.
Wo haben wir sie getroffen?

Exception: zu

Although the preposition zu expresses a direction (= to), it always takes the dative.

Wir gehen zum Supermarkt.We’re going to the supermarket.
not: zu den Supermarkt.


When the Wechselpräpositionen appear as prepositions of time (wann?), they always take the dative.

Wir treffen uns in einer halben Stunde.We’re meeting in half an hour.
not: in eine halbe Stunde
An meinem Geburtstag sind wir ins Kino gegangen.We went to the cinema on my birthday.
not: an meinen Geburtstag

Verbs & Two-Way Prepositions

hängen, stecken & lehnen

The verbs hängento hang, steckento put and lehnento lean take two-way prepositions because they can express a direction or a location.

  • When these verbs don’t take a direct object, they express a location, so we use the dative after the preposition.
Das Bild hängt an der Wand.The picture is hanging on the wall.
wo hängt das Bild?
  • When these verbs take a direct object or a reflexive pronoun (mich, dich, etc.), they express a direction, so we use the accusative after the preposition.
Ich hänge das Bild an die Wand.I’m going to hang this picture on the wall.
wohin kommt das Bild?

Easily Confused Pairs

The verbs liegen/legento lay/to lie, stehen/stellento stand/to put and sitzen/setzento sit/to set down are often easily mixed up.

  • The verbs liegen, stehen and sitzen express a location, so we use the dative after the preposition.
Die Vase steht auf dem Tisch.The vase is on the table.
wo befindet sich die Vase?
  • The verbs legen, stellen and setzen take a direct object and have a similar meaning to the English put or place. They therefore show a direction, meaning we use the accusative after the preposition.
Ich stelle die Vase auf den Tisch.I’ll put the vase on the table.
wohin kommt die Vase?

Which case to use after als

In phrases with als (e.g. du als mein bester Freundyou as my best friend), we keep the same case as the word to which als is referring.

Du als mein bester Freund solltest das wissen.As my best friend, you should know that. (nominative)
Dich als meinen besten Freund würde ich nie verraten.I would never betray you, as my best friend. (accusative)
Von dir als meinem besten Freund hätte ich das nicht erwartet.I would not have expected that from you as my best friend. (dative)

The exception is when als is refers to a word in the genitive. In this case, we use the nominative after als.

Der Vortrag des Produktionsleiters als erfahrenster Mitarbeiter der Firma war sehr interessant.As the most experienced person at the company, the head of production’s lecture was very interesting.

If the phrase starts with a definite article in the genitive (des, der …), we also use genitive after als, but this form is rare.

Der Vortrag des Produktionsleiters als des erfahrensten Mitarbeiters der Firma war sehr interessant.As the most experienced person at the company, the head of production’s lecture was very interesting.

Guide to German declension

Now you’ve got the basics of cases covered, it’s time to look at word endings and declension. There’s a lot to bear in mind, so we’ve broken down this topic according to the individual word types so you can learn and practise step-by-step: