What are cases?

Every word has a function in a sentence. Sometimes, we can take words away and the sentence still makes sense. However, at other times, some words are essential for the sentence to not sound 'odd.' Say the sentence "I gave the book" - we would think it weird and not making much sense, "gave the book to who?"

As long as we accept that words perform a function within a sentence, then we can group these words under different headings according to their function; it helps us to think about how the grammatical structure of the sentence works. Now if we ignore all other categories apart from nouns, we can subdivide them into roughly four different sub-groups in German. Let's use the sentence above: "I gave Tom's book to my sister." The nouns here are: "I," "sister," "book," and "Tom." Now, here is where it gets a bit tricky.


1) "I" am the person doing the verb, because I was the one who gave the book to my sister. 

2) "The book" is affected by the verb, because it is the thing that was given to my sister. 

3) "My sister" is also implicated, in a way, by the verb, because she is the one who receives the book, or the one who was given the book.

4) "Tom" is involved, too, though probably not directly. His role is only to tell us more information about the book. It belongs to Tom, it is his possession. (If we substituted "Tom's" with "the," the sentence would still make sense.)

How does this link to cases?

1) So, when something or someone carries out the action (verb), we call that thing the SUBJECT. The subject is in the NOMINATIVE case. (This is just a jargon).

2) When something is affected directly by the verb, as in the action is done upon it, then we call it the DIRECT OBJECT. The direct object is in the ACCUSATIVE case.

3) When a verb, like "give" requires another object, one that is affected by the action but the action is not performed on it, then this is the INDIRECT OBJECT. The indirect object is in the DATIVE CASE. (Think back to the first example and how it made no sense because we would be left wondering to whom the book was given)

4) GENITIVE is the last one. It shows a possessive relationship between two things, so in our example, this would be "Tom's book" (or the book of Tom). Usually, if you see the word "of" you can be pretty sure it takes the genitive. There are anomalies to this of course! 

Cases are very important in most languages, and especially in German because words change forms depending on the function it plays in the sentence. If words change, this can mean that the order of words need not be so rigid for the sentence to retain its meaning. In poetry, for instance, this can generate interesting play on words that other languages cannot because they rely a lot more on word order.

This is only an introduction, and there are a lot more to cover when it comes to cases. But I hoped this has helped at least a little bit and offers a foundation for later. 

Marcus L. Mentoring -Oxbridge Preparation- tutor, Uni Admissions Test...

1 year ago

Answered by Marcus, an A Level German tutor with MyTutor

Still stuck? Get one-to-one help from a personally interviewed subject specialist


£20 /hr

Christopher D.

Degree: International Relations with Year Abroad (Bachelors) - Durham University

Subjects offered: German


“I’m Chris, I’m a student of International Relations at Durham University, currently studying abroad in Germany, providing tuition for any exam board or level.”

MyTutor guarantee

£22 /hr

Luthien C.

Degree: Applied Human Rights (Masters) - York University

Subjects offered: German, History+ 1 more

English Literature

“About me: Hi! My name is Luthien and I am currently working towards a Masters degree in Applied Human Rights at the University of York. I have a Bachelors degree in History and German from the University of Durham (First Class Honours...”

£20 /hr

Lottie M.

Degree: French and Spanish (Bachelors) - Oxford, St Edmund Hall University

Subjects offered: German, Spanish+ 3 more

.MLAT (Modern Languages)

“I am a French and Spanish student at the University of Oxford, currently on my year abroad in Salamanca in Spain. Languages have always sparked a real passion in me, and I hope that my love for my subject will inspire you too! Whilst ...”

About the author

Marcus L.

Currently unavailable: for new students

Degree: German and Italian (Bachelors) - Oxford, Magdalen College University

Subjects offered: German, Maths+ 4 more

English Literature
English Language
.MLAT (Modern Languages)

“i there! My name is Marcus and I am a current 3rd-year undergraduate at Oxford reading for a BA in Medieval and Modern Languages”

You may also like...

Posts by Marcus

But how can we be sure that is what the author intended?

What are cases?

Other A Level German questions

How do I form the conditional tense in German, and how do I construct an ‘if’ clause?

What are cases?

How do I form the passive voice?

How do you structure an essay in German?

View A Level German tutors


We use cookies to improve our service. By continuing to use this website, we'll assume that you're OK with this. Dismiss