They are Nominative, Akkusative, Dative, and genitive.
So let’s begin with the first Case.
The Nominative Case.
Section 1: The Basics
What you need to know to start getting the hang of the nominative case
I’m going to assume you’ve been learning German nouns. And hopefully, you’ve been pairing each one with a der, die, or das (<– if not, start that now! I’ll tell you why!).
The vast majority of the time, when we use a German noun in a given sentence, we have to indicate two things about that noun, namely, its …
There’s truly no good reason for German nouns to have a gender — that’s just the way it is. Every noun has one of 3 genders: masculine, feminine, or neuter.
We see this reflected in the words der (masculine), die (feminine), and das (neuter).
While the noun’s gender is pretty meaningless (but still has to be accounted for — rats!), the noun’s case is VERY important information.
What is a noun case?
Knowing the assigned (and predictable, but rarely intuitive) gender of each German noun is half of the battle of using a noun in a sentence.
The other half: plugging that noun into the German case system.
Cases can be a bit of a scary topic for English-speakers learning German, but I have simplified it for you as much as possible! Promise!
‘Cases’ is a grammar term for ‘slots’ in a sentence that gets filled up with nouns.
Which ‘slot’ the noun goes into depends on what role that noun is performing in the sentence.
In German, we have 4 different roles a noun might play. This means there are 4 different cases we need to choose between to find the right ‘slot’ for each noun in our sentence.
Why the case is important
German and English structure sentences very differently and understanding how & why is essential.
In English, we use word order to indicate the role of each noun (or who is doing what to whom, for example).
If we say the man owes the woman a thousand dollars, that means something very different from the woman who owes the man a thousand dollars, right? Why?
Because of word order. That’s all that changed: the man and the woman simply swapped places … but then the whole meaning changed!
But in German, making those same word swappers wouldn’t change the meaning at all. Whoa! That’s cool. Check it out:
The meaning of both of these sentences is still that the man owes the woman (and before you think ‘der Frau’ was a typo, read my Dative Case Guide; otherwise, just trust me for now!).
German has more flexible word order precisely because of the case system!
Der Mann and der Frau are in distinctly different cases. Any German would know that it’s the man who is the subject (nominative) and the woman who is the indirect object (dative). But how so?
Section 2: Putting it into practice
When & how to use the nominative case.
So, you know how to say the 3 versions of the in the nominative case: der, die, das.
That’s a great start, but … how do you say other things in the nominative case? Like this table (is short) or that door (is brown) or which pillow (is mine)?
I’m so glad you asked!
Just like there are different ways of saying ‘the’ in German, there are also different ways of saying words such as this, that, which, some, many, each/every, and all.
And what makes them different? You got it! The gender and case of the noun the follows.
We’ve got to put declensions on words such as this, that, some, many, etc. In fact, we need to put declensions on some additional words, too (and we’ll cover that!).
REMEMBER: declensions tell us the case of the noun (e.g. nominative), which is crucial to understanding the meaning of the sentence.
(And, yes, declensions tell us the gender of the noun, too; but that doesn’t actually impact the meaning of anything — it’s just a wacky thing about German nouns that we have to deal with.)
Let’s dig into which declensions are used in the nominative case and how shall we?
How to Use the Nominative Case
In order to properly signal that a noun (e.g. Mann) is the subject in the nominative ‘slot’, you need to know the right declensions to use.
Here is a snippet of the All-In-One Chart from above, now just for the nominative case:
- the gender of the noun (<– knew that)
- which case it’s in (<– knew that)
- what type of words are in front of the noun (<– that’s new!)
- how many of each type are in front of the noun (<– that’s new!)
Yikes! That might sound intense, but a few principles & patterns are all you need for smooth sailing in the nominative case (and in the others!). Here we go!
Words that need declensions
There are TWO types of words that come in front of nouns: determiners and adjectives.
Determiners are little words (a the, some, many, all, every, etc.) that tell us how many or which one.
Adjectives are words that describe some feature of the noun (e.g. big, flat, rough, new, green, etc.).
In German, when we put a noun into the nominative ‘slot’ in our sentence, the determiner and/or adjective(s) will take the specific declensions that say ‘hey! this noun following is a masculine noun and it’s in the nominative case!’
Notice the -r and -e:
Der nette Mann heißt Berti. (The nice man is named Berti.)
Nominative Case Declensions
All determiners and adjectives used to indicate gender / case work with just two types of declensions: strong & weak.
Strong declensions better (but not flawlessly) indicate the gender/case of the noun because they are the most varied.
Weak declensions do not indicate the gender/case of the noun because they have almost no variation (there are just two options for any gender/case combo: -e or -n).
Note that the nominative case weak declensions are all the same for singular nouns (plurals here are the oddball with a weak -n declension).
Notice that there is more variety with the strong declensions!
Do you see how der fits under the in the masculine? And how die fits under the in the feminine? And how das fits under the in the neuter? (And then it’s die in the plural again; more on this below in the Common Mistakes section.)
That means that the -r, -e, and -s endings you see on the words der, die, das are strong declensions!
Use This Chart with Other Determiners
Let’s look at some other determiners plugged into the chart. Here are their basic, ‘root’ forms that we then add the declensions to: dies- (this), jen- (that), jed- (every)
masculine: dieser Tisch (this table), jener Tisch (that table), jeder Tisch (every table)
feminine: diese Tür (this door), jene Tür (that door), jede Tür (every door)
neuter: dieses Kissen (this pillow), jenes Kissen (that pillow), jedesKissen (every pillow)
Do you see the strong endings on each of the determiners? (bolded)
Do you also see how each time there’s an ‘e’ inserted between the ‘root’ determiner and the strong declension? Good eye!
Except when we’re saying ‘the’ (der, die, das) OR when an ‘e’ is the declension itself, we have to always add an ‘e’ between the determiner (e.g. dies-) and the declension (e.g. -r, combined: diesEr).
I leave the ‘e’s out of the chart so it doesn’t look so visually overwhelming. And to honor the special rules that apply when saying ‘the’ — because even though the vowels change, the declensions stay the same and that’s the main point!
So, know you understand the strong declensions in the nominative case … but what about the weak ones? And what’s the deal with the no declensions?? Well, that’s up next!
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