Wednesday, February 18, 2015

How to Memorize German Cases

German presents a bewildering combination of attributes: masculine, feminine, neuter, plural, nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, which combine in complicated ways across nouns, pronouns, determiners, and adjectives. Remembering how they all go together seems almost impossible. To make this easier, I've taken a shot at identifying the underlying patterns to make it easier to memorize all of this.

To speak well, you must reach the point where you generate the correct forms without thinking about it, but it helps a lot to have some rules to follow in the meantime. A useful tip is don't try to learn all the rules at once. Instead, as you find things that confuse you, refer back to the tables and memorize a bit more of them. For example, if you already know about masculine, feminine, and neuter, and you have just discovered that there is an accusative case in addition to the nominative one, then look at the tables below but ignore the dative and genitive rows for now.

What Do All These Things Even Mean?

Obviously if you don't even know what "nominative" or "accusative" mean in the first place, these explanations will do you very little good. I'll give a quick explanation in terms of English. I'm only going to explain the main uses of case, so don't be surprised when you learn there are others.

I'm going to assume that you already know the difference between singular and plural, and that you have already figured out that German has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

In English, only personal pronouns (I, me, you, he, him, etc.) have case. Case is what makes "he" different from "him" and "she" different from "her." You would never say "*Him called she," and that's because the subject of the sentence has to be in the nominative case and the direct object has to be in the accusative case.  The subject is whatever performed the action of the verb. If the verb is "called" then "he" did the calling, so he is in the nominative case. The direct object is the thing directly affected by the verb. "She" is nominative case, so we need the accusative form, her. "He called her" is the grammar English requires, so if you speak English, you already know a little bit about case--you just didn't realize it.

Indirect objects in English also get the accusative case. You say "He gave her the letter" not "*He gave she the letter." The letter is the thing that got given, so it's the direct object. The woman is only indirectly affected, so "her" is the indirect object.

The other place you can get case is from a preposition. If you're talking about a horse, you could say "the saddle is on him" but not "*the saddle is on he". English prepositions always take the accusative case--just like direct and indirect objects do.

From this, it's kind of obvious that English only has two cases: Nominative and accusative. It's also obvious that they only apply to pronouns. In German, not only do the personal pronouns have case, so do the adjectives and (to a limited extent) the nouns as well. Also, in addition to the nominative and accusative cases, German also has a dative case for indirect objects and a genitive case to indicate possession. Finally, different prepositions require different cases.

That's all stuff you learn as part of learning German. There's a nice, lengthy description of what German case is all about on the site, if you want more details.

Beyond this point, I'm going to assume you know all about what this stuff is for and that your main goal is how to memorize all of it.

The Basic Pattern

The Der Words

People talk a lot about the "der words," which are the words like der, dieser, jeder, welcher etc. They are what linguists call determiners, which you can think of as a special kind of adjective that comes at the start of a noun phrase. (The determiner comes first, then all the adjectives, and the noun comes last--just like in English.) You usually hit them right off the bat because "the" is such an important word.

They all follow this pattern:

Der WordsSingularPlural

Almost everything else in the world of German case will follow some variation on this pattern. In a very real sense, this table is 90% of what you need to memorize, so learn it and learn it well. My strategy was to try to write this chart from memory every morning before starting my German lessons. It only takes a few seconds, and it's well worth it.

Ironically, der itself  is slightly irregular. Neuter Nominative/Accusative is das not des, and Feminine/Plural is die not de. Since these are some of the most common words in the language, memorizing them isn't a big deal. Most of the other der words follow the table above perfectly, but you'll need to learn exceptions as you come to them.

Here are some simple observations on the table above that may make it easier to memorize:
  • There are no genders in the plural--only in the singular.
  • The accusative only exists as a separate case for the masculine singular.
  • There are effectively only two cases for the feminine.
  • In the dative and genitive, there are effectively only two genders.
The nominative and accusative of the feminine are the same as for the plural, but I don't suggest making a big deal out of that because it fails when we get to weak forms of adjectives.

The Ein words

These are also determiners. Ein, kein, mein, dein, etc. are all ein words. They follow almost exactly the same pattern as the der words except that two of the masculine and neuter forms lose their endings entirely.

Ein WordsSingularPlural

Pay attention to those two empty slots: we're going to say that those are places where the determiner is "weak." That is, we'll say that einen, einem, eines, eine, and einer are "strong" but ein is "weak." This will matter when we talk about adjectives later.

Personal Pronouns

These are the words like he, she, it, me, etc. I'm going to do two very unorthodox things here: first, I'm going to treat the third-person personal pronouns separately from the rest. Second, I'm going to replace the genitive with the possessive. I'm a linguist, and I know that's wrong in linguistic terms, but for the purpose of memorization, I think it helps a lot. You'll see why.

Third-person personal pronouns

I think one place a lot of textbooks go wrong is that they try to treat all the personal pronouns at once. This is a big mistake because it crams the different kinds of third-person pronouns into two cells and completely obscures the fact that they follow almost the same pattern as the der words.

3rd Person

I have replaced the genitive case with the possessive here because the real genitive personal pronouns are almost obsolete.  This is another chart worth producing from memory every morning for a while.

The words on the possessives row mean "his," "her," and "their." Unlike the other words in the table, they get further modified based on the gender, number, and case of the thing being possessed, and they follow the pattern of the ein words above. So "his cat" (in the nominative) is seine Katze; the possessor (masculine) determines which pronoun and the object (feminine) determines the ending.

If you really do need the genitive pronouns for some reason, just add -er to the words on the bottom row. That gives you seiner and ihrer.

First and Second-Person Personal Pronouns

The first and second-person pronouns follow a completely different pattern. They have to. 

1st Person2nd Person1st Person2nd Person

They don't fit the pattern, of course, because they have no gender. You learn them quite early when you study German, and the fact that they follow such a different pattern from everything else doubtless causes lots of confusion. It helps to know they're their own thing.

As with the third-person pronouns, each of the words on the possessive row generates a whole set of ein words. This is another chart worth trying to write from memory every morning.

Again, if you really need the genitive personal pronouns for some reason, add -er to the words that don't already end in -er. That gives you meiner, deiner, unser, and euer


Strong  forms of adjectives

An adjective is "strong" when it has a weak ein word in front of it or when it doesn't have any determiner at all. For example, "I like red apples." (Remember that a weak ein word is one that doesn't have any ending on it.)

Strong Form

Notice that these are exactly like the der words except for the Masculine/Neuter Genitive (in bold). I'm told that even native Germans sometimes make the mistake of using -es instead of -en for these.

The way to think of this is that the information in the der-word table has to be conveyed somehow, and if the determiner is weak or absent, then the adjective has to do it. (As long as the leader is strong, everyone else can be weak.)

Weak forms of adjectives

When an adjective has a der word or a strong ein word in front of it, it takes a much simpler set of endings.

Weak Form

If it weren't for the masculine accusative, this would be really simple. This is the last chart worth trying to write from memory every morning.

Some books talk about a "mixed" form, and they have a separate table to show what happens to adjectives when they follow one of the ein words. That saves remembering that some ein words are weak (but you have to learn that anyway) at the expense of having to memorize yet another table. (I took this idea from Hammer's German Grammar and Usage, Chapter 6.2 "The Use of the Strong and Weak Declensions.") There are other weak determiners, with their own patterns. (For example etwas takes no endings at all.) Hammer's rule of "use the strong adjective ending when the determiner has no ending and use the weak ending when the determiner has a der-word ending" works very well for those too.

So what happens if you have two or more adjectives in a row? They all take their form from the determiner, not from each other.


Everything keys off the der words. Learn those well. They aren't a perfect guide, but they're awfully good. Learn the exceptions as you come to them.

Good luck!