German Cases Edit

In English, the words "he" and "I" can be used as subjects (the ones doing the action in a sentence), and they change to "him" and "me" when they are objects (the ones the action is applied to). For example, we say "He likes me" and "I like him." This is exactly the notion of a "grammatical case:" the same word changes its form depending on its relationship to the verb. In English, only pronouns have cases, but in German most words other than verbs have cases: nouns, pronouns, determiners, adjectives, etc.

Understanding the four German cases is one of the biggest hurdles in learning the language. The good news is that most words change very predictably so you only have to memorize a small set of rules. We'll see more about cases later, but for now you just need to understand the difference between the two simplest cases: nominative and accusative.

The subject of a sentence (the one doing the action) is in the nominative case. So when we say "Die Frau spielt" (the woman plays), "Frau" is in the nominative.

The accusative object is the thing or person that is directly receiving the action. For example, in "Der Lehrer sieht den Ball" (the teacher sees the ball), "Lehrer" is the nominative subject and "Ball" is the accusative object. Notice that the articles for accusative objects are not the same as the articles in the nominative case: "the" is "der" in the nominative case and "den" in the accusative. The following table shows how the articles change based on these two cases:


Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative der die das die
Accusative den die das die
Case Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative ein eine ein
Accusative einen eine ein

The fact that most words in German are affected by the case explains why the sentence order is more flexible than in English. For example, you can say "Das Mädchen hat den Apfel" (the girl has the apple) or "Den Apfel hat das Mädchen." In both cases, "den Apfel" (the apple) is the accusative object, and "das Mädchen" is the nominative subject.

Conjugations of the verb sein (to be) Edit

The verb "sein" (to be) is irregular, and its conjugations simply need to be memorized:

German English
ich bin I am
du bist you (singular informal) are
er/sie/es ist he/she/it is
wir sind we are
ihr seid you (plural informal) are
sie sind they are
Sie sind you (formal) are

Conjugations of the verb essen (to eat) Edit

The verb "essen" (to eat) is slightly irregular in that the stem vowel changes from e to i in the second (du isst) and third person singular (er/sie/es isst) forms.

English person ending German example
I -e ich esse
you (singular informal) -st du isst
he/she/it -t er/sie/es isst
we -en wir essen
you (plural informal) -t ihr esst
you (formal) -en Sie essen
they -en sie essen

How can you hear the difference between isst and ist? Edit

You can't. "isst" and "ist" sound exactly the same. In colloquial (rapid) speech, some speakers drop the "t" in "ist".

So "Es ist ein Apfel" and "Es isst ein Apfel" sound the same?

Yes, but you can tell it's "Es ist ein Apfel" because "Es isst ein Apfel" is ungrammatical. The accusative of "ein Apfel" is "einen Apfel". Hence, "It is eating an apple" translates as "Es isst einen Apfel."

The verb haben (to have) Edit

In English, you can say "I'm having bread" when you really mean that you're eating or about to eat bread. This does not work in German. The verb haben refers to possession only. Hence, the sentence Ich habe Brot only translates to I have bread, not I'm having bread. Of course, the same applies to drinks. Ich habe Wasser only translates to I have water, not I'm having water.

English person ending German example
I -e ich habe
you (singular informal) -st du hast
he/she/it -t er/sie/es hat
we -en wir haben
you (plural informal) -t ihr habt
you (formal) -en Sie haben
they -en sie haben
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