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How to Use the Dative Case in German – In-Depth Guide [with Charts]

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You’ll need to learn the dative case in German to build German sentences. It’s used to indicate the indirect object of a sentence. It’s also used after certain verbs and prepositions. Often, you use the German dative where in English you would use the words “to” or “for”.

The indirect object of a sentence is the recipient or beneficiary of the described action. For example, in the English sentence “I gave the dog the ball”, the ball is the direct object of the verb and the dog is the indirect object.

In English, we indicate the indirect object using word order, or with prepositions like “to” – the above sentence could be rephrased as “I gave the ball to the dog.” In German, you convey the same information using case. Direct objects use the accusative case, and indirect objects use the dative case.

“I gave the dog the ball” translates to Ich gab dem Hund den Ball. (Remember that all nouns in German are always capitalised.) Notice the two different words for “the”: den Ball (accusative) but dem Hund (dative). This extra information means you can swap the nouns around – ich gab den Ball dem Hund – and still get the same meaning, which wouldn’t work in English. In this case, you can think of the dative article dem as meaning “to the”.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:

German Dative Articles

Every German noun has a gender – masculine, feminine or neutral.

Hund in the above example is a masculine noun, which is why we use dem, the masculine form of the dative article. To use the dative correctly, you must use the correct form of “the” or “a” for the given noun’s gender.

(Plurality is also important, but there’s only one form of the plural article for each case, regardless of gender.)

Masculine Neutral Feminine Plural
the dem dem der den
a einem einem einer einen

Notice how there’s no difference between the masculine and neuter dative articles.

Also, make sure you don’t get confused by the fact that some of these articles can have other meanings. Den, for example, is the dative plural form of “the” but also the accusative masculine form. For a full explanation, see the Fluent in 3 Months guide to German articles.

See how the dative article is used in these examples:

  • Ich schickte dem Mann einen Brief. – “I sent the man a letter.” (Mann is masculine.)
  • Ich werde der Frau eine Nachricht geben. – “I will give the woman a message.” (Frau is feminine.)
  • Ich überreiche dem Kind eine Blume. – “I hand the child a flower.” (Kind is neuter.)

Traditionally, monosyllabic masculine or neuter nouns like Mann or Kind should be written with an extra “e” on the end when they’re dative: dem Manne and dem Kinde.

Nowadays this sounds quite formal or poetic and isn’t really used, except in some set phrases like zu Hause (“at home”), im Zuge (“during”, “in the course of”), and am Tage (“during the day”). Another place it appears is in Dem deutschen Volke, “for the German people”, the iconic words on the front of the Reichstag.

The dative article dem takes an abbreviated form when used with certain prepositions:

  • in + dem = im
  • an + dem = am
  • zu + dem = zum
  • von + dem = vom
  • bei + dem = beim

Additionally, zu combined with der becomes zur.

German Dative Pronouns

Personal pronouns like “I” and “you” also have dative forms that must be learned:

Nominative Dative
I ich mir
You (singular) du dir
He er ihm
She sie ihr
It es ihm
We wir uns
You (plural) ihr euch
They sie ihnen
You (formal) Sie Ihnen

See how a dative pronoun is used in these example sentences:

  • Ich werde dir den Katalog senden. – “I’ll send you the catalogue.”
  • Du hast mir gesagt, dass du weißt. – “You told me that you know.”
  • Geb uns den Namen. – “Give us the name.”

German Dative Verbs

Some German verbs always take a dative noun (or pronoun) as their object, even if the English sentence suggests a direct object.

For example, helfen (“to help”) and danken (“to thank”) are two such verbs:

  • Er kann dir nicht helfen. – “He can’t help you.”
  • Ich danke dir. – “I thank you.”

In both of these cases, we use the dative dir, not the accusative dich.

The most common of the German verbs that take the dative case are:

  • antworten – “to answer”
  • danken – “to thank”
  • fehlen – “to be missing”
  • folgen – “to follow”
  • gefallen – “to be liked by, pleasing to” (see also missfallen, “to be disliked by”)
  • gehören – “to belong to”
  • glauben – “to believe”
  • helfen – “to help”
  • passieren – “to happen (to)”
  • verzeihen – “to pardon, forgive”
  • wehtun – “to hurt”

Here are some more example sentences:

  • Der Rock gehört dem Mädchen. – “The skirt belongs to the girl.”
  • Die Polizei folgt mir. – “The police are following me.”
  • Dein Kleid gefällt mir. – “I like your dress.” (literally: “Your dress pleases me.”)
  • Was fehlt dir? – “What’s wrong?” or “What’s the matter with you?” (literally: “What’s missing to you?”)

Watch out as well for Leid tun, which roughly means “to do pain to”. It appears in the common German expression es tut mir Leid! (“I’m sorry!”)

The following German dative verbs are less common than the above, but should still be learned:

  • ähneln – “to resemble”
  • befehlen – “to command, order”
  • begegnen – “to encounter, meet”
  • bleiben – “to remain”
  • dienen – “to serve”
  • drohen – “to threaten”
  • einfallen – “to occur to, think of”
  • erlauben – “to allow”
  • gehorchen – “to obey”
  • gelingen – “to succeed”
  • genügen – “to be enough”
  • geraten – “to turn out well”
  • geschehen – “to happen”
  • gleichen – “to be like”
  • glücken – “to be lucky”
  • gratulieren – “to congratulate”
  • lauschen – “to overhear”
  • misslingen – “to fail”
  • munden – “to taste”
  • nützen – “to be of use”
  • passen – “to fit, suit”
  • raten – “to advise”
  • schaden – “to harm”
  • schmecken – “to taste”
  • schmeicheln – “to flatter”
  • trauen or vertrauen – “to trust”
  • widersprechen – “to contradict”
  • winken – “to wave at/to”
  • zürnen – “to be angry with”

German Dative Adjectives

A common German expression that uses the dative is ist mir egal, which means “I don’t mind”. A more literal translation would be “it’s equal/indifferent to me”.

Did you notice the dative mir in that sentence? Egal is an example of a German adjective that goes paired with a dative, and there are many more:

  • Das war ihm verständlich. – “He understood that.”
  • Das war ihr schon bewusst. – “She already knew that.”
  • Ist das dir unerwünscht? – “Do you not want that?

It might be easier to understand why a dative is used if you translate these sentences word-for-word. For example, das war ihm verständlich literally means “that was understandable to him.” Often, these dative adjectives require a phrasing that’s quite different to how you’d naturally say it in English.

Some of the more common dative adjectives are:

  • angenehm – “pleasant”
  • bekannt – “well-known”
  • bequem – “comfortable”
  • bewusst – “aware”
  • böse – “angry”
  • dankbar – “grateful”
  • egal – “indifferent”
  • fremd – “strange”
  • gleich – “equal”
  • heiß – “hot”
  • kalt – “cold”
  • klar – “clear”
  • lieb – “kind”
  • möglich – “possible”
  • nahe – “near”
  • peinlich – “embarrassing”
  • recht – “right”
  • schlecht – “bad”
  • schuldig – “guilty”
  • schwindelig – “dizzy”
  • süß – “sweet”
  • teuer – “expensive”
  • unerwünscht – “unwanted”
  • unwohl – “unwell”
  • verständlich – “understandable”
  • warm – “warm”
  • wert – “valued”
  • wichtig – “important”
  • ähnlich – “similar”
  • übel – “ill”

German Dative Prepositions

There are nine German prepositions that must always be followed by the dative case:

  • aus – “out of, from” → geh mir aus dem Weg! – “Get out of the way!”
  • bei – “at, among, with” → Ich wohne bei meinem Freund. – “I live with my boyfriend.”
  • mit – “with” → Sie können mit ihm diskutieren. – “You can discuss it with him.”
  • nach – “after” → Nach dem Unterricht treffen wir. – “We’re meeting after class.”
  • seit – “since” → ich bin hier seit einem Jahr – “I’ve been here for a year” (literally: “I am here since one year.”)
  • von – “from, of” → Ich habe es von meinem Bruder gehört. – “I heard it from my brother.”
  • zu – “to, at” → Wir gehen zum Festival. – “We’re going to the festival.”
  • gegenüber (von) – “opposite” → Er wohnt der Schule gegenüber. – “He lives opposite the school.” (See note below.)
  • außer – “except, apart from” → Alle außer ihm gab mir ein Geschenk. – “Everyone but him gave me a gift.”

Note: Gegenüber is an unusual case because it traditionally goes after the noun. You can see it in the above example: er wohnt der Schule gegenüber. However, in modern German it’s common to place it before the noun, optionally followed by von. So you can also say er wohnt gegenüber (von) der Schule.

There are another four prepositions which, strictly speaking, should be followed by the genitive case:

  • [an]statt – “in place of”,
  • trotz – “in spite of”
  • während – “during”
  • wegen – “because of”

However, these days the genitive isn’t used much in everyday spoken German. It’s very common to use the dative case with these four prepositions too. So for example, “during the day” is often said as während dem Tag instead of the more formal während des Tages.

German Accusative Vs. Dative Prepositions

Some German prepositions take either a dative or accusative, where the case you use affects the meaning. These are the “two-way prepositions”, and there are ten of them:

  • an – “on (a vertical surface)”
  • auf – “on top of (horizontal surface)”
  • hinter – “behind”
  • in – “in, into”
  • neben – “next to”
  • entlang – “along”
  • über – “above”
  • unter – “under”
  • vor – “in front of”
  • zwischen – “between”

(Note: The given translations for all these prepositions should only be taken as rough guides. In fact, there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between English and German prepositions.

To give just one example, in English we say “in English”. But in German, you say something auf a given language. So “say it in German!” translates to “sag es auf Deutsch!”)

So what’s the difference between the accusative in die Stadt and the dative in der Stadt? (Stadt means “city”.)

  • Use the dative to describe a static position.
  • Use the accusative to describe a change in position.

For example:

  • Ich setze den Stift auf den Tisch. – “I put the pen on the table.”
  • Der Stift steht auf dem Tisch. – “The pen is on the table.”

In the first example, the pen has changed position, so we use the accusative. In the second example, the pen is static, so we use the dative.

It’s important to understand that the accusative is not simply used to denote “movement”. What matters is not whether the described object moves at all, but whether its position changes relative to the other object.

Compare the following two sentences:

  • Die Kinder sind im Garten gelaufen. – “The children ran in the garden.”
  • Die Kinder sind in den Garten gelaufen. – “The children ran into the garden”.

In the first sentence, the Kinder are moving, but their position doesn’t change relative to the Garten: they start and finish inside the garden. So we use the dative im (which, remember, is a contraction of in and dem.)

In the second sentence, there’s a change of position. The children weren’t in the garden before, but they are now. So we use the accusative in den.

German Dative for Body Parts and Clothing

When describing an action performed upon your whole body, use the accusative:

  • Ich wasche mich – “I wash myself” (mich is accusative)

However, if you want to specify a particular part of the body or an item of clothing, the formulation is somewhat different to English. Rather than saying “my hands”, say “the hands”. Refer to yourself in the dative:

  • Ich wasche mir die Hände. – “I wash my hands.” (literally: “I wash to myself the hands.”)
  • Er hat ihm ins Bein geschnitten. – “He has cut his leg.” (literally: “He has cut to himself the leg.”)
  • Du ziehst dir die Schuhe aus. – “You take your shoes off.” (literally: “You take to yourself the shoes off.”)
  • Sie wird sich die Brille aufsetzen. – “She will put her glasses on.” (literally: “She will to herself the glasses put on.”)

Now You Can Use the Dative Case in German

The above should be everything you need to start using the dative case in German.

German cases can be challenging. If you feel like you would take them on more easily as part of a team, check out the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge!

However, if you would like a break from grammar rules, you could turn to vocabulary. What if you started by checking if you know all of these 12+ ways to say “please” and “thank you” in German?

Viel Glück! (“Good luck!”)

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George Julian

Content Writer, Fluent in 3 Months

George is a polyglot, linguistics nerd and travel enthusiast from the U.K. He speaks four languages and has dabbled in another five, and has been to more than forty countries. He currently lives in London.

Speaks: English, French, Spanish, German, Vietnamese, Portuguese

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