If you ask students who are learning German the question „What is the hardest part about learning German”, many of them will say (without hesitation) “The cases!” A simple way to describe the cases is, that they demonstrate the relationship between nouns or pronouns in a sentence. Unfortunately, there are other elements in a sentence that trigger certain cases, (e.g. prepositions), but many times, examining the relationship between the nouns helps us identify the cases. So, let’s break it down. Take this sentence for example:
“The father gives his son a present.”
How do we know what noun is what case?
To identify the subject, ask yourself: Who (or what) is doing something in this sentence? Who is acting or who is “verbing”. In the above example, it is “the father.” The father is the subject, so he will be in the nominative case. The subject is always in the nominative case.
To identify the direct object, ask yourself two questions: First, ask “what is the subject doing?” In the above example, the answer is “he gives”. The second question is “what does he give?”. The answer is “a present”. Because “the present” is the object in this sentence that is being “verbed” (here: given), it is the direct object, hence, the accusative.
To identify the indirect object, ask yourself “to whom is the subject (father) giving the direct object (the gift)? “ The answer is “to his son”. The son is the indirect object, hence, the dative.
This sentence does not have a noun in the genitive (the “of the” case).
Intimately connected to the cases are the genders of the nouns, as they dictate what articles to use and how they change. The best way to learn the genders? By heart. When you learn vocabulary, always learn genders (as well as their plural spelling). There are some rules, too, which are helpful to know, but it’s hard to memorize them all, and exceptions exist.
There are three nouns in the above sentence: The father, his son, and a present. “father” is a masculine noun (der/ein Vater), “son” is also a masculine noun (der/ein” Sohn), and “gift” is a neutral noun (das/ein Geschenk).
Step 3: Pay attention to the articles.
Both in English and German, there are different articles and determiners, and the way we use them is very similar. You can eat “the” apple, “an” apple, “your” apple, or “no” apple. In the above example, notice that each noun comes with a different article: “The” father, “his” son and “a” present. This is important. The context and the meaning of the sentence change when we change the articles. Try to think about the context of these two sentences: “A father gives no son the present”, or “My father gives my son no present.” It is important to pay close attention to the article used (or desired). Each article changes differently as it is used in the various cases, and this is where the charts come in handy. We need to know how the definite article changes in each case, how the indefinite article changes in each case, how the possessive article changes in each case, and so on. Memorizing these changes is hard in the beginning, but the more you practice them in action (such as the sentence), the right article will come faster and more intuitively.
Step 4: Put it all together.
Now that we have determined the gender and case of each noun, we can try to translate the sentence. “the father”, is a masculine noun, using a definite article, in the nominative (because it is the subject), hence, it is “der Vater”. “his son” is also a masculine noun, using a possessive article, but it is the indirect object, so it is in the dative: “seinem Sohn”. “a gift” is a neutral noun, using an indefinite article, and is the accusative (direct object): “ein Geschenk”.
Another part that might be confusing is word order. In regular word order, if all nouns appear in full (article + noun) and are not replaced by a pronoun (for example: “He gives”, or “The father gives him”, or “gives it”), then the indirect object usually comes before the direct object, which feels a bit counterintuitive, but it’s not so different in English. (Careful: this changes when we use pronouns!)
So, to put it all together, the example sentence is subject, then indirect object, and then the direct object. The complete sentence is:
Der Vater gibt seinem Sohn ein Geschenk.