Just In Case

or, “NADGe, I soaked in it!”

NADGe stands for Nominative, Accusative, Dative, and Genitive. These are the cases German makes use of, though one might argue the Dative is slowly ringing the death knell of the Genitive. Not sure what we mean by “cases”? Go read up on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_case

Put simply, cases describe changes to nouns in your sentences depending on what role they’re playing. Here’s a dirty little secret about English: we have vestigial case markers that turn up in a few odd places, too:

  • him
  • whom

As English speakers, we’re more comfortable using word order and prepositional phrases to identify case, but if you cringe when someone uses an ‘I’ when it should be “me”, as in “for you and I,” then welcome home, friend. This site is for you. If you think me and I should be interchangeable because rhyming! … forget it, you never got this far down the page.

The pattern of changing the definite article or the endings on adjectives specifically identifies (in many cases, but not all) whether each noun in the sentence is serving as the subject or direct or indirect object. If you skip these declensions or get them mixed up, people will still probably figure out what you mean, but you won’t sound competent. “The baker sold me to a pretzel” is pretty clearly wrong from context, even though they’ll know what you mean. But what about in this case? “The old lady suggested the young trainee to the boss”? Get the roles wrong in that sentence, and confusion reigns. Or rains. Or reins.

So here’s how to decline…

…with a definite article (weak declension)

N A D Ge
Nominative Accusative Dative Genitive
masculine der den dem des
neuter das das dem des
feminine die die der der
plurals die die den der

…with an indefinite article (mixed declension)

N A D Ge
Nominative Accusative Dative Genitive
masculine ein einen einem eines
neuter ein ein einem eines
feminine eine eine einer einer
plurals keine keine keinen keiner

…with no article at all (strong declension)

N A D Ge
Nominative Accusative Dative Genitive
masculine guter guten gutem guten
neuter gutes gutes gutem guten
feminine gute gute guter guter
plurals gute gute guten guter

But who talks like that? Who walks around in Germany spouting morphology tables?

Let’s put some meat on them bones.

with a definite article (weak declension)

N A D Ge
Nominative Accusative Dative Genitive
masculine der alte Mann den alten Mann dem alten Mann des alten Mannes
des alten Manns
neuter das interessante Buch das interessante Buch dem interessanten Buch des interessante Buches
des interessanten Buchs
feminine die großzügige Frau die großzügige Frau der großzügigen Frau der großzügigen Frau
plurals die schlechten Nachrichten die schlechten Nachrichten den schlechten Nachrichten der schlechten Nachrichten

Der alte Mann hat die schlechten Nachrichten des interessanten Buchs der großzügigen Frau weitergegeben.

OK. Even here it’s not really clear if the generous woman is the recipient or the author. So you’ll still need context sometimes. Or prepositions to sort of mitigate German’s unbridled caseyness. Use the weak declension (the with the definite articles) as the foundation upon which we will build the mixed and strong declension models.

Ein alter man hat keine schlechten Nachrichten eines interessanten Buchs einer großzügigen Frau weitergegeben.

I think of it as German imposing its will on the words. It really likes weak declension and if you insist on using indefinite expressions, well, then German will force at least some echoes of its definitive articles into the adjectives and articles:

Ein alter man — that ‘r’ is from der, the masculine nominative definite article.

hat keine schlechten Nachrichten — that ‘e’ is from die, the plural accusative definite article.

eines interessanten Buchs — those ‘es’ and ‘s’ are from des, the neuter genitive definite article.

einer großzügigen Frau weitergegeben. — that ‘er’ is from der, the feminine dative definite article. Or is the genitive here, too? Only context can tell you.

These rules are really firm. There is potential for ambiguity, since

  • neuter and masculine decline the same way in the genitive — so the gender isn’t obvious if you don’t already know it, and
  • feminine declines the same way in the genitive and dative —so you don’t know, apart from context, whether the feminine word is an indirect object or acting as a possession of another element in the sentence, and
  • weak declension of plurals in the Dative form looks just like the Accusative form of masculine — which is tricky only in situations where the Dative plural looks the same as the Accusative masculine form (it already ends in “n” and isn’t umlautable) and the verb could take a direct object or an indirect object. Certainly context will help here, too.

But apart from these edge cases , with a solid footing on the NADGe, you can identify permutations that can never be (and therefore avoid them) and deduce genders of unknown words. And pulling that off in casual conversation makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about, giving the Germans less inclination to interrupt you and switch to English, thereby depriving you of your chance to practice.

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