German has four cases. These are:
Each case introduces a grammatical function. The dative case introduces an indirect object in the sentence. What is an indirect object? Look at this example:
The dog gives me a bone.
The dog is the subject, the one performing the action of giving. In German, this is introduced by the nominative case. A bone is a direct object, meaning the object to which the action is being done in a sentence. In German, this is introduced by the accusative case. Me (to me) is an indirect object. An indirect object is the person or thing to (or for) whom (or which) an action is being performed. In English this is often indicated by the words to or for. The German dative is used to show the indirect object of a sentence.
Resources for further reading:
Let's start with looking at a German dative example.
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Die Frau gibt dem Mann einen Kuss.
The woman gives the man a kiss.
Let's analyze the sentence.
Die Frau is the subject (nominative case). Gibt is a conjugation of to give. Like in English, this verb is followed by an indirect object (give something to whom?). Dem Mann is the indirect object. If the man were the subject, it would be der Mann, but this is an indirect object, so we will have to use the dative declension of the article. Der becomes dem. Finally, einen Kuss is the direct object, so it is introduced by the accusative case.
In the dative case all the articles change. Have a look at the table below to see how the articles change depending on the case.
In German the dative is also called der Wemfall, so the question words for the dative are to whom (“wem”) or what (“was”). The woman gives a kiss to whom? The woman gives a kiss to the man. The man is dative.
Paul gibt einem Mann das Ticket.
Paul gives the ticket to a man.
Holger wirft dem Mädchen den Ball zu.
Holger throws the ball to the girl.
Der Frau gefällt das Hotel.
The woman likes the hotel.
You might wonder why ein Buch doesn’t change into einen Buch. This is because the noun Buch is neuter (das Buch). Only masculine articles change in the accusative, like einen Kuss that we saw earlier. Kuss is a masculine noun (der Kuss), so it is declined.
Gefallen, to like, is another tricky verb because its behavior is totally different from that of English. We saw it earlier in Der Frau gefällt das Hotel. In the English sentence, the woman is the subject and the hotel is the object, but in the German sentence they are the other way around! A more literal translation could be "the hotel pleases the woman".
Sometimes, choosing between the accusative and the dative case is not always straightforward, because there are a few (rare) occasions where the dative case is actually introducing an apparent direct object. Verbs like folgen, to follow, and helfen, to help, for example, are accompanied by the dative case. Let's see a couple of examples.
Kannst du meinem Freund helfen?
Can you help my friend?
Folgen Sie bitte dem Wegweiser
Please follow the sign
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