What is Dative Case?

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A reader asks about the grammatical term “dative case.”

English makes use of four “cases” – Nominative, Genitive, Accusative, and Dative.

The term “case” applies to nouns and pronouns.

The case of a noun or pronoun is determined by what the word does in the sentence.

A noun or pronoun is in the “Nominative Case” when it is the subject of a sentence, or when it completes a being verb.

A noun or pronoun is in the “Genitive Case” when it shows possession.

A noun or pronoun is in the “Accusative Case” when it receives the action of a transitive verb, or when it serves as the object of a preposition. Another term for “Accusative” is ‘Objective.”

A noun or pronoun is in the Dative Case when it is used as an indirect object.

Ex. Oma gave me a puppy.

This sentence contains two objects, a direct object and an indirect object.

To find the direct object, find the verb and ask “what?”

Question: gave what?
Answer: gave puppy.

Puppy is the direct object. It receives the action of the verb.

To find the indirect object, find the verb and ask “to whom?” or “to what?” “for whom?” or “for what?”

Question gave to whom?
Answer: to me

Me is the indirect object.
Me is a pronoun in the dative case. It does not receive the action of the verb directly, but it does receive it indirectly.

Here are some more examples of sentences that contain nouns or pronouns in the dative case:

The king gave his son his crown.
Gwen sent her boyfriend a Valentine.
The mother made them Koolaid.
I read my children the Narnia books.
The Eagle Scout built the homeless man a shelter.

TIP: The indirect object always stands between the verb and its direct object. (I suppose it might be possible to find some exceptions in Milton.)

When a personal pronoun is used as an indirect object it will, of course, take the object form: I baked him a cake.

The teaching of formal grammar in the American English classroom has been in decline for many years now. An academic debate about “explicit” and “implicit” grammar instruction rages. As with most debates, each side has valid points to make.

A mind-numbing, isolated exercise approach is not desirable, but neither is throwing out all formal grammar instruction. Students need to be taught the terms–especially if they intend to study a foreign language.

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17 thoughts on “What is Dative Case?”

  1. I definitely agree that grammar is much rarer to find in an American English classroom these days. I learned how to map sentences in my college Latin classes . . .

  2. Do any nouns or pronouns take a different form in the accusative vs the dative case? If not, why do we say that English makes use of four cases? It seems like only three: Nominative, Genitive, and Accusative/Dative.

  3. DEar sir

    Isn’t there a subjunctive case, still used in english, although infrequently perhaps and when it is used people don’t know they have used it?

    I have never understood it ,so can someone help me.

  4. John,
    I suppose it would be possible to speak of only three cases in English if the concept of case were based on the form of the pronoun and not its function. Nouns, however, retain the same form when used in either Nominative or Accusative.

    Here’s a thought: If English speakers continue in the trend of misusing the personal pronouns, English may eventually be left with only one case.

  5. The indirect object usually follows the direct object when preceded by a preposition. For example, I gave some money to Jim.

    On the subjunctive, one use is in contrary-to-fact contexts as in the song, “If I were a rich man.”

  6. Charles,
    My understanding of the Dative Case is that the “to” or “for” is understood.

    Once you have “to Jim” you have a prepositional phrase.

  7. Maeve,

    You’re right. Cases usually refer to the inflection of a noun or pronoun, and so in one sense, “to me” would be a prepositional phrase. Yet, that prepositional phrase accomplishes the dative function. I can imagine that there might be disagreement on that perspective, but see

  8. Charles,
    Thanks for the link.

    I suggest that everyone check it out. An analytic language like English cannot be defined by the rules of a synthetic language like Latin.

  9. Aah, finally, I’m on familiar ground where the kasus (Latin, case/s) are concerned, and I’m glad this topic is mentioned here.

    A European myself, I learned “Oxford English” in school which, naturally, involved the use of cases. Imagine my surprise when during the mandatory English course in college in the U.S., I only received blank stares at the mention thereof (even from the intructor)! I was at a complete loss when I tried to explain the difference between “who” and “whom”, a topic most students just didn’t grasp.

    I would love to see the kasus find their way (back?) into American classrooms, as I think that many aspects of grammar could be explained more easily; however, I guess we’ll just have to stick with the times, as well as the changes they bring.

    Anyway, thanks for making me feel at home for a moment! :)))

  10. Couldn’t the direct object precede the indirect object just as easily as it could follow?
    In the example above, “I baked him a cake,” “him” is the indirect object and “cake” is the direct, so would that still be true if the sentence were phrased, “I baked a cake for him,” and would it still be in the dative case?

  11. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as case, until I started learning German seriously for the last month or so. I just completed a set of lessons in the Duolingo called Accusative Case and I was confused about the name. What is accusing what? Then I found out there are three other types of case, and that they also exist in English. This language axiom is not something that was ever mentioned in school. Nor did I know what an article or an object were as they pertained to grammar. I’m bummed about that, but also glad I discovered these things as an adult. If my daughter’s school doesn’t teach it, I might have to, especially because I’m having her learn German as well. I think it’s especially important for German because there seems to be a LOT to German grammar, and that German is notorious for being frustrating when starting out. Does anyone else agree that she should learn case for German? If not, what are your thoughts?

  12. I to am learning German as a gentleman of 61 and I do not remember learning about the cases in English not even in college for that matter but I may have forgot so I’m reviewing the cases in hoping it will help me with the German. Yes I think she should learn the case and also the the article to things like die katze or das shampoo. I’m just hoping one day it will all click and all come together for me.

  13. +1 for German learning. I started taking German classes at 15, up until that point I was indifferent to cases in English, in the course of learning German I started to apply that to my native English, that helped spark my interest in philology, especially the development of languages

  14. I can’t understand why you say modern English has a dative case. A case is an inflectional form of a noun or pronoun that exists in a number of languages, but is no longer present at all in English. You seem to be confusing the case of a word with the grammatical function of the word in the sentence. The word “me” in “he gave me a book” is indeed an indirect object, but you can’t say that therefore “me” must be a dative. It’s like saying that in the sentence “John, are you coming?” the word “John” must be in the vocative case, because its function in the sentence would be expressed in Latin by a “vocative” case – an inflected form of the noun that is present in Latin. But in English there is no such case and we have other ways of indicating the function of “John” (the comma or a vocal inflection). Similarly, the function of “me” is indicated in that previous sentence by word order, not by a case. You could also say “he gave a book to me” and then the function of “me” is expressed by means of the preposition “to”. But that does NOT mean that “to me” is an example of a dative case – it’s an example of how we express indirect objects in English WITHOUT using cases. Modern English has only nominative, accusative and genitive cases.

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