Special Dative Phrases in German
Certain phrases in German require the dative case. The reasoning for this may not be immediately clear. In this lesson I explain what the special dative phrases are and how you can use them in your own German sentences.
Dative Phrases Skit
Herr Antrim: Mir ist kalt.
Herr Antrim: I’m cold.
Confused Student: Why is that dative?
Herr Antrim: Ist dir nicht wohl?
Herr Antrim: Are you not well? (Don’t you feel well?)
Confused Student: Why is THAT dative?
Herr Antrim: Es tut mir leid.
Herr Antrim: I’m sorry.
Confused Student: What is going on here? Why are all of these sentences used with the dative case?
Herr Antrim: There are a number of German phrases that use the dative case, but aren’t immediately obvious why that is. Today we will be exploring some of these dative phrases and I’ll explain why they use the dative case. Spoiler alert: It has to do with indirect objects, so if you haven’t watched my video about the dative case and how it is used with indirect objects, click the link in the description or the one in the top right corner of this video.
Dative with Temperatures
Let’s start with the pretty common examples of these so-called “dative phrases” that use temperatures. This could be any of the following: kalt, kühl, warm, or heiß. When you mean to say that the temperature is one of these adjectives in German, you use this with a dative object.
Dem Mann ist heiß.
The man is hot. (It is hot to the man.)
Ihr ist warm.
She is warm. (It is warm to her.)
Ihm ist kühl.
He is cool. (It is cool to him.)
Uns ist kalt.
We are cold. (It is cold to us.)
Why temperatures are used with dative?
That’s all well and good, but why is it dative? To understand this we have to expand your understanding of the dative case. The dative case is usually explained as the “indirect object case”, which is mostly true, but it is really a dumping ground for leftovers of grammatical nuance. Really it is the only case that we can use in these sentences that expresses what we want to say. If we try the nominative case, we have a whole slew of problems.
Why not nominative?
Der Mann ist heiß.
The man is hot.
Saying this with the nominative case indicates that the man is hot, as in sexy. While this may be true, that is not what we are trying to express in this video. So, the nominative case is out. Let’s try it with the accusative case.
Why not accusative?
Den Mann ist heiß.
The man is hot.
This is simply nonsense. It doesn’t work. The accusative case is reserved for a very specific kind of object, which requires a subject that is acting upon that object using a verb that has a direct action being performed on the accusative object. This, again, is not what we are trying to express.
The only case left is the genitive case, which is used for possession when it isn’t being forced by a preposition or a verb. That’s out, because we clearly don’t have a possession here. That leaves us with the dative case.
When we defined indefinite articles, we said that it was “to whom or for whom” something is done. This sentence fits that criteria.
Es ist dem Mann heiß.
It is hot to the man.
This sentence is a longer overly grammatical version of “Dem Mann ist heiß.” It doesn’t use the word “es” in normal conversation and the man has been put in the place where the subject “es” would have been.
What’s really going on in dative phrases?
This brings us to the point where we can figure out what is going on in all of these sentences that require the dative case, but don’t seem to have any logic behind them.
Every one of these sentences are going to describe an attribute of something, but not the person involved. It is an attribute that affects the person, but is not their own attribute.
Since the nominative case would indicate that this description applies to the subject, this often leads to the meaning of the sentence not being what you had intended, such as the previous example of “Der Mann ist heiß. – The man is hot.” The other temperatures also have issues like this.
When kalt isn’t cold
Meine Mutter ist kalt.
My mother is cold.
This means she is emotionally aloof. She may be callous. The other option is that she is literally physically cold, meaning that her body temperature has dropped, which generally means that she is dead. It is the reason that you can use “jemanden kalt machen” as a euphemism for killing someone.
Wenn ich Jimmy wiedersehe, mache ich ihn kalt.
When I see Jimmy again, I’m going to kill him.
When warm isn’t warm
If you say “warm” with the nominative case, you might get a strange look, too.
Ich bin warm.
I am gay.
At best, people will simply understand that you don’t know what you are saying and chalk it up to a language learning error. At worst, people might think you are gay. While that’s not the worst language error you could make, it isn’t what we are trying to say here.
Side Note: Using the word “warm” to describe homosexuals is very outdated. Almost no one uses it like this anymore. Even when it was used, the phrase “Ich bin warm.” (I am gay.) wasn’t nearly as widely used as the phrase “Ich bin ein warmer Mann.” (I am a gay man.) and it was considered derogatory. And for those of you who are thinking it would be funny to use this to call your friends gay, gay is not an insult. Long story short: Don’t say it. Don’t use it. Use the dative case instead.
Mir ist warm.
Ihm ist warm.
He is warm.
Der Frau ist warm.
The woman is warm.
Dative of Perspective
Dieses Buch ist den Schülern nicht besonders interessant.
This book is not particularly interesting to the students.
It isn’t that the students are interesting or that they are this book. The book isn’t objectively uninteresting. It is only uninteresting in relation to the students. Therefore we have to use the dative case.
Der Pickel ist dem Jungen sehr peinlich.
The pimple is very embarrassing to the boy.
The pimple can’t be embarrassed. The boy can be, but he isn’t the one that is embarrassing. It is the pimple that is embarrassing, but again, it isn’t embarrassing to everyone objectively. It is only embarrassing in relation to the boy, so we use the dative case.
Ihm ist dieses Restaurant völlig unbekannt.
This restaurant is completely unknown to him.
(He doesn’t know this restaurant at all.)
Extra Examples of Dative Phrases
Obviously the restaurant isn’t completely unknown. If it were, it would be out of business. It is only completely unknown in relation to “him”, so we used the dative case. Hopefully by now you get the idea, but you might have some questions about what other kinds of sentences you can use this with, so here are some more examples.
Die Patienten sind dem Arzt sehr dankbar.
The patients are very thankful to the doctor.
Die Matheaufgaben sind mir leicht.
The math assignments are easy to me.
Die Wahrheit ist dem Richter wichtig.
The truth is important to the judge.
Fliegen ist mir unmöglich.
Flying is impossible to me.
Mein neuer Bürostuhl ist mir so bequem.
My new office chair is so comfortable to me.
Jetzt reicht’s euch wahrscheinlich für heute.
That is probably enough for you today.
More Dative Case Lessons
As you can see from the last example, that is all for today. If you want a worksheet to practice these dative phrases on your own, you can get that on right here. If you want to learn more about the dative case, I have a list of links below about various topics with the dative case.
Indirect Objects with the Dative Case
Personal Pronouns of the Dative Case
Prepositions Used with the Dative Case
Dative Prepositions and Their Common Verb Partners
Wechselpräpositionen and Their Common Verb Partners with the Dative Case
Special Dative Phrases
Accusative Case Master Class
Dative Case Master Class