At least twice a year, I will have a student ask me this or something similar. I’ll have my students label parts of sentences using the cases of nominative, accusative and dative. Inevitably I will get a few of them back in which students label entire sentences as nominative. Other sentences as accusative and another group of sentences as dative.
What is a dative sentence?
Dative sentences are a myth. They don’t exist. They never did exist and never will exist. It isn’t grammatically possible for them to exist. Dative sentences are a lie.
Why can’t dative sentences exist?
“What is a dative sentence?” is like asking what is a footrest couch? A footrest is not a couch. You can’t have a footrest couch. You can have a couch with a footrest, but there is no such thing as a footrest couch. The same is true of dative sentences. They don’t exist. The dative case is a thing. Sentences are a thing. You can use the dative case within a sentence, but that does not make the sentence a dative sentence.
Dative and all of the other cases, nominative, accusative and genitive, affect nouns and their partners, adjectives, articles, and pronouns. That means when you use one of those things in a sentence, you use the case that is appropriate for that thing within the sentence.
How grammatical cases work within German sentences
Let’s take a look at an example in both English and German.
Mein Bruder gibt unserer Schwester ein Geschenk.
My brother is giving our sister a gift.
In this sentence we have three out of four cases in German. The sentence is not dative, or even accusative or nominative for that matter. It is just a sentence. You could classify it as a statement, but not as a case. Cases are only used for nouns and their partners.
What is nominative?
My brother in that sentence is the one acting. That makes him the subject. In German this is indicated by the nominative case. In this sentence we can see that the nominative case is used, because “mein” (the possessive adjective attached to our noun “Bruder”) does not have an ending.
What is accusative?
A gift is the thing being directly acted upon by the subject. That makes this the direct object and in German that is indicated with the accusative case. The article in front of “Geschenk” is “ein”, which doesn’t immediately tell us the case being used, but we can tell based on the word order, that this is the direct object and it is accusative.
What is dative?
Our sister in this sentence is the one being given something. She is receiving a gift. That makes her the indirect object and in German that is indicated by the dative case. We can readily tell that she is in the dative case in this sentence because the possessive adjective in front of “Schwester” shows the dative case with the letters ER at the end.
Is this a dative sentence?
So, is this a dative sentence? No. Dative sentences don’t exist. We have a sentence which includes three out of four cases. The nominative “mein Bruder”. The accusative “ein Geschenk”. The dative “unserer Schwester”. How could you possibly have a dative sentence if you can use multiple cases within a sentence? The answer is simple. You can’t.
Do you use dative verbs in dative sentences?
Another often confusing idea that goes along with this problem is dative verbs. Dative verbs are not called that because the verb is dative. They are called that because their objects are dative. This essentially means that the sentence skips the accusative case, which is usually used for direct objects and uses the dative case instead. I could go into the semantics of why that is and give you a bunch of details, but I will do that in a few weeks when I make my video dedicated to dative verbs. For now, just know this: dative verbs require dative objects. The verb is not dative. The sentence is not dative. The object of that sentence using a dative verb is dative.
Mein Bruder hilft unserer Schwester.
My brother helps our sister.
My brother is the subject again. He is still the one doing something. That means he is still nominative. Our sister is the one being helped, which means that she is now the direct object instead of the indirect object. The verb used here, however, is “helfen”, which means “to help” and requires a dative object. Since our sister is the object of the sentence, she is represented in the dative case with “unserer”.
Again, we have more than one case in a sentence, which means we can’t possibly say that this sentence is one case or another. Nouns and their partners within the sentence are used in the nominative and dative cases. That is all.
If a sentence only has one case, is that sentence that case?
What about sentences that don’t have more than one case? Like the ones with “sein”? This verb is often used with what we call a predicate nominative, so called, because the thing behind the verb (predicate) is also nominative.
Mein Bruder ist ein Junge.
My brother is a boy.
Both the boy and my brother are in the nominative case. Does that make this a nominative sentence? There are no other cases here? No. The verb doesn’t have a case. The sentence doesn’t have a case. The nouns and their partners within the sentence do have cases.
What is a dative sentence?
How can you tell if a sentence is dative?
So the answer to the question “What is a dative sentence?” or “How can you tell if a sentence is dative in German?” is simple. Dative sentences are a myth. They don’t exist. They never did exist and never will exist. It isn’t grammatically possible for them to exist. Dative sentences are a lie. If you really want to learn how to use the dative case in German, you can find my about the dative case linked below.
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