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Fehler Files: Talking about talking in German

I tell 'dir' but ask 'dich.' Why? A quick review of some common German mistakes made with verbs describing speech like sagen, fragen, and erzählen

Elise Cutts

5-Minute Read

In Fehler Files, I break down common German mistakes that I make in real conversations so you don’t have to make similar mistakes yourself. Think of it like a series of self-deprecating mini-guides to German grammar and vocabulary. This time around, it’s about using German verbs describing speech, such as erzählen and fragen.

A common mistake with verbs that describe speech is to use the wrong case for the person being addressed, so I break down which verbs are dative verbs and which are accusative, and how to remember the difference.

Using the wrong case with verbs for speech like sagen and fragen is a common German mistake

Clawing my brain apart trying to remember whether a verb takes the dative or accusative case is one of those universal German-learning struggles that I imagine inspired the whole “Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache” idea. Yesterday, I ended up in yet another one of those “claw the brain apart” moments during a lesson with my iTalki tutor. We were going over a practice text I had written about a shy girl getting drunk at her friend’s birthday party (what a topic) and my tutor pointed out the following mistake in my writing:

“Alle meine Freunde haben *mich gefragt, warum ich dich ihnen nich früher vorgestellt habe. Sie glaubten es nicht, als ich *sie erzählt habe, dass du schüchtern bist und keine Partys mag.”

In both of the mistakes, I use the wrong case for the “listener” receiving the speech described by the verb. The correct way to write this would be:

“Alle meine Freunde haben mir gefragt, warum ich dich ihnen nicht früher vorgestellt habe. Sie glaubten es nicht, als ich ihnen erzählt habe, dass du schüchtern bist und keine Partys mag.”

Let’s break down how I screwed up.

What case to use with German verbs describing speech?

First, here’s a quick look the common verbs used to talk about speech, sorted according to the case taken by the person being addressed. Almost all of these verbs take the dative, with two exceptions.

Dative

  • sagen (to say)
  • erzhälen (to tell)
  • erklären (to explain)
  • befehlen (to order)
  • reden mit (to converse)
  • sprechen mit (to speak)
  • mitteilen (to share with)
  • danken (to thank)
  • gratulieren (to congratulate)
  • verzeihen (to apologize)
  • entgegnen (to counter/retort)
  • widersprechen (to contradict/refuse)

Accusative

  • fragen (to ask)
  • bitten (to request)

So, what’s going on here?

Rule: the person being addressed is usually in the dative case

With the vast majority of German verbs for speech, the “listener” is in the dative case. Most of the time, this is because the verb is following German’s usual rules, but there are a few that just need to be memorized.

Often, the listener is in the dative case because they are the indirect object of the verb. In a sentence, they “receive” whatever is spoken–an accusative direct object–from the speaker. Other common verbs describing speech take the dative because they are used with the preposition mit, which forces the following noun into the dative. Verbs describing speech that take dative listeners include:

  • sagen (to say)
  • erzhälen (to tell)
  • erklären (to explain)
  • befehlen (to order)
  • reden mit (to converse)
  • sprechen mit (to speak)
  • mitteilen (to share with)

These verbs always take a dative listener—even if the accusative direct object is omitted. For instance:

Ich sagte ihm die Geschichte.
I told him the sory.

Ich sagte ihm.
I told him.

So these words aren’t irregular at all when it comes to case. They follow the usual rule stating that the direct object is in the accusative and the indirect object is in the dative.

Some verbs describing speech don’t take indirect objects, but still put the person addressed in the dative case

But there are a few sneaky ones that don’t (or almost never) take indirect objects and don’t use “mit,” but which still take dative listeners. And some of these are quite common, so they’re worth remembering:

  • danken (to thank)
  • gratulieren (to congratulate)
  • verzeihen (to apologize)
  • entgegnen (to counter/retort)
  • widersprechen (to contradict/refuse).

Since these verbs don’t take direct objects, it’s common to see them followed by a subordinate clause beginning with “dass,” which explains why the thanking, congratulating, apologizing, etc. occurred. For instance:

Ich danke dir, dass du meinen Blogeintrag gelesen hast.
Thank you for reading my blog post.

Exception: fragen and bitten are accusative verbs

Luckily, there aren’t very many speech verbs that break pattern of using the dative case for the person being addressed: among the common verbs descrbing speech, only fragen (to ask) and bitten (to request) take the accusative. Even beyond just the context of describing speech, these verbs are pretty unusual. They number among only a handful of German verbs that can take two accusative objects.

This is one of those things you should just memorize. But one way I’ve tried to get myself to “feel” the accusative here is to think about more aggressive forms of questioning. Just imagine an interrogation scene from one of those network crime shows that never seems to run out of seasons—lots of questions are asked, most of them pretty “accusative.”


And in case you’re still wondering why I wrote that practice story about someone getting drunk at a party, the answer is that my awesome tutor had given me just about the most hilarious writing prompt ever:

There are a lot of words for ‘drunk’ in German. Find as many as you can, and then write a story in which the main character is drunk.

All those words for “drunk” are coming up in another post. Cheers! 🍻


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This isn't another polyglot blog — it's a monoglot blog! Well, it used to be. At this point, I'm probably somewhere around a 1.75-glot, maybe a 1.80-glot on a good day. This site is all about learning to learn languages, written through the lense of my experience overcoming the intermediate plateau with German and starting from scratch with Italian as a self-taught former monoglot. If you're teaching yourself a language, this is for you!

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Everything on this site is free — I'm as tired of language bloggers trying to sell me miracle language hacks as you are. But if you want to support the site, I wouldn't say no to a coffee ☕. Monthly supporters keep this blog free of affiliate links, ads, and other crud, and they get some fun perks too.


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