Victims of verbs…

The kangaroo on a yellow language island denotes simple work or introductory information.

In English there are people or things that make something happen (subjects of verbs) and there are people or things that have something done to them (objects of verbs). For example, in the sentence, „I have a dog,“ I am the entity doing something (owning a dog) and my dog is the entity having something done to him (he’s being possessed by me).

In German, exactly the same pattern occurs. One famous language teacher, the late Michel Thomas, had a funny, memorable way of describing this. He called the object the „victim of the verb“. When a masculine noun is the victim of a verb in German, the articles attached to it change. In fact, in a few cases, even the word itself can change its ending, but you don’t need to worry about that yet. This affects masculine nouns such as the dog in my example above.

Ich habe einen Hund.

Normally a dog is ein Hund in German. The dog is der Hund. But once that poor dog gets victimized by the verb, his articles change.

Das ist ein Hund. (After the verb to be you don’t have to change anything. The dog is not victimized by that verb.)

♥Ich habe einen Hund. (The dog has become a victim of the verb „to have“. His article has changed from ein to einen. In the accusative, ein becomes einen.)

♦Der grausame Mann schlägt den Hund. (This dog is a victim of the cruel man AND of the verb schlagen. Therefore the definite article der changes to den.)

When the dog, or any other masculine noun, becomes a victim of the verb, this always happens. In the same way, if we get the dog to bite the man, then the man will become the object (and victim) of the verb:

  • Der Hund beißt den Mann.

It makes life easier that feminine and neuter nouns don’t change their articles in the accusative:

Ich habe eine Katze.

Feminine noun: die Katze, eine Katze

Neuter noun: das Auto, ein Auto

Ich habe eine Katze.

Die grausame Mann schlägt die Katze.

Ich habe ein Auto.

Ich fahre das Auto.

The table below summarizes this rule, using the verb brauchen (to need) as the „victimizing“ verb:

Gender In the accusative  Accusative example
Masculine der → den ein → einen  Ich brauche einen Regenschirm.
Feminine die → die eine → eine  Sie braucht eine Brille. 
Neuter das → das ein → ein  Ich brauche ein Pflaster.

♥ This rule means you have to remember not only the meaning of the noun but also its gender.

Luckily, kind native speakers know what you mean when you mess it up and don’t even roll their eyes at you. But that’s no reason not to do a quiz, just to see if you can remember the rule and get it right consistently… 

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