A preposition comes before a noun or noun phrase and indicates a relationship between that noun phrase and the rest of the sentence. The combination of preposition and noun phrase is called a prepositional phrase.
German has 5 prepositions that cause the following noun to be in the accusative case:
and 8 that cause the following noun to be in the dative case
In addition, there are a number of two-way prepositions that sometimes take the accusative case and sometimes the dative:
depending on how they are used.
There are a few prepositions that require the genitive. The most common are:
Certain German prepositions are governed by the dative case. That is, they take an object in the dative case. Many dative prepositions tend to be very common vocabulary in German:
In English, prepositions take the objective case (object of the preposition) and all prepositions take the same case. In German, prepositions come in several flavors, only one of which is dative.
There are two kinds of dative prepositions:
In the German-English examples below, the dative preposition is highlighted. The object of the preposition is underlined.
Notice in the second example above that the object comes before the preposition. Some German prepositions use this reverse word order, but the object must still be in the correct case.
Here is a list of the dative-only prepositions. You should memorize them with their meanings.
The genitive prepositions
are often used with the dative in spoken German.
Certain German prepositions are governed by the accusative case. That is, they take an object in the accusative case. The accusative prepositions tend to be used a lot and it is important to learn them early in your study of German. In English, prepositions take the objective case (object of the preposition) and all prepositions take the same case. In German, prepositions come in several flavors, only one of which is accusative.
There are two kinds of accusative prepositions:
In the German-English examples below, the accusative preposition is highlighted. The object of the preposition is underlined:
Notice in the third example above that the object (Fluss) comes before the preposition (entlang). Some German prepositions use this reverse word order, but the object must still be in the correct case.
Here is a list of accusative-only prepositions. You should memorize them with their meanings.
The basic rule for determining whether a two-way preposition should have an object in the accusative or dative case is motion versus location. If there is motion towards something or to a specific location (where to?), then usually that is accusative. If there is no motion at all or random motion going nowhere in particular (where (at)?), then that is usually dative. This rule applies only to the so-called two-way or dual prepositions in German.
Here are two sets of examples:
A single German two-way preposition - such as in or auf - may have more than one English translation, as you can see above. In addition, you'll find many of these prepositions have yet another meaning in common everyday idioms and expressions:
Such expressions can be learned as vocabulary without worrying about the grammar involved.
A few German prepositions are governed by the genitive case. That is, they take an object in the genitive case. There are only a few common genitive prepositions in German.
Notice that most of the time the genitive prepositions can be translated with
of in English. Even während can be rendered as
in the course of as well as
The genitive prepositions are often used with the dative in spoken German, particularly in certain regions.
In the German-English examples below, the genitive preposition is higlighted. The object of the preposition is underlined:
Here is a list of common genitive prepositions. You should memorize them with their meanings.
Prepositions are a hazardous area in the learning of any second language, and German is no exception. These short, seemingly innocent words — an, auf, bei, bis, in, mit, über, um, zu, and others — can often be
gefährlich (dangerous). One of the most common mistakes made by the foreign speaker of a language is the incorrect use of prepositions.
Prepositional pitfalls fall into three main categories:
Is the preposition one governed by the accusative, dative, or genitive case? Or is it a so-called doubtful or two-way preposition? Once again, the German cases play an important role.
There's really only one way to solve this problem: memorize the prepositions. But do it right. The traditional way, learning to rattle off the case groups (e.g., bis, durch, für, gegen, ohne, um, wider take the accusative), works for some people, but we prefer the phrase approach - learning prepositions as part of a prepositional phrase. (This is similar to learning nouns with their genders, as we also recommend.)
For example, memorizing the phrases
sets the combination in your mind and tells you that mit takes a dative object (mir), while ohne takes the accusative (mich). Learning the difference between the phrases
will tell you that an with the dative is about location (stationary), whereas an with the accusative is about direction (movement). This method is also closer to what a native-speaker does naturally, and it can help move the learner towards an increased level of Sprachgefühl or a feeling for the language.
How does a native-speaker say it? To illustrate this, I often use the English example of stand in line or stand on line - which do you say? (Both are correct, but your answer may reveal which part of the English-speaking world you're from. If you're British, you'd simply queue.) And the way a German might say in or on depends on a number of factors, even including whether a surface is vertical (on the wall) or horizontal (on the table)! Using the wrong preposition can also lead to an unintentional change in meaning... and sometimes to embarrassment.Speaking of Sprachgefühl, here is where you really need it. In most cases you'll just have to learn the right way to say it. For example, where English uses the preposition to, German has at least six possibilities: an, auf, bis, in, nach, or zu.
But there are some helpful categorical guidelines. For example, if you're going to a country or geographic destination, you almost always use nach - as in
But there are always exceptions to the rule. Feminine (die) and plural countries (die USA) use in instead of nach.
But there are many cases where rules aren't much help. Then you simply have to learn the phrase as a vocabulary item. A good example is a phrase such as to wait for. An English speaker has a tendency to say warten für when the correct German is warten auf - as in
Here are a few standard prepositional idiomatic expressions:
Sometimes German uses a preposition where English doesn't:
German often makes distinctions that English does not. We go to the movies or to the cinema in English. But zum Kino means to the movie theater (but not necessarily inside) and ins Kino means to the movies (to see a show).
Because some German prepositions are similar or identical to English, or sound like an English preposition (bei, in, an, zu), you may choose the wrong one. And several German prepositions can equal more than one English preposition: an can mean at, in, on, or to - depending on how it's used in a German sentence. So you can't just assume that an will always mean on. The word since can be translated into German with either the preposition seit (for time) or the conjunction da (for cause).
First-language interference is always a problem in learning a second language, but nowhere is this more critical than with prepositions. As we have already seen above, just because English uses a given preposition doesn't mean German will use the equivalent in the same situation. In English we are afraid of something; a German has fear before (vor) something. In English we take something for a cold; in German you take something against (gegen) a cold.
Another example of interference can be seen in the preposition by. Though German bei sounds almost identical to English by, it is rarely used in that meaning.
The closest bei usually comes to by is in an expression such as
Obviously, there are many more prepositional pitfalls than we have space for here.
A preposition is called such because it is positioned before the noun it governs (hence, pre-position); German also has a few postpositions — that is, words that come after the noun they govern. The two most common are also prepositions: entlang and gegenüber.
When entlang is used as a preposition, it takes the dative
When it follows a noun, it takes the accusative
Gegenüber always takes the dative, but can come before or after the noun it governs (but always after a pronoun).