Prepositions

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:

durch
ohne
gegen
für
um

and 8 that cause the following noun to be in the dative case

aus
außer
bei
mit
nach
seit
von
zu

In addition, there are a number of two-way prepositions that sometimes take the accusative case and sometimes the dative:

in
auf
an
über
vor
neben
zwischen
unter
hinter

depending on how they are used.

There are a few prepositions that require the genitive. The most common are:

trotz
während
statt
wegen

Dative prepositions

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:

    (1) those that are always dative and never anything else, and
    (2) certain two-way or dual prepositions that can be either dative or accusative—depending on how they are used.

In the German-English examples below, the dative preposition is highlighted. The object of the preposition is underlined.

Wir fahren mit der Bahn.
(We're going by train.)
Meiner Meinung nach ist es zu teuer.
(In my opinion it's too expensive.)
Wir verbringen eine Woche am See.
(We're spending a week at the lake.)

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.

aus
from, out of
außer
except for, besides
bei
at, near
gegenüber
across from, opposite
mit
with, by
nach
after, to
seit
since (time), for
von
by, from
zu
at, to

The genitive prepositions

statt
instead of
trotz
in spite of
während
during
wegen
because of

are often used with the dative in spoken German.

Accusative prepositions

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:

    (1) those that are always accusative and never anything else, and
    (2) certain two-way prepositions that can be either accusative or dative – depending on how they are used.

In the German-English examples below, the accusative preposition is highlighted. The object of the preposition is underlined:

Er abeitet für eine große Firma.
(He works for a big company.)
Ohne Geld geht's nicht.
(Without money it won't work.)
Sie geht den Fluss entlang.
(She walking along the river.)
Wir fahren durch die Stadt..
(We're driving through the city.)
Schreibst du einen Brief an deinen Vater?
(Are you writing a letter to your father?)

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.

bis
until, to, by
durch
through, by
entlang
along, down
für
for
gegen
against, for
ohne
without
um
around, for; at (time)

Two-way prepositions

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:

Wir gehen ins Kino. in + das accusative
(We're going to the cinema.) [motion towards]

Wir sind im Kino. in + dem dative
(We're at the cinema.) [location]
Legen Sie das Buch auf den Tisch. accusative
(Lay the book on the table.) [motion towards]

Das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch. dative
(The book is lying on the table.) [location]

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:

auf dem Land
in the country
um drei Uhr
at three o'clock
unter uns
among us
am Mittwoch
on Wednesday
vor einer Woche
a week ago

etc.

Such expressions can be learned as vocabulary without worrying about the grammar involved.

an
at, on, to
auf
at, on, to, upon
hinter
behind
in
in, into
neben
beside, near, next to
über
about, above, across, over
unter
under, among
vor
in front of, before, ago (time)
zwischen
between

Genitive prepositions

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 during.

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:

Während der Woche arbeiten wir.
(During the week we work.)
Trotz des Wetters fahren wir heute nach Hause.
(In spite of the weather we're driving home today.)

Here is a list of common genitive prepositions. You should memorize them with their meanings.

anstatt / statt
instead of
außerhalb
outside of
innerhalb
inside of
trotz
in spite of, despite
während
during, in the course of
wegen
because of

Prepositional pitfalls

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:

Grammar

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

mit mir [dative]
(with me)

AND

ohne mich [accusative]
(without me)

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

am See [dative]
(at the lake)

AND

an den See [accusative]
(to the lake)

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.

Idioms

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

nach Berlin [accusative - movement]
(to Berlin)
nach Deutschland [accusative - movement]
(to Germany)

But there are always exceptions to the rule. Feminine (die) and plural countries (die USA) use in instead of nach.

in die Schweiz [accusative - movement]
(to Switzerland)
in die USA [accusative - movement]
(to the USA)

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

Ich warte auf ihn. [accusative]
(I'm waiting for him.)
Er wartet auf den Bus. [accusative]
(He's waiting for the bus.)

Here are a few standard prepositional idiomatic expressions:

sterben an [dative]
to die of
glauben an [accusative]
to believe in
ankommen auf (etwas) [accusative]
to depend on (something)
riechen nach [dative]
to smell of

Sometimes German uses a preposition where English doesn't:

Er wurde zum Bürgermeister gewählt. [dative]
(He was elected mayor)

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).

Interference

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.

mit dem Auto [dative]
(by car) [lit: with the car]
mit der Bahn [dative]
(by train) [lit: with the train]

BUT

beim Auto [dative]
(at the car / next to the car)
bei mir [dative]
(at my place / house)

The closest bei usually comes to by is in an expression such as

bei München [dative]
(near / by Munich)
bei Nacht [dative]
(at / by night)

Obviously, there are many more prepositional pitfalls than we have space for here.

Postpositions

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

entlang der Straße [dative]
(along the road)

When it follows a noun, it takes the accusative

die Straße entlang[accusative]
(along the road)

Gegenüber always takes the dative, but can come before or after the noun it governs (but always after a pronoun).

die Post ist gegenüber dem Bahnhof. [dative]
(The post office is opposite the train station.)
die Post ist dem Bahnhof gegenüber. [dative]
(The post office is opposite the train station.)
Ich saß gegenüber dem Mann. [dative]
(I was sitting opposite the man.)

BUT

Ich saß ihm gegenüber. [dative]
(I was sitting opposite him.)
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