Let’s Learn Prepositions in German

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Prepositions are little linking words of great importance, because you are going to use them all the time. They can be seen as a kind of “glue” consolidating relationships between nouns, pronouns, and other elements in a sentence. Typical English prepositions are: in, on, for, to, with and many more. You need them for example to tell somebody where you are (in), where you will go (zu), when you would like to meet up (um) and which means of transport you’re going to take (mit).

(Check out our article on German phrases for travel as well!)

So, prepositions play a crucial role in everybody`s speech. We are not only going to use them to indicate a place or a direction, but also to tell the time and date and many other things. However, and in comparison, to English prepositions, they come with a challenge: they will need to be followed by a certain grammatical case. A case shows a noun's or a pronoun's relationship with the other words in a sentence.

So, in this article, we’ll look at how to use prepositions correctly.

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German prepositions with accusative case

In the following, we’ll focus specifically on the six prepositions that are always followed by an object in the accusative case.

  • bis (until/to)
  • durch (through)
  • für (for/in favor of)
  • gegen (against/into)
  • ohne (without)
  • um (at/around)

The really good news is: in the accusative case, the feminine and neutral articles stay the same (die/eine resp. das/ein), only the masculine article changes (den/einen).

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Ich laufe durch den Park. (I am walking through the forest.)
  • Er kümmert sich um einen Kunden. (He takes care of a customer.)
  • Du stimmst für die XY-Partei. (You vote for the xy-party.)
  • Er schreibt den Brief für eine Freundin. (He’s writing the letter for a friend.)
  • Wir können nicht ohne das Gremium anfangen. (We cannot start without the committee.)
  • Er fuhr gegen ein Verkehrsschild. (He drove into a traffic sign.)
article nominative accusative
masculine der/ein den/einen
feminine die/eine die/eine
neuter das/ein das/ein

German prepositions with dative case

Now let’s focus on the prepositions that are always followed by the dative case. The dative case shows the indirect object, which is the “recipient” of the direct object.)

It’s also a great idea to memorize these prepositions as quickly as you can so you can start using them in hands-on practice. But do not memorize them as a list. Try to learn some simple sentences by heart. They will later serve you as a pattern to follow.

  • aus (out [(of)]/ from)
  • bei (at)
  • mit (with)
  • nach (to/after)
  • von (from)
  • seit (since)
  • zu (to)
  • außer (except)
  • gegenüber (opposite)

Let’s look at what that might look like in a sentence:

  • Er kommt aus dem Sudan. (He is from Sudan.)
  • Sie wohnen bei ihren Eltern. (They live with their parents.)
  • Wir gehen mit der Familie ins Kino (We’re going to the cinema with the family.)
  • Ich spiele nach der Schule Fußball. (I play football after school).
  • Lisa hat ihn von der Seite angesehen. (Lisa looked at him sideways.)
  • Er liest seit dem Morgen ein Buch. (He’s been reading a book since the morning.)
  • Ich lasse mich gern zu einem Stück Kuchen überreden. (I don`t mind being persuaded to have a piece of cake.)
  • Außer der neuen Kollegin waren alle krank. (Except for the new colleague, everyone was sick.)
  • Die Bank ist gegenüber dem Theater.
article nominative dative
masculine der/ein dem/einem
feminine die/eine der/einer
neuter das/ein dem/einem

Two-way prepositions

There is a group of prepositions which can take on both the accusative or the dative case, depending on how they are used in a sentence:

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

When referring to a static position, you will use these prepositions with the dative case.

  • Das Handy ist auf dem Tisch. (The mobile phone is on the table.)

To indicate a change of position, you will use these prepositions with the accusative case:

  • Ich lege das Handy auf den Tisch. (I put the mobile on(to) the table.)

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Prepositional Verbs

German has many verbs that are combined with specific prepositions to convey a particular meaning. These are called prepositional verbs. For example, warten auf means to wait for, denken an means to think of. Best to learn these verbs with their accompanying prepositions right away, as they build a pretty firm unit.

Contractions of German prepositions

Just like for English, German speakers like to make their life easier by contracting words (check out our article on German greetings with some contracted words in German).

You can combine some preposition with an article:

  • zu + dem = zum: Zum Schluss gab es Kuchen. (There was cake at the end.)
  • zu + der = zur: Ich fahre zur Tankstelle. (I’m driving to the gas station.)
  • bei + dem = beim: Ich bin beim Arzt. (I’m at the doctor`s.)
  • von + dem = vom: Ich komme vom Bahnhof. (I’m coming from the train station.)
  • in + dem = im: Ich bin im Cafè. (I am at the cafè.)
  • in + das = ins: Ich gehe ins Cafè. (I am going to the cafè.)
  • an + dem = am: Er ist am Flughafen. (He is at the airport.)
  • an + das = ans: Bitte denk ans Saubermachen. (Please remember to clean.)

(Note: In some German dialects, there are more such examples, but they are not considered to be good German.)

Common errors, tips and tricks

When it comes to choosing the correct preposition, it can be challenging to choose the right one, especially when you already speak Englis. English speakers will e. g. be tempted to use the German preposition bei (at/near) for many different things since it phonetically sounds very close to the English word “by”.

Of course, it takes practice when it comes to remembering which ones need the dative and which ones the accusative case.

The best-possible approach is to learn some crucial combinations of noun + article + preposition by heart. Think of sentences like:

  • Ich gehe zum Arzt. (I am going to see the doctor.)
  • Er fährt nach der Schule nach Hause. (He drives home after school.)
  • Sie spielt mit der Katze. (She plays with the cat.)

We can’t wait to accompany you on this journey!

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