Here, hold these knitting needles in your hands.
Now, put this needle behind the other, in the loop.
Then with your left hand, wrap the yarn around…
Okay—that’s far enough.
Now, try teaching someone else these knitting steps…without using prepositions!
Impossible? Incredibly tricky, at the very least.
While they’re clearly useful little parts of speech, learning prepositions in German could make you feel like unraveling.
So we’re here to help you navigate the world of German prepositions.
Maybe you have been struggling with your mits and your aufs. Maybe prepositions are going to be the subject of your next class and you simply want a head start.
The Basics: What Are Prepositions?
Prepositions are words that link a noun to the rest of the sentence. They usually tell you about time, place and direction. Examples of English prepositions include on, out, under, from, with, about and until, but there are many more. They are those little words that you don’t even notice you’re using, but which completely change the meaning of the sentence.
“But they’re just words,” I hear you cry, “all I need to do is learn them!”
Sadly, that’s not the case. In German, using prepositions is more complicated because of German’s case system. The thing about German prepositions is that they affect the case of the noun that follows them.
Which in many ways is great, because it stops you from having to worry about what function the noun in playing in the clause (Is it a direct object? An indirect object? etc.). Instead, all you have to do is look at the preposition.
For example, if you want to say that you’re going somewhere with your parents, you automatically know that Eltern (parents) must be in the dative because it’s preceded by mit (with).
But we’ll get to that in due course. For now, let’s look at the different types of preposition you might encounter.
German Prepositions That Take the Accusative
There are many prepositions which are always followed by the accusative case. So it doesn’t matter where it comes in a sentence, the noun directly following these prepositions are automatically in the accusative. A list of these would look a lot like this:
- bis (until, up to, by)
- durch (through, across)
- entlang (along)
- für (for)
- gegen (against, towards)
- ohne (without)
- um (around, about, at) – when talking about time
German Prepositions That Take the Dative
Alongside prepositions that take the accusative, there are also those which only take the dative. These work exactly the same way as accusative prepositions, but (obviously) they are followed by the dative case. These include:
- ab (from) – time
- aus (out of, from)
- ausser (except for, apart from)
- bei (by, at, in view of)
- dank (thanks to)
- entgegen (contrary to)
- gegenüber (opposite)
- gemäß (according to)
- laut (according to)
- mit (with)
- nach (after, to) – referring to direction; (according to)
- seit (for, since)
- von (from, of)
- zu (to)
- zufolge (according to) – follows the noun
It can be hard work remembering which prepositions take which case, but there are ways of making it stick. It’s best to learn which case a preposition takes when you’re in the process of learning the word.
So, however you choose to learn your vocabulary, make sure you write the corresponding case on those flashcards or posters, and don’t forget to chant the case alongside the preposition as you’re waiting for the bus.
Learning phrases with prepositions in them is another excellent way to learn which case they take. You always have a phrase to refer to if you can’t remember off the top of your head. So for example, you might learn the phrase “entgegen allen Erwartungen” (contrary to all expectations). From the n in allen, you will always know that entgegen takes the dative (if it were accusative if would read alle).
Two-case German Prepositions
Now here’s where things get interesting! Wechselpräpositionen (two-case prepositions) are prepositions that can take either the dative or the accusative (Great!). Except, you can’t use them interchangeably. (Oh…). But fear not: There’s a rule. And once you’ve got that rule down, you’ll be fine.
The rule is all about what you’re trying to say, and it has to do with direction and position:
If you’re trying to express movement (direction), use the accusative.
If you’re trying to state where something is (position), use the dative.
It’s easier with examples.
Take the sentence “Ich hänge das Bild an die Wand” (I hang the picture on the wall). Here, the an implies movement: The picture wasn’t on the wall before, but it is now. It has moved. This expresses direction, and therefore takes the accusative: an die Wand.
On the other hand, the sentence “Das Bild hängt an der Wand” (the picture is hanging on the wall) expresses position: It tells the reader where the picture is, and implies no movement. In this case, the an takes the dative: an der Wand.
Here are some more examples, just to make sure.
Directional: Ich lege den Buch auf den Tisch. (I place the book on the table.)
Positional: Das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch. (The book is on the table.)
Directional: Ich setzte mich neben meine Frau. (I sat down next to my wife)
Positional: Ich saß neben meiner Frau. (I was sitting next to my wife.)
Directional: Heute gehen wir in die Stadt. (Today we are going to town.)
Positional: Das Haus liegt in der Stadt. (The house is in town.)
German Prepositions That Take the Genitive
Okay, I lied. There aren’t just three categories of prepositions. There’s actually a fourth: prepositions that take the genitive. But these are rarer, and there are only a couple that are really important to know.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret, too: Many Germans don’t use the genitive with these prepositions when they’re speaking. They use the dative instead. But if you have exams to take or academic papers to write, we’d advise using the genitive when you can.
Here’s a handy list of genitive prepositions:
- anstatt, statt (instead of)
- außerhalb/innerhalb/oberhalb/unterhalb (outside/inside/above/below)
- diesseits/jenseits/beiderseits (on this side of/on the other side of/on either side of
- trotz (in spite of)
- unweit (not far from)
- während (during)
- wegen (because of)
Notice how all the prepositions ending in –halb or –seits take the genitive.
Also, as a general rule, prepositions with an English translation which includes the word “to” (thanks to, according to, etc.) take the dative, whereas most of those that include the word “of” (in spite of, because of, etc.) take the genitive case. Of course, that’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s worth knowing for those times when you are without a dictionary and need to make an educated guess.
German Verbs That Take Prepositions
The last big thing to learn about prepositions is their relationship with verbs. And it turns out, verbs and prepositions tend to get kind of cozy with one another. Just as in English, there are specific verbs that are always followed by specific prepositions.
Consider, for example, the verb “to fall in love.” In English, you fall in love with someone (if you’re lucky…or indeed, unlucky!). You never fall in love “about” somebody or fall in love “for” somebody. It’s the same in German. Except that unfortunately, the preposition/verb combinations don’t always match up. In German, you fall in love “in” someone: ich habe mich in sie verliebt (I have fallen in love with her).
I know, I know—this sounds like a nightmare: How on earth are you meant to know which prepositions to use? Well, I’m not going to lie. It’s hard. But there are certain things you can do to lessen the struggle.
- Learn the prepositions (and the cases that they take) at the same time as learning the verb. Learn the whole thing as a unit: instead of learning sich verlieben (to fall in love), learn sich verlieben in (+acc). That way it will stick in your head.
- Learn examples. Everyone is always going on about learning examples (myself included), but this is probably the most useful time to do it. When I was school, I learned a load of verb/preposition combinations by sticking signs up all over my parents’ house. On the inside of back door it read “Achten Sie auf das Glatteis” (beware of the sheet ice), with a big warning sign above it.
Here’s a handy list of verb/preposition combinations to get you started.
3 Handy Ways to Use German Prepositions Like a Native
So, you’ve got the basics down. Now to make yourself sound like a native. And one of the easiest things to do to achieve that aim? Avoid saying zu dem or an dem or in das. Instead, slide them together and say zum, am and ins.
And that’s not just in spoken language; these can be written, too. It’s like “don’t” and “can’t” in English, but even more common (and they don’t use apostrophes for this kind of contraction).
Here’s a list of the most common German contractions:
- an + das = ans
- an + dem = am
- auf + das = aufs
- bei + dem = beim
- in + das = ins
- in + dem = im
- von + dem = vom
- zu + dem = zum
- zu + der = zur
2. Prepositional adverbs
Sounds scary, doesn’t it? But actually it’s really simple. So simple, that lots of people start using them without even noticing they’re doing it. In fact, I didn’t even know what they were called until I just looked it up.
Prepositional adverbs are formed by taking a preposition and putting the prefix da- (or dar- if the preposition begins with a vowel) on the beginning. So auf becomes darauf, von becomes davon, and so on. They are used to refer back to something you’ve just mentioned, and the Germans use them all the time.
Again, it’s probably easiest to understand using examples.
Ich fahre Morgen nach Berlin, aber meine Mutter weiß nichts davon.
(Tomorrow I’m going to Berlin, but my mother doesn’t know anything about it.)
Er hat einen neuen Job und er freut sich sehr darüber.
(He has a new job and he’s really pleased about it.)
The da + preposition word can also come before the thing you’re referring to, as in the following examples:
Sie hatte Angst davor, dass sie bei der Prüfung durchfallen würde.
(She was scared that she would fail the test.)
Ich warte darauf, dass sie das Haus verkauft haben.
(I’m waiting for them to have sold the house.)
This happens when you’re using a verb (or verbal phrase) which is usually used with a preposition, but you don’t have a noun to follow the preposition. Many verbs don’t really make sense in German without their prepositions (see the list above), so you have to find a way to keep the preposition.
For example, the first sentence uses the verbal phrase “vor etwas (+dat) Angst haben” (to be scared of something). The sentence could easily have read “Sie hatte Angst vor der Prüfung.” In this case, it is simple: The noun that follows vor is put in the dative case. In the example, however, the thing that she is scared of is not a noun, but a whole clause (a clause being a phrase with a conjugated verb, “she would fail”). Because you cannot put an entire clause in the dative case, you have to put in a little da-.
It may seem a little weird at first, but after a while it becomes completely natural. In German, the sentences are very well ordered. Everything must be tied up and neat. Therefore you can’t leave a preposition hanging without a noun, so the da- is just a way of tidying up. If you think about a literal translation of that example sentence, things may become a little clearer: She had anxiety about it, that she would fail the test.
3. Phrases with prepositions
And one final tip for the keen beans: There are loads of great idiomatic phrases that use prepositions which are really handy in everyday speech. Learn these, and you’ll have the whole prepositions thing down. And you’ll have your German business partners/school exchange partners/hotel staff/friends eating out of your hands.
Here are a few to get you started:
- Es kommt darauf an (It depends)
- Ich bin damit einverstanden (I agree)
- Ich halte nicht viel davon (I don’t think much of it)
- beim besten Willen nicht (By no stretch of the imagination)
- Hör auf damit! (Cut it out!)
- Keine Spur davon (No sign of it)
- mit Waschbrettbauch (Ripped, muscly) Literally: with a washboard stomach
So there you have it, German prepositions in a nutshell. They may not be the easiest thing to learn, but they are seriously useful. And if you do everything we’ve suggested here, you’ll soon be laughing. What did I even find so complicated?!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.