German/Grammar/Prepositions with accusative and dative

Prepositions with accusative and dative edit

Now that we have covered the three most important German cases, saving genitive for later, we can start on prepositions, a very important part of language which adds color and detail to sentences. They also nearly always represent as challenge for learners because they often have many different meanings and which preposition to use in which situation is very difficult for non-native speakers to master. For this reason we'll be going into some detail on each preposition, and that means we'll need several sections to cover all of them. We'll start with some prepositions of location; these tell you where something is happening or the destination of movement; it turns out this distinctions is important for correctly using them in a sentence.

Terminology edit

Prepositions are the small words that go in front of certain phrases to connect them with other parts of the sentence, in other words they are the glue which binds pieces of the sentence together which would otherwise not be connected. Examples in English are "in", "on", "of" and "by". The combination of a preposition and the phrase which comes after it is usually called a prepositional phrase, but this terminology doesn't tell you the role the phrase plays in the sentence. So it might be more useful to classify such phrases according to function rather than form; for example if the prepositional phrase is used as an adverb then call it an adverbial phrase. The type of preposition we'll be dealing with in this section connects a noun phrase with a verb to provide location information about the action of the sentence. Every time we introduce a new way to use a noun we need to ask which case the noun will use. In general the noun phrase after a preposition will be in the accusative, dative or genitive case depending on the preposition in question, and prepositions can usually be classified accordingly. Certain prepositions can require different cases depending on their meaning in the sentence, and the subgroup we're dealing with now are those which require either the accusative or dative case. This might not seem like the best place to start, but these prepositions have certain qualities in common that make them easy to deal with and the rule for when to which case is relatively easy to master, so it may make a good place to start after all. The technical word for a preposition of this type is Wechselpräposition, from wechseln ("to change"). This may be slightly too broad a term though, since it may used for any preposition which allows more than one case.

The case rule edit

The prepositions we'll be talking about here are an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, and zwischen. They can all be used to describe either the location something is taking place, in which case the noun that follows is in the dative case, or the destination of motion, in which case the noun that follows is in the accusative case. Another way of saying this is that you use dative if the preposition answers the question "Wo ...", and accusative if the preposition answers the question "Wohin ...". (See the section on interrogatives.)

Since the case which follows one of these preposition is a function of meaning, it's best for the learner to think of them as two separate, if related, words. In English there are two prepositions "in" and "into" which are different words but with related meanings, and you should think of the dative and accusative versions of the prepositions as having a similar relationship.

When used as a location, in other words the dative version, the prepositional phrase formed from these prepositions can be used as either an adverb or as a predicate. When used as a direction, the accusative version, the prepositional phrase is used as an adverb and is applicable to either verbs of motion (for example gehen – "to go") or causes of motion (for example bringen – "to bring").

in + dative edit

This usually means the action is taking place, as you might expect, in, or more specifically inside, something. For example:

  • Das Kind spielt in der Küche. – "The child is playing in the kitchen."

With masculine and neuter nouns, in dem is contracted to im:

  • Meine Schwester ist im Haus. – "My sister is in the house."

By extension, you can use in for some areas with a border of some kind, for example a park or a garden. More figuratively, the area can be defined by a type of landscape, for example a forest, desert, etc.

  • Tiger leben im Dschungel. – "Tigers live in the jungle."

You can also use in to mean surrounded by a certain substance instead of a specific location:

  • Fische schwimmen im Wasser. – "Fish swim in (the) water."

Note that, depending on the circumstances, in might be translated as a preposition other than "in" in English:

  • Ich sehe sie im Restaurant. – "I see her at the restaurant."

As a predicate it tells you that something or someone is inside something else:

  • Ich bin im Laden. – "I'm at the store."

This predicate sense can be turned into a noun modifier, functioning something like an adjective.

  • Meine Schwester in Chicago ist verheiratet. – "My sister in Chicago is married."

When used with some period of time, in means to take place within that period, thus extending the spatial sense to a temporal sense. In this sense it is usually applied to time periods lasting more than a week:

  • Sie trinkt im Winter Tee. – "She drinks tea in winter."

Note that in this sense we have an adverb of time rather than of location, so the phrase comes earlier in the sentence than otherwise:

  • Sie trinkt Tee im Café. – "She drinks tea in the café."

But if the fact is that the event takes place in at most a given amount of time, then in is nearly always used:

  • Das Gericht ist in einer Minute fertig. – "The dish will be ready in a minute."

A rather random exception occurs with Nacht:

  • Ich schlafe in der Nacht. – "I sleep at night."

in + accusative edit

With the accusative case, it's usually better to translate in as "into", though sometimes just "to" is more appropriate.

  • Ich bringe den Teller in die Küche. – "I'm bringing the plate into the kitchen."

Note that the more figurative extensions of in generally apply to the accusative case as well, and the same principle holds for the other prepositions covered in this section. But there are sometimes subtleties which apply to a single case. For example, in is used for some areas with borders here as well.

  • Wir laufen in den Garten. – "We're walking into the garden."

With neuter nouns, in das is contracted to ins:

  • Ich werfe Steine ins Wasser. – "I'm throwing stones into the water."

As a destination, in is used with locations smaller than a city, especially if it means going into a building of some kind. Certain proper nouns require an article, for example die Vereinigten Staaten, and these always use in when used as a destination.

  • Gehst du ins Kino. – "Are you going to a movie?"
  • Mein Bruder fliegt in die Vereinigten Staaten. – "My brother is flying to the United States."

An article is option with compass directions, and if you do use one then use in.

  • Wir fahren in den Norden. – "We're traveling north."

The opposite of in, aus, always uses the dative even though it does indicate motion. In this case you can argue that aus does not indicate a destination, but there are other dative preposition which do indicate a destination. So the above case rule only applies to prepositions where dative and accusative are both options.

an + dative edit

Although this word sounds very similar to the English "on", it can only be used in some of the cases where "on" is usable. It's never used in the sense of "on top of", but in the sense of "attached to" or "in close contact with", which are other meanings of "on" in English. Sometimes "against" is the most appropriate translation. For example:

  • Das Bild ist an der Wand. – "The picture is on the wall."

We don't mean the picture is on top of the wall, but that it's attached to it somehow.

  • Er lehnt an einem Baum. – "He's leaning against a tree."

As with in, an dem is contracted to am:

  • Äpfel hängen am Baum. – "Apples hang from the tree."
    • Note that the preposition in English, "from", is rather peculiar to this situation. The more logical "Apples hang on the tree," would rarely be used though, unless someone placed the apples there like Christmas decorations.

Other examples:

  • Die Blätter am Baum sind rot. – "The leaves on the tree are red."
    • In this case am Baum is used as a predicate and a noun modifier as in a previous example.
  • Ein Mann ist an der Tür. – "A man is at the door."
    • Here, the man is not literally attached to the door, but is paying attention to it, presumably after knocking on it once or twice.
  • Ich sitze am Feuer. – "I'm sitting by the fire."
    • Again, not literally attached to the fire, but close enough to feel its warmth.

As a location, an is often used with schools, universities and other educational institutions. This is especially true if the activity is studying or teaching, as opposed to, say, just sweeping up. For example:

  • Sie studiert an der Universität. – "She studies at the university."

As with in, an can also be used with a period of time, but in this case it's used with either days or periods of similar length.

  • Sie trinkt am Morgen Tee. – "She drinks tea in the morning."
  • Ich arbeite oft an Wochenenden. – "I often work on weekends."

But, as mentioned above, this does not apply to Nacht.

It should be mentioned here that a third preposition, um, is used for a specific hour. But um always takes the accusative case so it will be covered in another section.

an + accusative edit

With the accusative case, an can sometimes be translated as "onto", but it's often more appropriate to just use "on". The main thing is that the connection is created either through movement or some other action, rather than as a situation that had already existed.

  • Ich hänge meine Jacke an den Haken. – "I'm hanging my jacket on the hook."

Again, an can be used more figuratively, but it implies some interaction will occur, not just that something will be placed at the location.

  • Ich schicke ein Geschenk an meine Tochter. – "I'm sending a gift to my daughter."

As with in, an das is contracted to ans. This is used frequently with Telephon:

  • Er geht nicht ans Telephon. – "He's not answering the telephone." (Literally, "He doesn't go onto the telephone.")

auf + dative edit

This word covers the other main meaning of "on", namely "on top of". Although it sounds very similar to "off", it really means the opposite. For example:

  • Das Boot ist auf dem Wasser. – "The boat is on the water."
  • Die Uhr steht auf dem Regal. – "The clock is on the shelf." (Literally, it "stands" on the shelf.)

English and German don't always agree on when auf/"on" is appropriate.

  • Zärtlich wiegt sie auf den Armen ihre Puppe. – "She's rocking her doll tenderly in her arms."
    • We say "in her arms" in English rather than "on her arms", though technically the doll is lying on the arms, so perhaps German is more logical here.
    • Note that German often uses the definite article with body parts, so den Armen, rather than ihren Armen. This was mentioned in the section on possessives.
    • This example, with some minor changes, was taken from the children's book "Försters Pucki" by Magda Trott. The author uses word order to emphasize zärtlich ("tenderly") by putting it in first position, and to call out ihre Puppe ("her doll") as new information by putting it last.

You often use auf with objects that appear in pictures, TV screens, etc. For example:

  • Ich bin auf dem Bild. – "I'm in the picture."

As a location, auf is sometimes used for certain large, open areas, and for islands in general:

  • Die Kinder spielen auf der Straße. – "The children are playing in the street."
  • Meine Eltern sind auf der Insel. – "My parents are on the island."

English tends to use "in" for countries and states, even when they are islands or archipelagos, but German still prefers auf in these cases:

  • auf Island – "in Iceland"
  • auf den Philippinen – "in the Philippines"
  • auf Hawaii – "in Hawaii"

This also holds for certain large, institutional buildings:

  • Er wartet auf der Post. – "He's waiting at the post office."
  • Sie arbeitet auf dem Flughafen. – "She's working at the airport."

It can also be used for events:

  • Ich bin auf einer Konzert. – "I'm at a concert."
  • Sie trägt das Kleid auf einer Party. – "She's wearing the dress at a party."

Sometimes the meaning is rather figurative and random, and the meaning of "on top of" does not apply:

  • Ich bin auf einer Reise. – "I'm on a trip."

auf + accusative edit

As you should have guessed by now, this can be translated as "onto":

  • Die Katze springt auf das Bett. – "The cat is jumping onto the bed."

You can also use auf so say you're going to participate in some event.

  • Ich gehe auf eine Hochzeit. – "I'm going to a wedding."

The auf + accusative combination is used a in number of prepositional verbs, which we'll talk about at the end of the section.

neben edit

This means "next to" and implies a somewhat looser connection than with an.

  • Ich sitze neben ihr. – "I'm sitting next to her."

By now you should have good handle on the case rule so we won't belabor the point other than to give examples:

  • Er legt die Löffel neben die Gabeln. – "He's putting the spoons next to the forks."

This time English makes no distinction, however subtle, between the two meanings, so some extra care may be needed.

vor and hinter edit

These mean "in front of" and "behind" respectively.

  • Die Kinder spielen vor dem Haus. – "The children are playing in front of the house."
  • Die Kinder spielen hinter dem Haus. – "The children are playing behind the house."
  • Der Gärtner stellt den Baum vor das Haus. – "The gardener is placing the tree in front of the house."
  • Der Gärtner stellt den Baum hinter das Haus. – "The gardener is placing the tree behind the house."

Another meaning of vor relates to being the cause of an action. In some cases this would be translated as "from":

  • Ich verstecke die Süßigkeiten vor den Kindern. – "I'm hiding the candy from the children."
  • Der Ritter rettet das Mädchen vor dem Drachen. – "The knight saves the girl from the dragon."

But other translations are possible depending on the situation:

  • Er strahlt vor Glück. – "He's beaming with happiness."
    • The verb strahlen means "to shine", so this example is rather figurative.

With expressions of time, vor (with dative) is best translated as "before". However, "after" corresponds to nach in German, to be covered in another section.

  • Wir kommen vor dem Winter. – "We're coming before winter."

In English, "before" can also be used to join two clauses, making it a conjunction. This requires a different word, bevor, in German and we'll be covering that in another section.

über and unter edit

These mean "over" and "under" respectively. Sometimes "above" is a better translation for "über", especially for the dative meaning.

  • Vögel fliegen über dem Meer. – "Birds fly above the sea."
  • Fische schwimmen unter der Fläche. – "Fish swim under the surface."
  • Die Kinder werfen Steine über die Mauer. – "The children are throwing stones over the wall."
  • Ich verstecke die Papiere unter den Teppich. – "I'm hiding the papers under the carpet."

Sometimes unter can mean "between" or "among":

  • Er ist unter Freunden. – "He's among friends."

It's common to use über (with accusative) for the topic or subject of something.

  • Ich habe ein Buch über Fische. – "I have a book on fish."
  • Wir reden über Naomi. – "We're talking about Naomi."

zwischen edit

This means "between", or more precisely "in between". As such, it's almost always used with either a plural noun or two nouns joined by und:

  • Ich sehe den Hirsch zwischen den Bäumen. – "I see the deer between the trees."
  • Das Kind spielt zwischen der Katze und dem Hund. – "The child is playing between the cat and the dog."
  • Der Gärtner stellt den Baum zwischen die Häuser. – "The gardener is placing the tree between the houses."

Sometimes "among" or "amongst" fits the meaning better.

  • Ich finde Unkraut zwischen dem Weizen. – "I'm finding weeds among the wheat."

Prepositional verbs edit

We haven't covered every possible meaning of the prepositions listed here, nor would it be practical to attempt to do so. But we'll end the section my introducing prepositional verbs. These consist of a verb and a preposition whose meaning is difficult to find based solely on the meaning of the individual components. (This is different from separable verbs, which is a whole other deal in German, and which we'll cover in later sections.) Such expressions exist in English as well, for example "I'm counting on you," does not literally mean I'm counting (1, 2, 3, ...) on top of you. In terms of grammar these work like ordinary prepositions, but the meaning is specific to the verb and preposition in question, and it's sometimes better to think of the combination as a new verb. With the prepositions in this section, you must learn the case used for the noun in question, though as a general rule it's usually the case that the accusative is used when there is no location involved. For example:

  • Sie steht auf dich. – "She likes (fancies) you." (Literally, "She stands onto you.")
  • Er richtet die Waffe auf mich. – "He's pointing the weapon at (onto) me."
  • Das Kind hängt an seiner Großmutter. – "The child is fond of his grandmother." (Literally, "The child hangs on his grandmother.")

A good dictionary should list these special meanings under the verb in question.

A feature of natural language is that the literal meaning of a phrase does not always match the actual meaning. This phenomenon is frequently associated with idioms, but we'll reserve the term idiom for a more restricted set of expressions.


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