German Prepositions of Place


Prepositions of place or locative prepositions show the position or location of nouns, pronouns or articles. Prepositions of place correspond to the questions “Where/Where … to/Where … from?”

Location: the prepositions in, an, auf and bei (followed by the dative case) are used with fixed locations, while aus and von (also followed by the dative case) are used to signify origin.

Direction: the prepositions in and auf (followed by the accusative case) or zu and nach (followed by the dative case) are used.

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Prepositions are short words that help demonstrate the relationship between one noun pronoun (person, thing, object) to another noun or pronoun in a sentence based on time (temporal), place (local), manner (causal or manner). Prepositions in German are classified as “unveränderlich” (unchangeable), as the word itself does not change regardless of the case or gender of the nouns they are connecting. They do, however, trigger specific cases depending on the nature of the relationship and what question was asked. One single preposition can serve as a preposition of place in one instance, but as a preposition of time in another. 

Der Junge Steht vor dem Haus. (local)
The boy stands in front of the house. 
Der Junge wäscht sich vor dem Essen die Hände. (temporal)
The boy washes his hands before the meal. 
Der Junge zittert vor Kälte. (manner/causal)
THe boy shivers from the cold
Der Junge hat Angst vor der Katze. (manner/causal)
The boy is afraid of the cat. 

In the above examples the preposition “vor” is used to demonstrate the relationship between the boy and the house/meal/cold/cat, but the relationship is different in each sentence. 

Some prepositions will always trigger the same case (accusative, dative or genitive prepositions), others can trigger different cases, depending on the question that is being asked.

1. Wo? Woher? Wohin?

In German, there are three distinct ways we can inquire about place or location: Wo? (Where?), “Wohin?” (Where to?, and “Woher?” (Where from?). The question word “Wo?” (where) typically inquires about a fixed location, and prepositions that answer the question “Wo?” are almost always proceeded by the dative case, with a handful of genitive exceptions. 

Woher?” inquires about the origin, and there are only two prepositions (“aus” and “von”) that are used to answer to “woher”, and both always trigger the dative case. 

Wohin?” questions usually inquire about direction, and prepositions that answer these two question words can be followed by either the accusative or the dative case. The preposition “in”, for example, changes case depending on what question word we use (are we inquiring about a fixed location, or a direction?). 

Wo ist der Hund? -Der Hund ist im (in dem) Garten.(dative)
Where is the dog? – The dog is in the yard 
Wohin geht der Hund? – Der Hund geht in den Garten. (accusative) 
Where is the dog going?  – The dog is going in(to) the yard. 

If a preposition can trigger different cases, they are called “two-way prepositions” (such as “in”). Some prepositions, however, can only ever trigger one case.

2. Accusative prepositions 

The following prepositions will always trigger the accusative case, regardless of what the context is. Some of them can be used as both, a temporal or a local preposition, some only make sense as either. 

acc preps jpg

As we know that “Wo?” is always answered with prepositions followed by the dative (or genitive) case, we can deduce that none of these accusative prepositions can ever be used to answer a “wo”-question. They can, however, answer a “wohin” question, and when they do, they will always be followed by the accusative case. 

Wohin gehst du? – Ich gehe durch den Tunnel.
 (accusative of “der Tunnel”)
Where are you going (to)? – I am going through the tunnel. 
Wohin gehen wir? – Wir gehen um die Stadt herum. (accusative of “die Stadt”)
Where are we going (?)  – We are going around the city. 
Wohin geht er? – Er geht den Weg entlang. (accusative of “der Weg”)

In the above examples, each question used an accusative preposition. When using “um”, we do not have to use “herum” as well, but it adds more detail. If we do use “herum”, it is placed on the other side of the noun. “Entlang” is always behind the noun. 

2. Dative Prepositions

The following prepositions always trigger the dative case. When used as a preposition of place, they can answer “Wo?”, “Wohin?” and “Woher?” questions. 

dative prepd79781d8a32546e1a858611d554fc52e jpg

Wo bist du? – Ich bin beim (bei dem) Kino. (dative of “das Kino”) 
I am by the move theater.
Wohin gehst du? – Ich gehe zum (zu dem) Arzt. (dative of “der Arzt”)
I am going to the doctor. 
Woher kommst du? – Ich komme aus der Arbeit. (dative of “die Arbeit”)
I am coming from work. 

3. Two-Way Prepositions 

There are several prepositions that can go either with the dative or the accusative case, and it depends solely on what the question is. As mentioned above, the preposition “in” can be used with the dative case, if we are asking about a fixed location. But it can also go with the accusative case, if we are asking about a direction. 

two way prep jpg

Wo ist die Maus?  – Die Maus ist unter dem Sofa. (dative)
Where is the mouse? – The mouse is under the sofa. (fixed location)
Wohin läuft die Maus? – Die Maus läuft unter das Sofa. (accusative)
Where is the mouse running?  – The mouse is running under the sofa. (direction)

4. Genitive Prepositions 

There are a handful of prepositions that always trigger the genitive case, two of which can answer the question “wo”? “innerhalb” (within, inside of) and “ausserhalb” (without, outside of). 

Wo sind wir? – Wir sind innerhalb des Landkreises. 
Where are we? – We are within/inside the county (boundaries). 

5. Contractions 

Depending on the preposition and the gender and case of the noun, we can form contractions.

an dem -> am ( masculine or neutral noun in the dative)
an das -> ans (neutral noun in the accusative)
bei dem -> beim (masculine or neutral noun in the dative)
in dem -> im (masculine or neutral noun in the dative)
in das -> ins (neutral noun in the accusative)
von dem -> vom (masculine or neutral noun in the dative)
zu der -> zur (feminine noun in the dative)
zu dem -> zum (masculine or neutral noun in the dative)

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:

Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

Specific Capabilities at this Level

I can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate needs. I can write a very simple personal letter, for example thanking someone for something.
Spoken Production:
I can use a series of phrases and sentences to describe in simple terms my family and other people, living conditions, my educational background and my present or most recent job.
Spoken Interaction:
I can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself.
I can read very short, simple texts. I can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus and timetables and I can understand short simple personal letters.
I can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.