German Two-Way Prepositions

Overview

There is a category of prepositions that switch back-and-forth between the accusative (when indicating direction) and dative (when indicating location). Memorize the short list of prepositions and follow the specific case and you will be set!

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There are a handful of prepositions that can take either the accusative or dative case. These are called two-way prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen):

an     auf     hinter     in     neben     vor     über     unter     zwischen

Several of these prepositions have contractions that are commonly used (an, in, auf) and others appear in less frequently (über, unter, vor). These contractions are as follows:

Akkusativ                           Dativ

ans = an das                       am = an dem*

aufs = auf das

ins = in das                          im = in dem

übers = über das                überm = über dem

unters = unter das              unterm = unter dem

vors = vor das                     vorm = vor dem

*‘dem’ can be either masculine or neuter in the dative case.

These two-way prepositions generally have the following meanings (with Accusative (A) and Dative (D) examples):

an = on (a vertical surface, e.g. wall), to/at a border/boundary (e.g. beach)/vertical structure (e.g. window)

Du hängst das Poster an die Wand. (A)          Das Poster hängt an der Wand. (D)

Wir gehen heute an den Strand.                     Wir waren gestern am Strand.

Sie geht ans Fenster.                                      Ihr steht jetzt am Fenster.

auf = on (a horizontal surface), at (e.g. the market), to (e.g. the bank), in (e.g. the post office)

Ich lege das Buch auf den Tisch. (A)               Das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch. (D)

Wir gehen auf den Markt.                                 Susanna und Ingrid sind auf der Bank.

hinter = behind

Er fährt hinter das Gebäude. (A)                      Die Lehrerin steht hinter dem Schreibtisch. (D)

in = in, into, to

Sie sollen in die Staatsoper gehen. (A)             Die Studenten sitzen im Klassenzimmer. (D)

neben = beside, next to

Du stellst die Flasche neben das Handy. (A)   Die Flasche steht neben dem Handy. (D)

über = above, over, across

Die Uhr hängt ihr über den Schrank. (A)         Die Uhr hängt über dem Schrank. (D)

Wir sind über die Strasse gegangen.                 Der Vogel fliegt über dem Park.

unter = under

Der Hund geht unter das Bett. (A)                      Die Katze liegt unter dem Bett. (D)

vor = before, in front of

Stell dein Auto vor das Haus! (A)                         Die Frau steht vor der Tür. (D)

zwischen = between

Stell die Lampe zwischen das Sofa und den Stuhl! (A)          Die Lampe steht zwischen dem Sofa und Stuhl. (D)

Several of the verbs in the above example sentences are written in boldface. These are verbs that are frequently used to indicate placement in both the accusative and dative. Stellen is used when placing objects in an upright position, whereas stehen indicates something that is standing upright, which can include people and objects (especially those with feet, legs, or a base, such as a table, chair, lamp, or car). Setzen and sitzen are used for people and animals to indicate setting (oneself) down (setzen) or being in a sitting position (sitzen). Legen applies to placing objects in a horizontal position, but liegen describes something that is already lying down (similar to the English “lay” vs. “lie”). In addition, setzen, stellen, and legen include a reflexive pronoun when talking about a person (e.g. Setz dich! / Set yourself down!); in English, this reflexive pronoun is often implied/omitted. The final verbs of placement are hängen and stecken, the former meaning “to hang” and the latter defined as “to stick” or “to put in(to)” (e.g. Er steckt die Flasche in seinen Rucksack. / Die Flasche steckt im Rucksack.).

To determine which verb of placement is needed, consider the two questions “Wo? and “Wohin?”. Wo (where, at what place/location) requires the dative case, whereas wohin (where to) uses the accusative case.

Beispiele:

Wohin gehst du heute Abend?          Where are you going (to) this evening?

Wo stellst du die Flasche hin?           Where are you putting the bottle?

Wo sind Sie im Moment?                    Where are you at the moment?

Wo steht die Flasche?                           Where is the bottle (standing/at)?

In the first two examples, the accusative is used to indicate that there is motion to a place, whether that is a person or an object that is being moved. The last two examples are in the dative, and they have to do with a set or static location. Consider, however, the following example:

Ich gehe gern im Park joggen.          I like to go jogging in the park.

In this sentence, the the person is in motion, but it is within a particular place and is, therefore, in the dative case (im Park).

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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 and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

Specific Capabilities at this Level

Writing:
I can write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings. I can fill in forms with personal details, for example entering my name, nationality and address on a hotel registration form.
Spoken Production:
I can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live and people I know.
Spoken Interaction:
I can interact in a simple way provided the other person is prepared to repeat or rephrase things at a slower rate of speech and help me formulate what I’m trying to say. I can ask and answer simple questions in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics.
Reading:
I can understand familiar names, words and very simple sentences, for example on notices and posters or in catalogues.
Listening:
I can recognize familiar words and very basic phrases concerning myself, my family and immediate concrete surroundings when people speak slowly and clearly.