When you learn German, grammar can give you a hard time. It may even be one of your biggest worries.
Now, German prepositions might seem like a small detail compared to the more daunting task of mastering cases or verb position.
But, prepositions are an essential part of a sentence that helps us understand directions and instructions. Without these connecting words, fundamental communication wouldn't be possible.
Unlike the English language, German requires a little extra effort to use prepositions correctly.
In German, prepositions will indicate which of the four cases you're supposed to use. As if that wasn't complicated enough, two-way prepositions and idiomatic usages almost always find a way to confuse you.
This article will help eliminate any confusion you're experiencing with those pesky German prepositions.
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Now, let's get into the task at hand and clear up any confusion about German prepositions once and for all.
What Are German Prepositions?
Prepositions are little words we use to connect nouns, phrases, and pronouns in a sentence.
Some examples of prepositions in English include:
You might think German prepositions are as simple as learning the vocabulary and inserting the correct word into your sentence, right?
Well, unfortunately, the German language isn't that straightforward. But if you're here then, I think you already knew that!
Prepositions affect the cases of the nouns that follow them. And choosing the wrong case could change the meaning of your sentence.
But there's no need to fear. Keep going and you'll learn everything about German prepositions with easy-to-understand explanations in this post.
Prepositions And The Four German Cases
In both English and German, sentences contain:
- direct objects
- indirect objects
in the form of nouns (the ball, a cake etc) or pronouns (he, them, we, you, her etc).
Let's take a look at those elements of a sentence in action:
The girl (subject) takes her dog (direct object) for a walk to her grandmother's house (indirect object).
In German, these nouns and pronouns are assigned one of four cases.
The German language also has specific prepositions that always take the accusative and others the dative case.
Plus, there are some instances where you have to determine if a preposition should be accusative or dative based on its use in the sentence.
Let's break it down and take a look at each of these situations one by one.
#1 The Nominative Case
The nominative case, or Wer-Fall, tells us who or what is acting. The subject of the sentence is nominative. Always use the nominative case following forms of werden (to become) and sein (to be).
Here are some examples:
- Wer kocht? Who (subject) is cooking?
- Der Mann kocht. The man (subject) is cooking.
- Was ist einfach? What is easy?
- Die Sprache ist einfach. The language (subject) is easy.
The subject, or nominative case, is typically the easiest part of a sentence to identify. Next, you want to identify the direct object.
#2 The Accusative Case
The accusative case, or Wen-Fall, tells us who or what is affected by the action performed by the subject. Accusative nouns and pronouns are typically direct objects in a sentence.
- Er kocht Suppe. He (subject) is cooking soup (direct object). What is he cooking?
- Sie bestellt einen Salat. She (subject) is ordering a salad (direct object). What did she order?
In the accusative case, the direct objects are being influenced by the subjects or receiving the action performed.
Any nouns following the prepositions below will take the accusative case automatically.
Masculine words use the den, einen, or ihn form while feminine and neuter nouns stay the same.
Check out these examples:
- Er kocht für die Frau. He (subject) is cooking for (accusative preposition) the woman (direct object).
- Sie spielen ohne ihn. They (subject) are playing without (accusative preposition) him (direct object).
- Wir laufen um das Haus. We (subject) are walking around (accusative preposition) the house (direct object).
#3 The Dative Case
The dative, or Wem-Fall, case tells us more about the indirect object. The indirect object is a noun or pronoun that is passively influenced by an action. This case answers the questions, “whom?”
- Er gibt der Frau einen Brief. He (subject) is giving the woman (indirect object) a letter (direct object). To whom did he give the letter?
- Sie kocht mir eine Suppe. She (subject) is cooking soup (direct object) for me (indirect object).
- Ich gebe dem Hund sein Essen. I (subject) am giving the dog (indirect object) his food (direct object).
Just as with accusative case, some prepositions only take the dative case.
Masculine and neutral words change to:
Feminine words change to:
The plural form is den.
- Wir treffen uns nach dem Essen. We are meeting after the meal.
- Ich komme aus den USA. I'm from the USA.
- Er ist mit seiner Mutter. He is with his mother.
- Sie wohnt hier seit zehn Jahren. She's lived here for ten years.
#4 The Genitive Case
The genitive case describes possession or ownership. You won't hear the genitive case much in spoken language. Instead, German speakers use the dative case and von.
But you will come across (and have to use!) genitive prepositions in written and formal language.
So here they are:
In spoken language, it's common to use the dative case with anstatt and wegen. But you should always use the genitive form when writing.
- Wir sind während des Urlaubs snorcheln gegangen. We went snorkeling during the vacation.
- Die Straße ist geschlossen wegen des Umbaus. The street is closed because of the construction.
- Ich wohne außerhalb der Stadt. I live outside of the city.
Dual Prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen)
Up until this point, the rules probably seemed straightforward.
But an exception to these rules is where most people get confused.
Two-way prepositions, or Wechselpräpositionen, can take either the accusative or dative case.
Below is a list of two-way German prepositions.
So how should you know when to use accusative and when to use dative?
One rule will help you determine which case to use:
- Use accusative when motion is involved. The accusative case asks the question, where to?
- Use dative when there is no motion involved. The dative case asks the question, where?
- Wir gehen in das Restaurant. We are going to the restaurant. (accusative)
- Wir sind in dem Restaurant. We are in the restaurant. (dative)
- Lege die Karte auf den Tisch. Lay the map on the table. (dative)
- Die Karte liegt auf dem Tisch. The map is lying on the table. (dative)
German Prepositional Contractions
In English, we shorten words, like cannot (can't) and do not (don't). Similarly, German prepositions can also be shortened.
Below are the contractions for German prepositions.
Good news. You can use contractions in both spoken and written language.
Idiomatic Expressions With German Prepositions
Idiomatic expressions can confuse you because they don't always follow the rules discussed above.
Some of the most common phrases are listed below.
- Beim besten Willen nicht = Not by any stretch of the imagination
- Es kommt darauf an = It depends
- Hör auf damit! = Stop it!
- Ich bin damit einverstanden = I agree
- Ich halte nicht viel davon = I don’t think much of that
- Keine Spur davon = No sign of it
- mit Waschbrettbauch = Ripped, with washboard abs
These prepositional phrases should be easy to pick up as you'll hear them a lot in everyday, conversations.
Other idioms will take time and practice to get used to since their structures are different than in English. For example, Wir gehen ins Kino. (We're going to the movies.)
As an English speaker, you would probably assume that zum Kino was correct. But not all expressions are necessarily translated word for word.
How To Learn German Prepositions Easily
There are so many German prepositions that require specific cases, and you may not know where to begin.
How should you memorize all these different words along with their correct cases? One of the easiest ways to learn German prepositions is with help from a few songs.
For example, the dative prepositions are a perfect fit for the song “An der schönen blauen Donau.” However, you'll have to improvise when it comes to finding a space for gegenüber.
Similarly, you can get used to the dual prepositions with help from the song “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Not a fan of learning through songs? No worries. The main goal is to immerse yourself in the language so you can hear the prepositions in context and pick them up naturally.
You can do that by listening to German podcasts. Or with my favourite method, by reading German books. Whether you sing along with a song, read a book chapter or tune into a podcast, make sure you have daily contact with German.
That's how the prepositions and cases they take will become second nature.
So, that's it! You're on your way to mastering German prepositions. All you need to do now is practice. With time, you'll become more familiar with the language, and your Sprachgefühl will enable you to identify the correct case for each preposition. Viel Erfolg!
And if you need a little bit of help along the way, then make sure you take a look at German Grammar Hero for a story-based solution to mastering tricky German grammar.
How do you feel about the German prepositions now? And what other aspects of German grammar make you want to tear your hair out? Let me know in a comment below.