Understanding German Prepositions: A Quick Guide

German prepositions are used to link nouns, pronouns or phrases to other elements in a sentence. Prepositions in the German language usually precede a noun or pronoun.  

Some common German prepositions include für (for), auf (on), an (at) unter (under), über (above, over) bei (at, near, by), von (from), and mit (with)

Importance of Knowing German Prepositions 

Without prepositions, it would be difficult to add details such as location, direction, time, manner, or reason to German sentences. Here are some examples to demonstrate this; 

Das Geschenk ist für dich. (The present is for you.) → Without the preposition “für”, you wouldn’t be able to say who the present is for. 

Ich fahre mit dem Zug. (Literal Translation: I drive with the train.) → Actual translation: I am taking the train. Without the preposition “mit”, you wouldn’t be able to say which mode of transport you are using. 

Er ist bei mir. (He is with me./He is at my place.) → Without the preposition, you wouldn’t be able to say who he is with. 

Die E-Mail ist von Steffi. (The email is from Steffi.) → Without the preposition, you wouldn’t be able to say who the email is from. 

This emphasizes the critical role prepositions play in German sentences for both everyday speech and written communication. 

A Quick Overview of the German Cases 

You need to be aware of four different categories of prepositions in the German language: Accusative, Dative, Two-Way, and Genitive Prepositions. You have to be familiar with the German Cases system to use them correctly.  

You will also need to have a solid understanding of German pronouns and the different types of German articles in order to use any of these prepositions correctly in a German sentence. 

Let’s review the German cases before jumping into detail on how German prepositions work. 

Nominative Case 

Nouns, pronouns, and articles can have specific roles in German sentences. They can be the subject, the direct or indirect object, or they can be used when we talk about posession. These roles are what we call “cases”.   

We use the Nominative Case to refer to the subject of a sentence. Who or what is doing something? 

Die Kinder haben Hunger. (The children are hungry.) → Who is hungry? The children are!  The noun “Kinder” is accompanied by the German definite article “die”. The two words “Die Kinder” make up the subject of the sentence. The subject takes the Nominative Case in German. 

Johanna spielt mit dem Ball. (Johanna is playing with the ball.) → Who is playing with the ball? Johanna is! So she is the subject of that sentence. We need to use the Nominative Case. If we replace Johanna with the German pronoun “sie” (she), the sentence would be: 

Sie spielt mit dem Ball. (She is playing with the ball.) → Who is playing with the ball? She is! “Sie” is a pronoun in the Nominative Case. 

Accusative Case 

We use the Accusative Case to refer to the direct object of a sentence. Who or what is being “verbed”? The subject “verbs” the direct object. The verb has an effect on a person or thing, or it does something to that person or that thing. 

Carolin sieht die Frau. (Carolin sees the woman.) → The subject here is clearly “Carolin” because she is the one seeing the woman. The woman she is seeing is the direct object. The direct object is being seen by Carolin. We can replace “die Frau” with the pronoun “sie”: 

Carolin sieht sie. (Carolin sees her.) → The pronoun “sie” is the direct object. 

Jacqueline braucht ihren Laptop. (Jacqueline needs her laptop.) → The subject is Jacqueline because she is the one needing something. The thing she needs is her laptop. The laptop is the direct object of that sentence. It is being needed by Jacqueline. We could replace laptop with the pronoun “ihn”.  

Jacqueline braucht ihn. (Jacqueline needs it or rather needs “him”.) → Laptop is a masculine noun. “ihn” is a German pronoun in the Accusative case. The pronoun “ihn” is the direct object in this sentence. 

Jenny hat eine Hündin. (Jenny has a female dog.) → Jenny is the subject because she owns a female dog. The female dog is owned by Jenny, which makes it the direct object.  

By the way, the verbs “sehen” (to see), “brauchen” (to need), and “haben” (to have) ALWAYS go with a direct object and thus take the Accusative Case. This is worth remembering because they are extremely common verbs used all the time in German sentences. 

Dative Case 

We use the Dative Case to refer to the indirect object of a sentence. The indirect object is usually a person receiving something or benefitting from something. 

Alicia gibt Emily ein Glas Wasser. (Alicia is giving Emily a glass of water.) → The subject is Alicia because she is the one giving something to Emily. The thing being given is the glass of water which makes it the direct object. The recipient is Emily because she is getting the glass of water. We could replace Emily with the pronoun “ihr” which means “to her” or “for her”. 

Alicia gibt ihr ein Glas Wasser. (Alicia is giving her a glass of water.) → The pronoun “ihr” is the indirect object which means you have to use the Dative Case. 

Nelio zeigt seiner Tante das Bilderbuch. (Nelio is showing his aunt the picture book.) → Nelio is the subject, the picture book is the direct object, and the aunt (Tante) is the indirect object because something is being shown to her. The aunt takes the Dative Case. 

Genitive Case 

The Genitive Case is mostly used to refer to the possession of a thing or the relationship of someone or something to a person or thing. It connects two nouns with each other to indicate this relation. 

Das ist das Buch meiner Mutter. (This is the book of my mother, or rather, This is my mother’s book.) → The book is in the Nominative Case (subject), while the mother is in the Genitive Case (she is the one owning the book). 

Die Chefin seiner Frau hat zwei Kinder. (The boss of his wife has two children.) → The boss is in the Nominative Case, the children are in the Accusative Case, and the wife is in the Genitive Case. Whose boss is it? It is his wife’s boss. The relation of the boss and the wife is shown by the Genitive Case. 

Am Anfang des Tages haben wir immer eine Besprechung. (At the beginning of the day, we always have a meeting.) → Whose beginning is it? It is the day’s beginning. The genitive case shows the relation between the beginning and the day. The day is in the genitive case. 

Types of German Prepositions 

There are four types of prepositions you will have to become familiar with: The accusative, dative, two-way, and genitive prepositions. Let’s delve into more detail. 

Accusative Prepositions 

Now that you have an idea of what the German Cases are all about, we can begin to look at the different kinds of German prepositions.  

There are prepositions in the German language that ALWAYS take the accusative Case. You will need to learn those prepositions by heart. They are bis, durch, entlang, für, gegen, ohne, and um. Whenever you use these prepositions, the noun that follows must be in the accusative Case. 

The following table shows you how accusative prepositions are used in a sentence with the equivalent English translations. 

An overview of German accusative prepositions with examples.

You can find some very useful examples on each accusative preposition in the following video: 

Dative Prepositions 

Let’s take a look at prepositions that ALWAYS take the dative case in the German Language. The German dative prepositions are ab, aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, and zu. You will also need to memorize these. The following table shows you some useful examples and their English translations. 

An overview of German dative prepositions with examples.

German dative prepositions and articles can sometimes be combined into one word. These are called contractions. 

  • The dative preposition “bei” and the dative article “dem” are often contracted to “beim” if the noun that follows is masculine or neuter. 
  • “Von” and “dem” form the contraction “vom” in front of masculine or neuter nouns. 
  • The dative preposition “zu” and the dative article “dem” combined form the word “zum”. 

You can find more useful examples of sentences with German dative prepositions in this video: 

Two-Way Prepositions 

German two-way prepositions can be used with either the accusative case or the dative case. They are used with the accusative case when we are referring to a movement. You are moving from A to B. They are used with the dative case when we are referring to a location. 

The two-way prepositions are an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, and zwischen. 

Let’s take a look at an example using the preposition “in”. 

Sie ist im Haus. (She is in the house.) → “Im” is a contraction of “in” + “dem”. 

Sie geht ins Haus. (She is going into the house.) → “Ins” is a contraction of “in” + “das”. 

While the first sentence talks about her location, the second sentence talks about where she is going. She is outside and is headed inside. Outside is A, and inside is B. 

If you are not sure whether to use the dative or the accusative case with two-way prepositions, you can ask yourself if the corresponding question is “Wo?” (Where?) or “Wohin?” (Where to?). “Wo” asks about the location, while “wohin” asks about the direction. 

Wo ist sie? → Sie ist in der Küche. (Where is she? She is in the kitchen.) 

Wohin geht sie? → Sie geht in die Küche. (Where is she going? She is going into the kitchen.) 

Let’s take a look at the list of German two-way prepositions used in examples with their English translations. And this may not come as a surprise: You’ll have to memorize them ;). 

An overview of German two-way prepositions with examples.

Sometimes, there is movement involved but you are not moving from A to B, but rather in an undefined space.  

  • Ich fahre auf der Autobahn. (I am driving on the highway. The highway is location A and you are not moving away from this location, you are staying in location A. That is why “auf” is followed by the dative case.) 
  • Ich fahre auf die Autobahn. (I am driving onto the highway. You are on the freeway or interstate or some other road and you are leaving that road to go onto the highway. The road you were on before going onto the highway is location A, which you are leaving to get to location B which is the highway. And so we have to use the accusative case here after the preposition “auf”.) 

Common contractions of German two-way prepositions and articles are: 

  • am = an + dem 
  • im = in + dem 
  • ins = in + das 

Check out this video for practical everyday examples: 

Genitive Prepositions 

Last but not least, we shouldn’t forget about the most important genitive prepositions which include anstatt/statt, außerhalb, innerhalb, trotz, während, and wegen. These prepositions are followed by the genitive case and should be memorized as well. 

An overview of German genitive prepositions with examples.

You can find a lot of useful examples with explanations of how genitive prepositions are used in the following video: 

Common Mistakes with German Prepositions 

Avoiding common mistakes when learning German prepositions is essential if you are aiming for fluency. Let’s explore some of these errors to help you progress toward your goal. 

  • Don’t Use the Wrong Cases: Using the wrong cases with the prepositions you have just learned marks the difference between a German beginner and someone who speaks German fluently. Make sure to memorize which prepositions take which case, as there is no logical way to deduce this. 
  • Don’t Translate Literally: Remember that you cannot always translate the prepositions literally into English and that many German prepositions have more than one English translation. For the English prepositions “for” and “from”, there are the German equivalents “für” and “von” which even look and sound similar. But there are quite a few other prepositions that have multiple meanings or cannot be translated literally.

The preposition “um” can mean “around”: Ich laufe um den See. (I am running around the lake.) But it can also mean “at”: Wir treffen uns um 13 Uhr. (We are meeting at 1 pm.) “Bis” can mean until – Ich arbeite bis 18 Uhr. (I work until 6 pm), but it also means “by”: Bis Samstag müssen wir fertig werden. (We have to be finished by Saturday.) 

“Bei” means “at”, “with” or “by” depending on the context. “Bei mir” translates to “at my place” or “with me”. “Beim Arzt” means “at the doctor’s” and “bei der Apotheke” means “close to or by the pharmacy”. 

  • Don’t Ignore German Pronouns and Articles: Study German pronouns and articles well before you start working with German prepositions. Otherwise, you may be using the correct preposition, but the noun or pronoun following that preposition will be in the wrong case. 

Tips for Practicing German Prepositions 

Prepositions are tools to talk about when, where, how, and why something happened. They will broaden your horizon and introduce you to a whole new world of phrases and expressions. 

You will need to distinguish between four types of German prepositions: Accusative prepositions, dative prepositions, two-way prepositions, and genitive prepositions. This aspect of German grammar requires a solid understanding of German nouns, pronouns, and articles as well as the German cases. 

German prepositions and their power should not be underestimated. Mastering German prepositions will enable you communicate confidently across various subjects, taking you from superficial small talk to fluency. 

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