German Prepositions: What They Are And How To Use Them

  • Fergus O'Sullivan
    Written byFergus O'Sullivan
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German Prepositions: What They Are And How To Use Them

When I was learning German, one of the most annoying things was probably the language’s prepositions.

Like most languages — except maybe GreekGerman has a lot of different prepositions, many of which are only slightly different in meaning from another one.

On top of that problem, German prepositions can also affect the case of the word they’re pointing at and as there are four German noun cases, that’s a lot of extra information to remember.

In this article, I’m going to break down the German prepositions into their four groups so you can study them easier.

That’s the good news; the bad news is that there are no shortcuts here.

You’re going to have to simply memorize these lists. All I can do is try and make things easier.

What are prepositions?

Before we show they work in German, it may be a good idea to quickly go over what they are.

Prepositions aren’t very easy to define, but think of them as words that go before a noun or pronoun and can show direction (“to”), location (“at”) and spatial relationships (“next”), among other things.

If you have trouble keeping your grammatical terms straight — I sure do — then the way to remember what prepositions do is in the name itself: pre + position, or “before place.”

It’s not very elegant, but it works.

How propositions work

In English and German prepositions work pretty much the same way: when I want to say “Amanda goes to John” I say it as follows in both languages.

Listen to audio

Sie geht nach ihn.

She goes to him.

In both cases, the pronoun for John, “he” changes to its accusative form, ihn in German and “him” in English.

However, because German has four cases as opposed to English’s two, there’s a lot more variation, which can make learning them a little harder.

German preposition groups

There are four classes of prepositions in German, which more or less overlap with the cases.

There’s a group that mixes exclusively with the genitive, one that only goes with the dative and one that solely hangs out with the accusative.

The last group is the trickiest one: it can go either with the dative or accusative, but we’ll get to that later.

No prepositions go with the nominative as, well, grammar doesn’t work that way.

I’ll go over each group separately, give you the list of prepositions that belong to it, as well as show you some examples.

As I wanted to be thorough, I added every proposition I could think of, including a few that are only found in written German, and even then not very often.

I’ll mention when that’s the case so you don’t start saying the German equivalent of “astride” in daily conversation.

At the end I’ll also go over some contractions which you’ll hear a lot, especially in spoken German.

Prepositions with genitive

To start, we’ll start with the smallest group: those that go with the second case or genitive.

If you’ve glanced at the table below, you may wonder why I call it the smallest since there are 12 entries, but that’s because almost none of them are used any more.

The genitive group are almost all archaic prepositions you don’t see much unless you’re a big fan of high-brow literature or hang out with some seriously pretentious people.

They share that with the verbs that always go with the genitive.

The only one in the list I’ve heard used often is während (“during”), though you’ll come across trotz (“in spite of”) and wegen(“because of”), too.

Still, it’s good to at least look at the others as you will see them in books.

Generally speaking, genitive prepositions usually deal with location or causation.

Prepositions with genitive

Deutsch English
anstatt instead of
ausserhalb outside of
beiderseits on both sides
diesseits on this side of
innerhalb inside of
jenseits on the other side of
oberhalb above
trotz in spite of
unterhalb below
unweit not far from
während during
wegen because of

Jenseits is a bit like saying “yonder” in English, so you won’t see it much, but you may come across the expression das Jenseits, which is a noun that means “the afterlife.”

We’ll kick off with an old-timey example, so you get a feel for it.

Listen to audio

Es gibt Häuser beiderseits des Flusses.

There are houses on both side of the river.

Since the houses are on both sides of the river, “river” (der Fluss) gets the genitive, so the article turns to des.

Here’s another common sentence you’ll find, with yet another masculine noun.

Listen to audio

Während des 19. Jahrhunderts…

During the 19th century...

It’s all pretty straightforward, really: if you see any of the above prepositions, you know the corresponding noun will be in the genitive.

Prepositions with dative

The next group of prepositions works much the same way, only with the dative, or third case.

For English speakers, this is the trickiest case, which is why we dedicated a whole article on mastering the German dative.

Generally speaking, these are a lot more common than the first group and deal with location and time, mostly.

Dank, laut and zufolge are fairly rare and I’ve never seen gemäss used myself, except in lists like this.

Prepositions with dative

Deutsch English
ab from (time)
aus from, out of
ausser except
bei at, near
dank thanks to
entgegen contrary to
gegenüber opposite
gemäss according to
laut according to
mit with
nach to, after
seit since
von of, from, about
zu to
zufolge according to

We’ll do some simple examples so you can get a feel for these prepositions.

Listen to audio

Wir sind ab 9 Uhr hier.

We're here from 9 o'clock.

Ab is used like the English “from” but only for time. Don’t say something like you’re “ab London” because that would be gibberish.

As Uhr is feminine, the noun doesn’t change and it doesn’t have an article in this particular case. However, as it can also mean “clock,” so let’s see what it looks like in another example.

Listen to audio

Die Kneipe ist gegenüber der Uhr.

The pub is opposite the clock.

Obviously, if used with a personal pronoun, that will change to the dative, too:

Listen to audio

Bleib bei mir.

Stay with me.

Note that bei means “with” as in a static location, while mit implies movement. So if you’re going somewhere and you want somebody to go with you, you’d not say bei, but mit instead.

Listen to audio

Komm mit mir.

Come with me.

Change mit to bei in that sentence and the meaning changes radically.

Listen to audio

Komm bei mir.

Come to me.

Prepositions with accusative

The next group is also very common, namely prepositions that go with the accusative.

You’ll come across all of these on a daily basis, except maybe entlang, which is a tad rare.

Speaking of which, entlang is a bit odd in that it belongs in the accusative group according to some, but according to others also occasionally can take the dative so should belong in the next group.

Generally, though, it’s classified in this group, so I’ve done the same.

Prepositions with accusative

Deutsch English
bis up, to, until
durch through, across
entlang along
für for
gegen against
ohne without
um around, at (time)

Bis is generally only used for time, not location, so you don’t walk bis the house.

Listen to audio

Wir sind hier bis elf Uhr.

We're here until eleven o'clock.

Um however, can be used for both time and location, so like this:

Listen to audio

Wir sehen uns um 11 Uhr.

We'll see each other at eleven o'clock.

Depending on who you’re talking to, you’re either saying at 11 on the dot or around 11, depending on how formal you want to be.

In the positional sense, um means “around” only, and always in the meaning of a turn or circle.

Listen to audio

Er steht um die Ecke.

He's around the corner.

In expressions like walking around the block or circling as building you’d also use um.

As with all other examples, these prepositions can also change pronouns’ forms.

Listen to audio

Ich gehe nicht ohne dich.

I won't go without you.

Prepositions with dative or accusative (two way)

We’re saving the best for last, though, namely the prepositions that can go with either the dative or the accusative, depending on how they’re used in a sentence.

Some people will also call them “two-way prepositions,” but no matter what you call them, they suck.

These are one of the most annoying things about learning German, but thankfully there’s a little trick to them which I’ll share after I explain how it all works.

First, though, let’s take a look at them.

Prepositions with dative or accusative

Deutsch English
an at
auf on
hinter behind
in in
neben next to
unter under
über over, on top of, above
vor in front of
zwischen between

When any of the above prepositions tell you the position of something, their noun goes in the dative.

If they tell you the motion or direction of something, it goes into the accusative.

I know that sounds very academic, so let’s look at a few examples.

Listen to audio

Er steht neben der Tür.

He stands next to the door.

He is standing still, so the feminine noun Tür gets the dative article der. Now let’s put something in motion.

Listen to audio

Er läuft neben die Tür.

He walks next to the door.

In this example, he is walking or pacing next to the door, so he’s in motion and Tür goes into the accusative. Let’s do another example.

Listen to audio

Sie steckt das Geld in die Tasche.

She puts the money in the bag.

In this case, the money is in motion toward the bag, so Tasche is in the accusative. However, what happens when the money is already there?

Listen to audio

Das Geld ist in der Tasche.

The money is in the bag.

The rule of thumb is that when the verb expresses activity, so stuff like walking, flying, cycling, putting, moving etc, then use the accusative.

When the verb is more stationary, then use dative.

However, here’s the trick: if you’re not sure — or you just don’t care — you can get away with just using the dative.

Even educated people will use it sometimers, and as a language learner I doubt anybody will mind.

Contractions

We’ll finish up this article by going over something that will help you sound more natural, namely using contractions.

Some of the prepositions we used above can fuse with the article following them, for example:

Listen to audio

Er bleibt beim Mann.

He stays with the man.

In this case, bei and the article dem contracted to create the new word beim. Much like in English, you’re not supposed to use contractions in formal speech and definitely not in writing, but in informal settings it’s just fine.

Preposition contractions

Deutsch English
an + dem am
bei + dem beim
in + dem im
in + das ins
von + dem vom
zu + der zur
zu + dem zum

These are just the more common ones, there are plenty more of these contractions. Let’s go over some quick examples.

Listen to audio

Wir gehen zum Park.

We're going to the park.

Park is masculine and thus gets dem with the dative preposition zu. Glue the two together and you get zum Park.

Listen to audio

Wir gehen ins Kino.

We're going to the cinema.

This one is a twofer: in German, we don’t go to the cinema, we go in it.

Cinema is neuter and because we’re in motion it takes the accusative, so its article is das.

Combine that with in and you get ins.

Conclusion

Hopefully this overview helps you a little when learning German; this is tricky stuff and I’ve struggled with it myself, so there’s no shame in making mistakes.

Good luck!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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