Prepositions and prepositional phrases


Prepositions are small words that are placed in front of nouns or pronouns. Examples in English are: in, under, from, after, for, through, next to. A prepositional phrases is a group of 2 or more words that start with a preposition and end with a noun or pronoun. Here are some prepositional phrases: in March, under the bed, from me, after lunch, for a long time, through the park, next to her.

German prepositions

German prepositions are quite easy to learn and are similar in use to their English equivalents. The difference is that all German prepositions are followed by one of three German cases (accusative, dative, genitive). It is essential, therefore, that speakers or writers of German know which case is associated with each preposition. Only then can they be sure of choosing the correct article and adjective ending.

The first type of preposition is the single-case preposition. Such prepositions are relatively easy because they always take the same case. Here is a list of the most common single-case prepositions, with listed by the case they always take.

Single-case prepositions

Accusative case
bis - until
durch - through
für - for
gegen - against
ohne - without
um - around
Dative case
aus - out
ausser - except for
bei - near. at
nach - after, to
mit - with
seit - since
von - from
zu - to
Genitive case
statt - instead of
trotz - in spite of
während - during
wegen - because of

The other main type of preposition is the two-case prepositions. These prepositions can take either the accusative or the dative depending on how they are used in the sentence:

Two-case prepositions: Accusative/dative

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

The above prepositions take the accusative case when there is movement towards or into the place indicated by the noun. They take the dative case when there is no movement towards or into the place indicated by the noun. Here are some examples:

Accusative case:

  • Ich fahre jeden Tag in die Stadt. - I drive into town every day.
  • Der Hund lief hinter einen Baum. - The dog ran behind a tree.
  • Sie legte das Buch auf den Tisch. - She laid the book on the table.
  • Der Vogel flog über das Haus. - The bird flew over the Haus.

Dative case

  • Ich arbeite in der Stadt. - I work in the city.
  • Der Hund begrub seinen Knochen hinter dem Baum. - The dog buried its bone behind the tree.
  • Das Bild hing an der Wand über der Tür. - The picture hung on the wall above the door.
  • Sie stand zwischen ihrer Mutter und ihrem Vater. - She was standing between her mother and her father.

Note: The dative is used in the following sentences, even though there is movement:

  • Die Kinder sprangen vor dem Fernseher herum. - The kids were jumping around in front of the TV.
  • Sie schwamm den ganzen Tag im Fluß. - She swam in the river all morning.
  • Der Tiger ging in seinem Käfig auf und ab. - The tiger walked backwards and forwards in its cage.
  • Die Maus lief die ganze Nacht unter meinem Bett umher. - The mouse was running around under my bed all night.

There is movement in each of the above sentences, but there is no movement towards or into the nouns (river, cage, bed, etc). The mouse remains under the bed; it doesn't run from the door and then under the bed. The tiger remains in its cage; it does not enter its cage from outside of it. The girl remains in the river. There is no mention of her jumping into the water from the river bank. And so on.

In summary: The accusative case is used with the two-case prepositions only when there is movement towards or into the place indicated by the noun or pronoun.

Two-case preposition links

The following links can help you master the use of the two-case prepositions in and auf.

Note 1: English noun phrases starting with the preposition of .. are usually conveyed in German by the genitive case without a preposition. Here are some examples:

  • in the middle of the city = in der Mitte der Stadt [genitive]
  • the photo of a house = das Foto eines Hauses [genitive]
  • at the end of the day = am Ende des Tags [genitive]
  • the driver of the car = der Fahrer des Autos [genitive]
  • the cause of the problem = die Ursache des Problems [genitive]
  • the tail of a mouse = der Schwanz einer Maus [genitive]

Note 2: English noun phrases starting with the preposition to and expressing the indirect object are usually conveyed in German by the dative case without a preposition. Here are some examples:

  • Write to me soon = Schreib mir [dative] bald
  • I gave the book to my friend = ich schenkte meinem Freund [dative] das Buch
  • He told a lie to his boss = Er sagte seinem Chef [dative] eine Lüge
  • She brought the food to her sick mother = Sie brachte ihrer kranken Mutter [dative] das Essen
  • Give it to me = Gib es mir [dative]
  • The phone belongs to my sister = Das Handy gehört meiner Schwester [dative]
  • What happened to you? = Was ist dir [dative] passiert?
  • Show your grade to your parents? = Zeig deinen Eltern deine Note [dative]