The difference between telling your roommate you left the car keys in (“in”) the desk or an (“on”) it may only be a one-letter difference, but it could cause a lot of frustration.
Don’t underestimate a word based on its size! Prepositions are (sometimes) small words like “in,” “on,” “out,” or “before/after,” which give a spatial or temporal context to the rest of the sentence.
The first thing to realize is that in German there are certain prepositions that don’t correlate to just one preposition in English. Even though you may be tempted to use bei in any situation where you’d use “by” because it sounds similar and is acceptable for things that are “nearby,” it would sound strange to a native German to hear it in a context like “I did it all by myself.” In other cases, prepositions may catch you off guard but not be entirely incomprehensible. For example, in the sentence “Turn the lights off,” an English speaker can imagine using “out” instead of “off,” so it may take a second, but you can understand the German usage of aus (“out”):
Mach die Lichter aus. (Turn the lights out.)
The truth is, when starting out with learning German, you may just need to accept the fact that you’ll be burning a few extra brain calories to understand where, when, and how things are happening, since the “direct” translation of the preposition won’t always be one to one.
Getting the Hang of German Prepositions
Rather than feeling overwhelmed with all of the different grammatical concepts you need to learn, try focusing on one aspect, like prepositions, for a week of study. Every time you listen to a podcast or watch a movie in German, pay attention specifically to which prepositions are used with which verbs and nouns. Sign up for an online course like Lingvist’s German course, which will quiz your knowledge and give you constructive feedback. Before you know it, certain prepositions will just start to feel right because your brain has been storing away those statistical patterns for you!
The first step, though, is to learn some guidelines about how prepositions function in German. There are a few key things you need to know to get started:
1. Prepositions usually entail a certain case (dative, accusative, and genitive).
2. German also has two-way prepositions which can be used with the accusative OR dative case.
3. Articles and prepositions are often combined into contractions.
German uses dative, accusative, and genitive prepositions. Certain prepositions are tied to certain cases (i.e., to the role in a sentence the following noun plays). Prepositions express where the action is being directed. Prepositions should be very closely linked with the verb in your mind, because they’re describing, for example, where the action took place or how something changed position as a result of the verb.
Thus, a positive point about cases in the realm of prepositions is that once you’ve selected the prepositions (apart from two-way prepositions), you can automatically be sure of what case the following noun is. For example, if you reach for the word mit (“with”), you already know that the following noun will be in the dative case.
Ich esse mit meinen [dative possessive article plural] Freunden . (I eat with my friends.)
Common Accusative Prepositions
Ursula kocht Abendessen für ihre [accusative of poss. pronoun fem.] Mutter. (Ursula cooks dinner for her mother.)
Wir essen um sechs Uhr. (We eat dinner at six.)
|German Acc. Prep.||English Equivalent(s)|
|bis||by, to, until, up to|
Common Dative Prepositions
Often, prepositions that use “to” (such as “thanks to,” “according to,” etc.) use the dative case.
Meine Schwester steht mir [dative of pronoun mich] gegenüber. (My sister is standing across from me.)
Nach dem [dative definite article] Frühstück gehen wir in den Park. (After breakfast, we’re going to the park.)
|German Dat. Prep.||English Equivalent(s)|
|aus||from, out of|
|bei||at, near, among|
|gegenüber||opposite of, toward someone, across from|
Common Genitive Prepositions
Often, English prepositions that use the word “of” (“because of,” “in spite of,” etc.) take the genitive case, since they’re attributing a kind of ownership.
There aren’t actually many “common” genitive prepositions because using the genitive following a preposition is becoming less common, especially in spoken German. It is becoming more common for Germans to opt for the dative after these prepositions where a genitive noun would be strictly necessary. However, if you’re writing an academic paper or studying for an exam, it’s best to be aware that these prepositions should technically be followed by the genitive. Notice that all prepositions ending in -halb or -seits take the genitive.
Sie trainierte trotz ihrer [genitive poss. pronoun] Verletzung. (She exercised in spite of her injury.)
|German Gen. Prep.||English Equivalent(s)|
|anstatt, statt||instead of|
|diesseits, jenseits, beiderseits||on this side of, on the other side of, on either side of|
|außerhalb, innerhalb, oberhalb, unterhalb||outside, inside, above, below|
|trotz||in spite of/despite|
|unweit||not far from|
2. Two-Way (or Two-Case) Prepositions
Two-way prepositions can be used in either the accusative or the dative case, depending on the context. The noun that follows is what changes (usually the definite article or pronoun), not the actual preposition.
The easiest rule to remember is that if something is “directional,” meaning it is moving in a certain direction as a result of the verb, you use accusative. This case answers the question “where to?” (wohin?). If something is “positional,” meaning you’re describing where something is and the location isn’t changing, you use the dative. This one answers the question “where?” (wo?).
Directional = Accusative
Ich stellte das Glas auf den [Acc.] Tisch. (I put the glass on the table.)
Positional = Dative
Das Glas steht auf dem [dative] Tisch. (The glass is on the table.)
|Common German Two-Way Prepositions||English Equivalent(s)|
3. Common Contractions
If you want to get really fancy (or just want to understand a German sentence you saw with aufs in it), you can learn how prepositions can combine with articles to make contractions. A contraction is simply two words combined (like “we’ve” or “I’m”).
|Preposition +||Article =||Contraction|
Though exposing yourself to lots of German will help you get a feel for which preposition is appropriate in a certain context, memorizing the prepositions and which case they accompany is just as important. Find a way to quiz yourself on prepositions so that when you reach for one, you’re sure of its spelling and which case it goes with.
Signing up for an online course like Lingvist’s German course is a great way to practice at a level that’s tailor-fitted to your needs. If you are having trouble getting a certain preposition right, the app will automatically give you more opportunities to practice until you get it right. Good luck, you’re auf the right track!