German prepositions include words like bis, mit, über and durch. They’re words that go before a noun (or pronoun) to provide extra information — usually something about the noun’s position in time or space. Examples of English prepositions include “until”, “with” and “before”.
What makes German prepositions more complicated than their English counterparts is that you also need to worry about case. Every noun and pronoun in German must have one of four cases:- nominative, accusative, dative or genitive. And the case you choose depends on the word’s role within the sentence:
- The nominative case denotes the subject of the sentence: Der Hund ist schwarz – “The dog is black”
- The accusative case denotes the direct object of the sentence: Ich sehe den Hund – “I see the dog”
- The dative case denotes the indirect object of the sentence: Ich gab dem Hund den Ball – “I gave the dog the ball”
- The genitive denotes possession: Das ist der Ball des Hundes – “That’s the dog’s ball.”
Different German prepositions take different cases. When using a German preposition, you must use the correct case for the noun that follows:
- Ich bin mit meiner Frau – “I’m with my wife”
- Es ist für meine Frau – “It’s for my wife”
To make matters more complicated, some German prepositions, such as “two-way prepositions”, can take either an accusative or dative noun for different meanings.
I’ll explain everything below. This article is a comprehensive guide to all the German prepositions, their meanings, the cases they take, and their subtleties. Here’s what we’ll talk about:
Table of contents
- German Prepositions Can’t Always Be Translated Word-for-Word.
- Accusative German Prepositions
- Dative German Prepositions
- Two-way German Prepositions
- German Genitive Prepositions
- What’s the Difference Between Wegen and Weil in German?
- German Prepositional Contractions
- German Prepositions and Motion – an, auf, in, nach, zu.
- German Prepositions to Describe Position or Location
- German Prepositions and Time Expressions.
- German Prepositional Adverbs, A.K.A. “Da”-Compounds.
- Idiomatic Expressions with German Prepositions
- German Separable Verbs
- Resources to Learn German
As you can see, we’ll cover everything you need to know about German prepositions, as well as related topics like telling the time in German, and the so-called “separable verbs”.
German Prepositions Can’t Always Be Translated Word-for-Word.
Below, I’ll introduce lots of German prepositions and tell you their English meanings.
But be careful with your translations! German and English prepositions don’t have a one-to-one correspondence, and there are various idiomatic uses you need to be aware of.
First of all, just because a German preposition looks like an English preposition, doesn’t mean that they have the exact same meaning.
The German bei sounds just like the English “by”, but it’s not always translated that way. Ich wohne bei meiner Tante means “I live with my aunt”. It would be very unnatural to translate bei as “by” in this instance.
And there are many more subtleties to watch out for.
In English, we say that a TV show is “on” the television. If you translated this directly into German, you might ask was ist auf dem Fernsehen?…
But this doesn’t mean “what show is on television?” In fact, you’re asking what’s physically on top of the television set. Instead you must ask “was ist im Fernsehen?” (“What’s in the TV?”).
“Cinema” in German is Kino, a neutral noun. (Like in English, the word can refer to both a physical movie theatre and to the general concept of cinema as an industry or artform.)
When inviting your German friend to see a movie, you might be tempted to translate literally from English and ask if they want to zur Kino (“to the cinema”). But the correct German expression is ins Kino (“into the cinema”).
Let me give you one last example. In English, we describe writing and utterances as being in a particular language: “the book is in English.” But in German, you can’t say das Buch ist in Englisch. You must say das Buch ist auf Englisch (“the book is on English”).
There are many more examples like this. By all means, learn the English translations of German prepositions as given below, but pay attention to how they’re used in context. Don’t assume that you can always translate a given German preposition with the same English word every time.
Accusative German Prepositions
The following German prepositions always take an accusative:
- bis – “until, up to, as far as”
- durch – “through, by means of”
- für – “for”
- ohne – “without”
- gegen – “against, toward”
- um – “around, for”
- entlang – “along”
Here are some examples. Note how the bolded nouns or pronouns are accusative.
- Er kocht für die Kinder. – “He cooks for the children.”
- Sie geht durch den Wald. – “She walks through the forest.”
- Wir spielen ohne dich. – “We are playing without you.”
- Wir laufen um das Haus. – “We run around the house.”
“Without” or “with no” should always be translated as ohne, never mit kein.
- Ein Huhn ohne Kopf, – “A chicken with no head,” (not mit kein Kopf)
Entlang is unusual in that it goes after the noun, not before. Technically, this makes entlang a postposition, not a preposition.
- die Straße entlang – “down the street”
- den Fluss entlang – “along the river”
Although if we want the whole story, it’s not strictly wrong to put entlang before the noun. If it’s before the noun, the noun should be dative (which makes entlang doubly weird):
- entlang der Straße
- entlang dem Fluss
Um can also be used with zu to link two clauses together, meaning “in order to”.
- Ich rufe Jonas an, um ihm eine Frage zu stellen – “I’m calling Jonas (in order) to ask him a question.”
Dative German Prepositions
The following German prepositions always take a dative:
- ab – “from” (time)
- aus – “from, out of”
- außer – “except for”
- bei – “at, near, at the house of”
- dank – “thanks to”
- entgegen – “contrary to”
- gegenüber – “opposite”
- gemäß – “according to”
- laut – “according to”
- mit – “with”
- nach – “after, to”
- seit – “since, for”
- von – “from, of”
- zu – “to”
- zufolge – “according to”
- Geh mir aus dem Weg! – “Get out of the way!”
- Ich wohne bei meinem Freund. – “I live with my boyfriend.”
- Nach dem Unterricht treffen wir. – “We’re meeting after (the) class.”
- Ich habe es von meinem Bruder gehört. – “I heard it from my brother.”
- Wir gehen zum Festival. – “We’re going to the festival.”
- Alle außer ihm gab mir ein Geschenk. – “Everyone but him gave me a gift.”
When using seit to mean “since”, remember that some time expressions use a different phrasing in German to how we’d say it in English.
- Ich bin hier seit einem Jahr – “I’ve been here for a year,” (literally: “I am here since one year.”)
Gegenüber and zufolge are postpositions. In other words, they’re supposed to go after the noun.
- Er wohnt der Schule gegenüber. – “He lives opposite the school.”
- Dem Unternehmen zufolge war die Beschränkung nicht bindend. – “According to the company, the restriction was not binding.”
However, in modern German speech it’s common to put gegenüber before the noun, optionally followed by von. So the above example can also be said as er wohnt gegenüber (von) der Schule.
The preposition zu can be used with an adjective to mean “too”, as in “too much”.
- Es ist zu lange – “It’s too long.”
Two-way German Prepositions
The trickiest German prepositions are the Wechselpräpositionen,also known as the “two-way prepositions”. They’re sometimes also called the “dual case prepositions”.
These prepositions can take the dative or accusative:
- an – “on (a vertical surface)”
- auf – “on top of (horizontal surface)”
- hinter – “behind”
- in – “in, into”
- neben – “next to”
- entlang – “along”
- über – “above”
- unter – “under”
- vor – “in front of”
- zwischen – “between”
That’s a lot to take in, but this image can help you visualise it:
So when should you use the dative and when should you use the accusative? The difference is this:
- Use the dative to describe a static position.
- Use the accusative to describe a change in position.
- Ich setze den Stift auf den Tisch. – “I put the pen on the table.” (accusative)
- Der Stift steht auf dem Tisch. – “The pen is on the table.” (dative)
- Ich stecke die Schuhe unter das Bett. – “I put the shoes under the bed.” (accusative)
- Die Schuhe sind unter dem Bett. – “The shoes are under the bed.” (dative) Do you see the difference? In the dative examples, the pen and shoes are stationary. In the accusative examples, their position changed as a result of the action described.
Be careful: just because the thing you’re talking about is moving, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s undergone a change in position.
The question isn’t “did the object move at all?”, it’s “did it change its position relative to the word with the preposition?”
Compare these two sentences:
- Die Kinder sind im Garten gelaufen. – “The children ran in the garden.” (dative)
- Die Kinder sind in den Garten gelaufen. – “The children ran into the garden”. (accustive)
(Im, as we’ll see below, is a contraction of the preposition in and the dative article dem.)
In both of these examples, the Kinder are moving. However, in the first example, they start and finish inside the garden, so their position relative to the garden didn’t change – so we use the dative. In the second example, they started outside the garden and finished inside it, so we must use the accusative.
Remember, this rule only applies to the two-way prepositions. If the preposition appeared on the earlier lists of accusative and dative prepositions, it doesn’t matter whether or not there’s change in position: the preposition can only be followed by one case.
- Sie geht zum Arzt – “She goes to the doctor”. This sentence arguably involves a change in position, but zu isn’t a two-way preposition, so we have to use the dative zu der (which gets contracted to zur.
- Ich singe ein Lied für dich – “I sing a song for you”. There’s no motion or change of position here, but für must be followed by an accusative.
When über means “about” (as opposed to “above” or “over”), it’s always followed by an accusative.
- Jeder spricht über ihn – “Everyone is talking about him”.
This page has some more examples of how to use the two-way prepositions, plus some exercises so you can make sure you really understand the difference.
German Genitive Prepositions
The final category of German prepositions are the genitive prepositions.
- anstatt (often abbreviated to just statt) – “instead [of]”
- außerhalb – “outside of”
- beiderseits – “on both sides”
- diesseits – “on this side”
- innerhalb – “inside of”
- jenseits – “on the other side”
- oberhalb – “above”
- trotz – “despite”
- unterhalb – “below”
- wegen – “because of”
- während – “during”
Generally, but not always, prepositions whose English translations end in “to” (like dank – “thanks to” and gemäß – “according to”) take the dative, while prepositions whose English translations end in “of” (like innerhalb, “inside of”) should take the genitive.
I say they should take the genitive but, in practice, they often don’t. The genitive case is falling out of use in modern German. Where the formal rules dictate that the genitive should be used, it’s very common to ignore the rules and use a dative instead.
This is illustrated by the famous German saying der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod (“the dative is the death of the genitive”)
For example, während des Essens is the “correct” way to say “during the meal.” But it’s very common in everyday speech to say während dem Essen.
Der Laden ist wegen Urlaubs geschlossen means “the shop is closed because of / due to the holidays. Note how Urlaub here has the genitive form Urlaubs. But you could get away with the “incorrect” der Laden ist wegen Urlaubs geschlossen.
Don’t neglect the genitive if you’re, say, sitting an exam or writing a formal document. But replacing it with a dative can make your speech sound more colloquial and natural.
Disclaimer: prepositions that end with -halb and -seits can’t be used with the dative, even in informal speech. For these prepositions you must always use genitive.
- Seine Wohnung liegt außerhalb des Stadtkerns. – “His apartment is located outside of the city center.”
- Es kam innerhalb der Partei zu Spannungen. – “There were tensions within the party.”
What’s the Difference Between Wegen and Weil in German?
I just told you that the preposition wegen means “because of”. But you’re probably also familiar with the words weil which means “because”. What’s the difference?
Weil is a conjunction, not a preposition. Wegen is followed by a noun or pronoun, but weil is followed by an entire clause which explains the reason for the thing being described.
- Wegen meiner Krankheit konnte ich meine Hausaufgaben nicht machen. – “Because of my illness, I couldn’t do my homework.”
- Weil ich krank war, konnte ich meine Hausaufgaben nicht machen. – “Because I was ill, I couldn’t do my homework.
- Wegen des schlechten Wetters, bleiben wir zu Hause. – “Because of the bad weather, we’re staying at home.”
- Weil das Wetter schlecht ist, bleiben wir zu Hause. – “Because the weather is bad, we’re staying at home.”
As explained above, wegen des schlechten Wetters in the above example can be replaced in everyday speech with the dative wegen dem schlechten Wetter.
On the other hand, this doesn’t matter for wegen meiner Krankheit, because Krankheit is a feminine noun, therefore its dative and genitive forms are identical anyway.
German Prepositional Contractions
Earlier, I mentioned how the German word im is a contraction of the preposition in and the article dem. It’s like how in English we usually say “I’m” instead of “I am” and “they’re” instead of “they are”.
German has loads of these preposition + definite article contractions. Almost all of them involve the articles das (neuter accusative) or dem (masculine or neuter dative), although one involves der (feminine dative).
The full list of German prepositional contractions is here:
German Prepositions and Motion – an, auf, in, nach, zu.
When describing movement or motion, there are various prepositions you could use.
Use nach for countries, continents, islands, cities, and towns:
- Ich reise nach Deutschland / nach Europa / nach Berlin / nach Sizilien. – “I am traveling to Germany / Europe / Berlin / Sicily.”
For countries with a “the” in their name, use in. (Note that some countries have an article in their German name even when they don’t have one in their English name.)
- Ich reise in die Schweiz / in die USA / in den Irak / in die Türkei. – “I am traveling to Switzerland / USA / Iraq / Turkey.”
You should also use nach with directions:
- nach links – “to the left”
- nach rechts – “to the right”
- nach Norden/Süden/Osten/Westen – “to the north/south/east/west”
Nach Hause means “(to) home”, e.g.:
- Sie sind noch nicht zurück nach Hause gekommen. – “She hasn’t come home yet.”
Use in if the movement will take you inside the destination:
- Ich gehe ins Kino (“cinema”) in die Klasse (“class”) / in die Kirche (“church”) / in den Park (“park”) / in die Stadt (“city”)
But use zu if it wouldn’t make sense to go inside, e.g. “driving to the airport”. You should also use zu if you’re going to the premises of a company or institution that you mention by name, e.g. zu Aldi, zu Walmart.
Use auf if you’ll end up on top of something:
- Ich klettere auf den Berg – “I climb up the mountain.”
- Die Kuh geht auf die Weide – “The cow goes into/onto the meadow.”
Auf can also be used when going to an event or public places:
Ich gehe auf die Party / die Hochzeit (“wedding”) / auf die Post (“post office”) / auf den Markt (“marketplace”)
Although you can use zu in these cases, and sometimes zu is more common:
Ich gehe zum Rathaus (“town hall”) / zur Universität (“university”) / zur Bibliothek (“library”)
When describing motion to a precise spot, use an:
Ich gehe ans Mikrofon (“microphone”) / an die Bushaltestelle (“bus stop”) / an den Strand (“beach”).
Generally, if you can stand “at” or “by” something in English, then it makes sense to use an to describe motion towards it in German:
Ich gehe an die Grenze (“border”) / an den Fluss (“river”) / an die Front (“front”, as in a war)
German Prepositions to Describe Position or Location
The previous section explained which preposition to choose when describing motion towards an object.
What about static position? That is, what preposition should you use to describe where something is, rather than where it’s going?
In, auf and an can be used to describe a static position in exactly the same contexts as described above for motion.
- Ich bin im Kino / in der Klasse / in der Kirche / im Park / in der Stadt. – “I’m in the cinema / in class / in church / in the park / in town.”
- Die Kuh ist auf der Weide. – “The cow is in the meadow.”
- Er ist am Fluss / an der Front – “He’s on the river / at the front.”
Did you notice how in these examples the nouns are dative, but in the previous section they were accusative? If you read the section about German two-way prepositions, you should understand why the case has changed.
You can use auf to describe location in public buildings, but in and an are increasingly used instead:
- Ich bin in der Post / im Rathaus / in der Bibliothek / am Bahnhof / an der Universität
An usually indicates location at or in a place. Bei can be used to, although it implies a vaguer location; it’s more like “nearby” or “in the vicinity of”.
Ich bin am/beim Bahnhof, am/beim Supermarkt.
Zu usually indicates motion, not location, but it indicates location in a few set phrases, like zu Hause (“at home”) and zu Tisch (“on the table”).
Nach always indicates motion, not position. Use in to describe location in/on continents, countries (including countries with a “the” in their name”), cities and towns:
Ich bin in Deutschland / in Europa / in der USA / in Berlin.
Use auf to describe position on an island:
Napoleon war auf Elba. – “Napoleon was on Elba.”
Bei can mean “at the house/home of”, or “on the premises of (a company, organisation)”. You can also use it with your place of work:
- Wir sind bei Benny. – “We’re at Benny’s house.”
- Er ist beim Metzger. – “He’s at the butcher’s.”
- Ich arbeite bei Siemens. – “I work for Siemens.”
German Prepositions and Time Expressions.
The German prepositions an, in and um are used in various expressions about time and date.
Why use three different prepositions? Well, why in English do we say “on Monday”, “at 7pm” and “in February”? I’m not sure, but you need to remember the rules.
Use am (which, as we just saw, is a contraction of an and dem) for days of the week and dates:
- am Montag – “on Monday”
- am Dienstag – “on Tuesday”
- am ersten Mai – “on May 1st”
Use um to talk about a specific time of day:
- um sechs Uhr – “at 6 o’clock”
- um zwanzig Uhr – “at 8pm”
- um Mitternacht – “at midnight”
- um halb zwei – “at 1.30pm”
In German, a time like halb zwei – “half two” – means “half an hour before two”, i.e. half past one. This is in contrast to British English, where “half two” means “half past two”.
German doesn’t have words for A.M. and P.M.. Um drei Uhr can mean “at 3am” or “at 3pm”. I you want to be specific you can say um drei Uhr morgens (“at three in the morning”) or um drei Uhr nachmittags (“at three in the evening”).
Alternatively, you can use the 24-hour clock. It’s common in German to say things like um fünfzehn Uhr (“at fifteen o’clock”) which isn’t something we say in English.
Gegen, when used with a time expression, means “around”:
- Können wir uns gegen 13:00 Uhr treffen? – “Can we meet at around 1pm?”
For non-precise times of day, use am, with one exception:
- am Morgen – “in the early morning.”
- am Vormittag – “in the morning.”
- am Nachmittag – “in the afternoon.”
- am Abend – “in the evening.”
- in der Nacht – “in the night / at nighttime.”
German has two words for “morning”. Morgen – which can also mean “tomorrow” – is the early morning, from midnight until roughly the start of the workday. Vormittag, which literally means “before noon”, starts when the Morgen ends, and ends at midday. See here for a more detailed explanation.
Use im with seasons and months:
- im Januar – “in January”
- im August – “in August”
- im Frühling – “in Spring”
- im Sommer – “in Summer”
- im Herbst – “in Autumn”
- im Winter – “in Winter”
Years don’t require a preposition at all in German:
- Angela Merkel wurde 1954 geboren. – “Angela Merkel was born in 1954.”
But you can make your sentence meatier by adding im Jahre (“in the year”):
- Angela Merkel wurde im Jahre 1954 geboren. – “Angela Merkel was born in the year 1954.”
German Prepositional Adverbs, A.K.A. “Da”-Compounds.
German prepositions can be followed by a pronoun:
- für ihn – “for him”
- mit ihr – “with her”
… but this is only possible when the pronoun refers to a person, not an inanimate object.
Remember that masculine and feminine pronouns in German can refer to inanimate objects if the word for that object is a masculine or feminine noun. This differs from English, where the masculine and feminine pronouns “he” and “she” can only refer to people, while inanimate objects are always referred to by the neutral pronoun “it.
When referring to inanimate objects, German uses something called a “prepositional adverb”. This is where you put the prefix da- in front of the preposition, or dar- if the preposition starts with a vowel. So for example für becomes dafür, and auf becomes darauf.
Prepositional adverbs are often translated in English using “it”. So for example, dafür means “for it”.
- Ich fliege Morgen nach Frankreich, aber mein Boss weiß nichts davon. – “Tomorrow I’m flying to France, but my boss knows nothing about it.”
- Er hat einen Bleistift. Er schreibt damit. – “He has a pencil. He writes with it.”
The da- can also refer to an entire sentence, concept, action or idea.
- Er sprang von der Mauer, und dabei brach er das Bein. – “He jumped from the wall, and thereby he broke his leg.” Possible translations for dabei here include “thereby”, “in the process”, or “in doing so”.
- Ich warte darauf, dass sie das Haus verkauft haben. – “I’m waiting for them to have sold the house.”
On first encounter, these da-compounds can sound weird to an English speaker.
Dafür feels like an inversion of the English word order, saying “it-for” instead of “for it”. But when you think about it (er, or when you think darüber), English actually has a lot of words which do follow this inverted pattern. It’s just that most of them are quite old-timey: therefore, therein, thereby, thereto, thereunder.
These English words can’t always be used as an exact translation for the German prepositional adverbs they resemble. But when you remember that they exist, it can make their German cousins feel less “foreign” and easier to wrap your head around.
As well as the above “da-” words, German prepositions can also be combined with the prefixes hier- (“here”) and wo- (“where”, “which”, “what”), or wor- before a vowel. These compounds also have archaic English relatives, like “hereby”, “hereto” and “wherefore”.
- Hiermit schließen wir diese Übung. – “With this we end this exercise.”
- Hierzu brauchen wir viel Geld. – “To do that we need a lot of money.”
- Das Haus, worin ich wohne, ist neu. – “The house in which I live is new.”
- Der Stuhl, worauf sie steht, ist unsicher. – “The chair on which she is standing is unsafe.”
Wo- compounds can also be used to ask “what?” questions:
- Womit schreibst du? – “What are you writing with?”
- Worauf stehen Sie? – “What are you standing on?”
Idiomatic Expressions with German Prepositions
German has loads of idiomatic expressions which use prepositions or prepositional adverbs. Here are some of the most useful ones to know:
- 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.”
- Zum beispiel – “For example”
- Zum Wohl! – “Bless you!” (when someone sneezes). Also “Cheers”, i.e. a toast when drinking, although this is quite formal; Prost is a more common toast.
German Separable Verbs
Look at the following German sentences. They appear to contain prepositions:
- Ich stehe um 7 Uhr auf. – “I get up at 7 o’clock.”
- Wir sprechen den Preis ab. – “We agree on the price.”
- Ich gehe mit meinen Freunden jeden Tag aus. – “I go out with my friends every day.”
These sentences look a bit weird, given everything we’ve covered above. You’ve learnt the prepositions auf, ab, and aus, but in these cases they’re not followed by any noun at all, let alone a noun in a particular case.
In fact, these sentences all contain examples of German separable verbs (trennbare Verben). They’re a complicated topic which deserve an entire post of their own. But for the sake of completeness, I’ll give a brief introduction here so you don’t get confused by these stray prepositions.
Let’s forget about German for a second.
In English we have this category of verbs called “phrasal verbs”. This is when we combine a verb with another word – usually a preposition – to get a new term that often means something very different from the original verb.
For example, “to give up” means “to surrender” or “to stop trying” – a very different meaning from “to give”.
There are many verbs in German which combine a shorter verb and a preposition like this. For example, you can combine sprechen (“to speak”) and ab (“from/off”), to get a verb meaning “to agree”, which we saw above.
The difference from English is that, in the infinitive, you put the preposition before the main verb and write it as a single word: absprechen. Only in certain grammatical forms do you split the ab off and place it elsewhere in the sentence: wir sprechen ab. That’s why they’re called separable verbs.
Not every separable verb has a prefix which looks like one of the prepositions we’ve seen. For example, einkaufen (“to buy”) is a separable verb, as in ich kaufe einen Apfel ein (“I buy an apple”), but ein isn’t a preposition.
But many separable verbs do use a preposition as their prefix. Just look at some of these variations of the verb kommen (“to come”).
- ankommen – “to arrive”
- hereinkommen – “to come in”
- herauskommen – “to come out”
- mitkommen – “to come along/with”
- nachkommen – “to come later”
- zurückkommen – “to come back”
There’s much more that could be said about separable verbs, but I’ll save it for another article. For now, just remember that when you see a word like mit or aus, it could be part of a separable verb, rather than a preposition in the usual sense.
Resources to Learn German
We’ve covered a lot of ground! If you’re not exhausted yet, I’ll leave you with the following German Zungenbrecher (tongue twister):
In Ulm und um Ulm und um Ulm herum.
Ulm is a city in Bavaria. Can you figure out what the whole sentence means?
If you’re studying German grammar, maybe you’re interested in reading about German articles. Or maybe you’d like to take a break from it with something less challenging, like this list of great German TV shows for German learners.
Additionally, Benny Lewis, founder of Fluent in 3 Months, has put together a masterlist of the best resources to learn German that you can take advantage of.
Benny’s recommendations include some of the Fi3M team’s favourites, like the German Uncovered course by Olly Richards.
Good luck with your German learning, and don’t forget: Fi3M German post category’s got your back!
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