Time 5 – Prepositions

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the German is Easy Learn German Online Course… and today, it’s time for THEM.
Prepare yourself for the 5th part of the Time Mini Series, get ready for:

Time – prepositions

Now, if you’re like „Oh god oh god, prepositions… this one is going to be so hard, I don’t know if I can handle it“ (which, on an unrelated note, is in fact what she said) I have good news for you:
German time prepositions are neither hard nor numerous. The reason why we are talking about them this late in the series is not the level of difficulty but the mere fact that many examples with prepositions use words we’ve learned in the parts before. And also, you need to be able to correctly address points in time first before you can use a preposition to put this point in time in a relation with something. Because that’s what prepositions do… they express relations between stuff (read more about prepositions in general here).
So…  today is not going to be too tough, I promise. 

I want to say one thing before we start. I will give the English translation for each preposition but I will also give an explanation of the relation or concept it expresses. The reason for that is that not everyone reading this is a native English speaker and it is very well imaginable that one English preposition has 3 possible translations in another language… just like but vs the German equivalents. So if you find the explanations technical and overly complicated and you are like „Yeah move on… I got it, it’s since.“ , please indulge me.

Alright … there is one concept which you need to understand first..nothing too serious… just some little something : the difference between a time span and a point in time. A time span is a measure of time. It can be in minutes, seconds, hours, days, years, moments or even just time.

  • 3 days, 5 years, some time, one moment, a while

All these are measures of time… like… How much time? 3 Days.
A point in time on the contrary is what we basically have learned to point out in the 3 preceding articles.. a word or a group of words that kind of names a more or less specific point in time

  • soon, last Monday, tomorrow, 12:30, now… many many more

All these are examples for points in time… like… At what point in time/ When? Tomorrow.

Now why does this matter, you ask? Because some prepositions only work with a span, some only with a point and some are ok with either. An English example for this are the prepositions since and for. For needs a span while since wants a point as indication.

  • I have been here since yesterday.
  • I have been here for 5 minutes.
  • I have been here for yesterday… is pretty damn wrong… you know… because the colors don’t match :)

So … for each preposition I will tell you whether it takes a point, a span or both. Ok… I think now we’re set.

vor (pron. : foa)

Vor is THE word to give a measure between now and some point in the past However you do this in your language, even if you have a million ways… in German, all those will be vor… in English this is done by the word ago so we could say that vor is ago... However, the structure is different. Vor is a PRE-position whilst ago is… well, not a preposition…  if any “sition” than it is a post-position.

  • 3 days ago, I met my grandma.
  • Vor 3 Tagen habe ich meine Oma besucht.
  • Maria went to the library an hour ago.
  • Maria ist vor einer Stunde in die Bibliothek gegangen.

So basically the only difference between ago and vor is the position… vor comes first, ago comes last. Now, if you are a beginner and you are a native English speaker and you want to say some ago-thing in German it will happen to you that you start right with the span… like here:

  • 2 years ago, I did something.
  • 2 Jahre… uh…

If you do that, start over! There is no way to save this and get anywhere near correct. You can’t just say vor at the end of something. Vor starts a group of word or in jargon a roma…uh semantic unit. A German would need to do brain gymnastics to figure out that the vor is supposed to be part of the time indication that has already been said…. so… it is no problem if it happens, you have to get used to say vor first, but start over if you do it wrong and correct yourself.
Now, here is one thing vor and ago have in common that might not be so in other languages… let’s say you saw a pink fluorescent Elephant last Monday. However, that wasn’t the first time because you had seen this beauty already on Saturday… can you tell the story using vor 2 Tagen?

  • Ich habe am Montag wieder den pinken, floureszierenden Elefanten gesehen, den ich schon vor 2 Tagen gesehen hatte.
  • On Monday, I have seen the pink, fluorescent elephant I had seen 2 days ago.

This doesn’t work. Neither in English nor in German. Both words, ago and vor do refer to (some) now. This might be different in other languages, so I felt like I have to say it. Anyway… moving on.

in (pron.: somewhat similar to greyhound but less syllables and different sounds)

In has 2 functions. First, it is the equivalent of vor in the future. If you want to indicate a time difference, a span, between now and some point to come… use in.

  • Ich rufe dich in 5 Minuten zurück.
  • I will call you back in 5 minutes.
  • In 100 Jahren gibt es vielleicht fliegende Autos.
  • There might be flying cars in 100 years.

German and English are obviously pretty much the same here… in in sense of x- time from now is in.
The second thing in is used for is a general indication of a duration that is needed for an achievement … yeah… I didn’t understand that last part neither. The best way to grasp it is to think of it as the answer to “in what amount of time have you done that?”.

  • Ich habe in 3 Monaten Deutsch gelernt.
  • I’ve learned German in 3 months.

It also works for the future.

  • Morgen trinke ich in einer Stunde 3 Kaffee.
  • Tomorrow, I’ll drink 3 coffees in one hour.

Here, we have 2 time indications and that’s why it is clear which in is meant. However, sometimes it might be confusing.

  • Ich mache meine Küche in 3 Tagen sauber.
  • I am going to clean my kitchen in 3 days.

This is not clear…. do you do 3 days from now or will it take you 3 days to do it… I don’t know. Also here, German and English are the same however, so if you have a feel for English, this shouldn’t be a problem in German.
But there is one difference between the German and the English in. The German one is not used for ins that are used in sense of since or for.

  • I haven’t eaten in 3 days.
  • Ich habe in 3 Tagen nichts gegessen…. is wrong

This does NOT work in German so just remember the 2 concepts of in and don’t think of it as a mere translation of … well in… which is the best approach to prepositions anyway. They’re not translated. They have certain concepts and are used for these. Sometimes the concepts are the same, sometimes they’re not. Before we move on, here is a weird example, that uses in in both ways.

  • In 100 Jahren kann man vielleicht in einer Stunde von Berlin nach NY fliegen.
  • A hundres years from now, it might be possible to fly from Berlin to NY in one hour.

seit (pron. : zuyt)

Seit is used to indicate an unfinished action or state that, and this is crucial, has started in the PAST. Seit can be used with time spans and points which means that it is the German word for since AND for … and also in as we learned above.

  • Ich lerne seit Juni Deutsch.
  • I have been learning German since June.
  • Ich lerne seit 4 Monaten Deutsch.
  • I have been learning for 4 months.
  • Ich war seit 4 Wochen nicht mehr an der Uni.
  • I haven’t been to university in 4 weeks.

So you see… it works in all those situations.
There is one little thing I feel I should mention… seit is NOT for in the following example.

  • I have slept for a while.

This action is over. You’re clearly not sleeping anymore. So it not part of the concept of seit. Hence, you can’t use seit here. The correct German phrase would use no preposition at all.

  • Ich habe eine Weile geschlafen.

Now, some of you might ask which tense they have to use with seit. That is a hard question. As you might have realized, German is really lax when it comes to tenses… so much so that the common subconscious compensates for this “lack” of precision by valuing punctuality so much… this is just a theory though :)… anyway… so tenses. Frankly… it is nothing to worry about… both the following examples are correct.

  • Ich habe seit einer Woche kein Fleisch gegessen
  • Ich esse seit einer Woche kein Fleisch.
  • I haven’t eaten meat in a week.

The first sentence states a mere fact. You just happened to not eat any meat. The second sentence expresses that this is something you’ve been actively doing and are doing still. You don’t eat meat by choice… like..you breath, you go places and you don’t eat meat. The following example takes this to the extreme.

  • Ich habe seit einer Woche nicht geraucht.
  • I haven’t smoked for a week.
  • Ich rauche seit einer Woche nicht mehr.
  • I am not smoking since a week (lit.).
  • I have stopped smoking a week ago.

Now, here we have a clear difference in meaning but for the most verbs, the difference between past and present is but a nuance, so … don’t think too hard. Alright, quick recap… Seit is used for stuff you started in the past, and you still do it now.

ab (pron.: up)

Ab is the equivalent of seit for the future. If you are going to start doing something at some point and you either don’t know or don’t care when it is going to end, then use ab.

  • Ich bin ab Montag in Rom.
  • I will be in Rome from next Monday.

Wow… the German example is actually shorter than the English one. This is a perfect example for the lazy ass time indications in German. There are just soooo many assumptions being made in the example… like.. which Monday? Are you there or will you be there?
Still, it is 100% clear to a native because ab has a clear cut concept. Here is another example.

  • Ab morgen habe ich mehr Zeit.
  • I will have more time starting tomorrow.

Now, there is a big difference to seit in that ab can only be used with points of time and NOT with spans.

  • Ich bin ab 3 Wochen in Rom… is wrong

This doesn’t mean anything because ab can’t be used with a measure. If you want to use a measure with ab, you have to do 2 steps… let’s say our time span is 3 weeks. First, use this to point to some point in the future. The preposition for that is one we’ve already learned: in… so this would be in 3 Wochen. Now, this block is a point in time and we can put our ab in front o fit…. ab in 3 Wochen.

  • Ich bin ab in 3 Wochen in Rom.
  • I will be in Rome starting 3 weeks from now.

While not being the prettiest sentence to utter, people do talk that way at times. Now is this also correct?

  • Ab vor 3 Wochen habe ich nicht geraucht.

No, it’s not.. because ab is only for the future and now and the word for the past is… seit. Before we move on, here is one last example. Do you know these kind of little games like “Who talks first is stupid” or “ Who laughs first secretly eats boogers.”? We played those a lot at univers… uh elementary, yeah at elementary school … so if you want to start a competition like that, here are the words:

  • Wer als erstes lacht, ist doof… ab jetzt!
  • Who laughs first is stupid.. starting now!

bis (pron.: bis)

The concept of bis is the opposite of seit and ab. Bis is used to indicate the end of an action or state without saying anything about the beginning. It is used for past, present and future and you already know it from the various good bye phrases like Bis bald, bis morgen or bis dann.

  • Ich war bis um 10 auf Arbeit.
  • I was at work till 10.
  • Ich bin bis um 10 auf Arbeit.
  • I am at work till 10 (lit.).
  • I will be at work till 10.
  • Ich bin immer bis um 10 auf Arbeit.
  • I’m always at work till 10.
  • “Hast du deine Hausaufgaben gemacht?”
    Bis jetzt nicht”.
  • “Have you done your homework?”
    “Not until now/ Not yet.”

Bis also only works with points in time.

  • Ich bin bis 2 Wochen in Paris… is wrong

If you want to use a time span in your phrase, you have to do the same as we already did for ab… indicate a point in time using the span and vor or in respectively. Then put bis in front of the whole thing.

  • Bis vor 3 Wochen hatte nie ein Wort Deutsch gelernt und jetzt spreche ich fliessend.
  • I hadn’t learned one word of German until 3 weeks ago and now I am fluent.

You can see that English uses the same mechanics… you need 2 prepositions to make it work, until and ago but in German, the prepositions are right next to one another so this might make it look odd to some of you. Anyway, people do talk that way and they even use it to say good bye

  • Bis in 3 Tagen.
  • Until in 3 days.(lit.)
  • See you in 3 days.

And speaking of good bye and see you in 3 days.. I think we will make a break here. There are some more things to know, namely the teams vor-nach and von-bis and the word her. If we did all that now, this would be by FAR the longest post evuhhhh and it would be way beyond the 5 minutes internet attention span… what’s that? We have already exceeded that span a good deal? I totally didn’t realize… I mean, I only visited like 124 145 different websites while writing this.. not so much after; all.
Anyways… the prepositions we learned today are the most important ones anyway. Here they are again with the question they are answering.

  • vor (span) – How much time ago did something happen?
  • in (span) – In how much time is something going to happen? and How much time did it take for something to happen?
  • seit (point/ span) – For how much time has something been happening? Since when has something been happening?
  • ab (point ) – From what point in time onwards will something be happening?
  • bis (point) – Until which point in time has something been happening?

If you want to train them, here is an exercise for you…. just cover the solutions and try to figure it out.

Time prepositions – exercise

As always, if you have any question or suggestions, leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time … which according to some is also, what she said.