Time 5 – Prepositions

Hello everyone,

and welcome back of our epic series on how to talk about time in German, today with part 5. And today, we’ll start talking about the really interesting parts of the field because today it’s time for… drumroll…

German Time Prepositions

Now, if you’re not sure what a preposition actually is, then don’t worry. You’re not alone.
The long and short of it is that prepositions are words that relate entities in a sentences to each other.
Here’s a really iconic example:

“The table is on the cup”.

Here, the preposition tells us what the spatial relation is between the cup and the table… which is really messed up, by the way.
But of course there are all kinds of domains besides space and one important one is time.
So time prepositions basically relate things in the time domain and today, we’ll look at the important German ones, see what they express and also go over a few really common mistakes English speakers tend to make.
If you want to know more about prepositions in general, I recommend my article about them. I’ll leave a link below.
But now, let’s jump right in and learn some time prepositions. Yeay!

Before we go over the actual prepositions, though, we first need to talk about one important concept real quick.
Nothing too serious.
Just some little something crucial for ALL languages.
I am talking about

The difference between a time span and a point in time

A time span is a measure of a quantity of time and it answers to the question “How much time?” .
Here are a few examples:

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

A point in time on the other hand is a word or a group of words that kind of “names” or “addresses” a more or less specific “point” in time. That point can have different sizes, so it can be a second or a whole month, but at its core it’s always an answer to “when” or “at what point in time”.
These are basically what we’ve been talking about in the three preceding articles.

  • soon, last Monday, tomorrow, 12:30, now

So, that’s the difference between point of time and span and the reason we need to understand this distinction is grammar.
Some German time prepositions only work with a span, some only with a point and some are ok with either.
And before you go like “Oh my God, German is so annoying.” let me tell you… this is not specific to German.
An English example for this sis the pair since and for. For ONLY works with a span (a quantity) while since refers a point.

  • I have been here since yesterday. (since when?)
  • I have been here for 5 minutes. (for how long?)

For the first one, we’d ask “Since when?” and for the second one “For how long/much time?”.
And it’d sound pretty darn wrong to mix them up.

  • I have been here for yesterdayNOPE

Actually, this is a pretty typical mistake for Germans to make because German happens to use the same word for both, for and since.. seit.
So, it#s really important to be aware of this potential difference and for each preposition we’re about to go over, I will tell you whether it takes a point, a span or both using these beautiful colors :).
Oh, and sorry for those of you rocking dark mode… I know that the blue is hard to read. I added dark mode only recently and I have to find a way how I can adjust the blue in ALL the articles. So yeah… sorry for the shitty look.
But yeah… I think we’re all set, so here’s the first preposition.

“vor”

Vor in a local sense is about “in front“, and in the time domain that of course becomes before.

  • Ich komme nicht vor um 8 nach Hause.
  • I won’t come home before 8.
  • Vor dem Yoga trinkt Maria einen Tee.
  • Before the yoga, Maria drinks a tea.

It’s important to note though that vor ONLY works with nouns or names of time.
It does NOT work with actions that are phrased with a verb…

  • Before Maria does Yoga…
  • Vor Maria Yoga macht…. WRONG

That’s a pretty common mistake and we’ll talk more about it in the next episode, but in a nutshell, the reason is that the before has more than one grammatical function. Vor ONLY is a preposition, so it doesn’t work with side sentences.
But yeah, more on that next time.

Now, vor is not only the word for “before [point in time]”, it can also give a time span. Because it is THE word to give a measure for how much time has past between now and some moment in the past.
In English, the main way to do that is using the word ago, but there’s a big difference between vor and ago and that is structure.
Vor is a PRE-position, so it comes before the element, whilst ago comes AFTER the element, so it’s technically a POST-position.

  • 3 days ago, I argued with my cat.
  • Vor 3 Tagen habe ich meiner Katze gestritten.
  • Maria went to the library an hour ago.
  • Maria ist vor einer Stunde in die Bibliothek gegangen.

Doesn’t look like much on screen here, but it’s a pretty big deal for the brain.
Like.. if you are a beginner and you are a native English speaker it’s almost guaranteed that at some point you’ll just start with the time span right away

  • 2 Jahre… uh… vor, blah blah blah… uh…
    (2 years ago, I did something.)

If you catch yourself doing that, then start over! There is no way to save this sentence and get anywhere near correct. And saying “2 Jahre vor… ” doesn’t only sound really really bad, it’s actually really really confusing to a native speaker, at least if they’re speaking English that much.
It’s not a problem to mess up, but please please make sure to start over and say vor first.

Cool, now is there anything else worth noting about vor, besides that little switcheroo?
Well, maybe let’s note that vor generally refers to now as in the moment of speech. So you can’t really use it to give the time span between a point in the past and an even earlier point in the past.
Like… for example, if you’re reading… I mean listening to this live, you know it’s Wednesday. And on Monday, I saw a pink Elephant in my room (don’t ask, please). I wasn’t surprised though, because that wasn’t the first time because I’d seen this beauty. I already saw it on Saturday. There’s a span of two days between Monday and Saturday, so can I tell that story with vor?
The answer is no…

  • Ich habe am Montag wieder den pinken, fluoreszierenden 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. It’ll be natural to you if you’re a native speaker of English, but it might be different in other languages, so I wanted to mention it.
Cool… moving on.

“in”

In might be the easiest of them all because it’s exactly like in English. So it has two functions, and the first one is to give the time span between now and some point in the future. So basically, it’s like vor, just in the other direction.

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

And the other thing in is used for is to give a measure of duration, so the time span it took to achieve something.
Like in this completely realistic example…

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

It’s true guys, with my amazing secret hack course, you can do it too. Now 90% off with the coupon code #falsehope
Seriously though, this double usage of in of course opens some room for confusion.

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

Will I do it three days from now or will it take me three days to do it… it’s not clear. Though one is way more realistic than the other. And I’m not gonna tell which one. Most of the time, our good old friend Captain Context will make it clear which in we’re looking at though…

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

This one can only mean that we’re talking about duration, because of the morgen.Cool.
So this really is pretty straight forward but is there anything to watch out for with in?
Yes.
The German in 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 and a German native speaker would not understand what you’re trying to say.
So yeah… even though German in and English in are really similar, try to remember the two concepts of German in and not just the translation.
Here’s an example that brings them together :)

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

“seit “

Seit is used to express when something started in the past that is still going on now. And it can do that by either giving the starting point or the time span, so it’s a translation for both, since AND for. Wow, one word in German for two English words… that’s rare :). Usually, it’s the other way around.

  • Ich lerne seit Juni Deutsch.
  • I have been learning German since June.
  • Ich lerne seit 4 Monaten Deutsch.
  • I have been learning for 4 month.

  • Meine Katze kann seit Montag reden.
  • My cat can talk since Monday.

  • Ich war seit 4 Wochen nicht mehr an der Uni.
  • I haven’t been to university in 4 weeks.

Pay attention to how Germans speak English and you’ll hear LOT of mistakes with since and for.
Because to a German brain, it’s just one word.
Is there something to watch out for for English speakers, though?
Well, yes.
Take a look at this sentence.

  • I slept for a while.

We just learned that for in sense of time means seit, so we can use that here, right?
Wrong!
Because this action is already over. I am NOT sleeping anymore, so it doesn’t carry into the present. But seit ALWAYS implies that the action is still ongoing. So here, the correct German phrase would be either with für or better yet, just plain without a preposition.

  • Ich habe eine Weile geschlafen.

Cool.
Now, there’s one question that most learners ask sooner or later and that’s the question of which tense to use with seit.
And the answer is… seit works with both, past AND with present. But there’s a bit of a difference in meaning.

  • 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 the mere fact, that it’s been a week that I haven’t eaten any meat. It just describes the “state of affaires” and I might say that right before I bite into that juicy quarterpounder.
The second sentence on the other hand expresses that my not eating meat is an “active process”. Like… “not eating meat” is something I do. And that implies intent and it’s very likely that I’ll continue doing that.
Here’s another example…

  • Ich habe seit einer Woche nicht geraucht.
  • I haven’t smoked for a week.

  • Ich rauche seit einer Woche nicht mehr.
    Lit.: I am not smoking anymore since a week ago.
  • I have stopped smoking a week ago.

So, try to get a feel for what the point of the story is… do you want to talk about something that’s ongoing? Then use present tense. Do you just want to give the span between some time in the past and now, then go with past tense.
Oh and don’t stress too much about it. I think you can actually rely on your intuition here quite a bit.
All right.
Moving on to the next one and that’s kind of like seit’s brother from the future.

“ab”

We just learned that seit helps us tell when something started. Ab does the same, only that it’s about the future. So it tells us when something WILL start.

  • Ich bin ab Montag in Rom.
  • I will be in Rome from next Monday.
  • Ab morgen habe ich mehr Zeit.
  • I will have more time starting tomorrow.

And if you’re now wondering about why I didn’t use future tense in these examples… well, that’s because German typically doesn’t use it, as soon as there’s some other indication of time in there. Like “ab morgen” for instance. You CAN use future tense, if you want to, but oftentimes, present tense is more idiomatic.

Now, one big difference between ab and seit, aside from the different “time zones” in which they’re operating, is the fact that ab can ONLY be used with points of time . It does NOT work with spans.

  • I’ll be in Rome starting three weeks from now.
  • Ich bin ab 3 Wochen in Rom… is wrong

If we want to use ab with a span, we have to do two steps. First, we use the span to indicate a point in the future. The preposition for that is one we’ve already learned: in… so this would be in 3 Wochen. This block is a point in time and now we can put our ab in front o fit…. ab in 3 Wochen. Yes, ab in a fairly common thing to say :)

  • 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, I have a little test for you. Is this also correct?

  • Ab vor 3 Wochen habe ich nicht geraucht…. NOPE

No, it’s not. Because it talks about the past, and the word there is seit – not ab.
Ab does work with jetzt, though.
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 during my senior year at.. uhm… at elementary school.
So if you want to start a competition like that, here are the words:

  • Wer als erstes “bis” sagt, ist doof… ab jetzt!
  • Whoever says “bis” first is stupid.. starting now!

And that’s a challenge I’ll totally lose because our last word for today is…. bis :)

“bis”

The ones we just had, seit and ab, were about when something starts. bis is kind of the opposite of those because it tells us when something stops.
It is used for past, present and future and you probably 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.”

Does it also work with spans? Nope!

  • Ich bin bis 2 Wochen in Paris… is wrong

If we want to use a time span, we have to do the same we just did with ab… double up on a preposition.
First, we indicate a point in time using the span and vor or in respectively. And then put bis in front of the whole thing.

  • Bis vor 3 Wochen hatte ich 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. (#morefalsehope)

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.
  • See you in 3 days.
    Until in 3 days.(lit.)”

And speaking of good bye… this is actually it for today :).
There are some more things to know, namely the teams vor-nach and von-bis and the word her. But I think this is enough for one session.
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?

And now it’s time for you to test yourself with our little quiz.
And after that, as always, if you have any question or suggestions about the article or the quiz, just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time… which according to some is also, what she said.

 

further reading:

Grammar Terms Explained – What are prepositions

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