Two-Way Prepositions Explained

Hello everyone,

and welcome. Do you know the series on prefix verbs? Man, I don’t know.. maybe it’s just me, but it feels really really last season. Like… I’m sooo ready for something new. Some cool, new, exciting sexy series on something.
And you know what?!?! That series is coming and it’s gonna be the bestest, most usefullest series ever. Get ready for:

CSI:Prepositions 

Shabammmm!!!! Epic.
Well, okay the actual title is German Prepositions Explained but yeah, it’s essentially your dream coming true because in this series, we’ll look at the German prepositions one at a time and explain the crap out of them. You will be a preposition master after this series.
And if you’re now like “Awesome. What’s a preposition again?” I’m talking about auf, ab, zu, aus and so on.
Now, filming for the series is still going so, so we won’t have an episode today just yet. Instead, we’ll do a little featurette about

Two way prepositions

We’ll come across this stuff again and again, it confuses many learners and the explanations that are a little off. Not really wrong, just… off.
So, are you ready to take a look at the systematics behind the infamous German two-way prepositions?
Cool.

German has 4 cases. That wouldn’t be a problem by itself. I have a deodorant; somewhere. The problem is that German really really likes its four cases and it rubs them in our faces all day.  And prepositions offer no respite.
It’s not enough that there are many of them and they don’t line up with their English counterparts. No. German just can’t help it and is like “Oh, uhm, and don’t forget… after each preposition has to come a case.”
For some prepositions, this case is set in stone. No exceptions. Like, für for instance will ALWAYS be followed by accusative, no matter what.

But there’s a group of prepositions which can be followed by two cases – accusative and dative, to be precise. Luckily, there’s a pretty consistent system for which case to use and that has to do with what we’re trying to say.
If our message is  about a fixed location, or in other words,  if we’re answering an imaginary “Where is X (happening)?” question, we’ll mark that by using dative. If our message is about the question “Where is X headed?”, then we’ll use accusative.
So, it’s NOT simply about whether there’s movement, as many sources suggest. It’s about our message.
Example time.

In the first example, we’re talking about where the cup currently is; it is stationary and we’re marking that with Dative. In the second example, the current position of cup doesn’t really matter. It is somewhere mid air. What we want to talk about is where the cup is headed; it’s destination. And we’re marking that with Accusative.
Now, this example was pretty clear because to be is stationary in itself, while fallen is clearly a movement. And that’s how many sources frame it.
But that’s NOT the core of it.

the message makes the case

Check out this example:

Here, we have the same verb in both examples and it is clearly a movement verb. And yet, we have used Dative in the first version? Isn’t that wrong then?
No, the Dative tells us that whatever happens in that sentence (the jogging) happens at a fixed location: in the park. So, I’m in the park at the beginning of my run, I’m in the park at the end of it. My location relative to park doesn’t change throughout my run.
The Accusative in the second example on the other hand, the park is the destination of my run. I’m not there before the run, I am there after.
So, just because the verb is a movement verb doesn’t mean the case is clear.
And same goes the other way around.

Schreiben means to write, so the verb itself is not really a movement verb, this time. But there’s nothing wrong with giving writing a direction either. In the first example, the Dative marks the table as  the location where my writing happens. Maybe I sit there and write a letter to someone. In the second example, I’m also at the table writing, but the Accusative marks that the main message this time is that the table is the destination of my writing. I am literally writing onto the table.
Cool. Now, one more example, again with twist.

The twist is pretty obvious this time :). The second version doesn’t work.
And the crucial part is that it’s not because the grammar is wrong or anything but simply because it makes absolutely no sense.
You can give sleeping a direction in time …

Here, the accusative is fine. The new year is the destination of our sleeping. But unless you’re a poet or something you CAN’T give sleeping a direction in space…

  • “I was sleeping.”
    “Cool, where to?”
    “From the kitchen onto the couch.”… uh.. NOPE

That doesn’t work in English either. In fact, I’d be curious, if there’s any language at all on the planet where you can give sleeping a direction in space (let me know in the comments if you can in your language).
But yeah… so the crossed out example with the accusative  would be called wrong by your teacher. The crucial thing to understand here, is that it’s NOT wrong because of grammar. It’s NOT wrong, because sleeping is not a movement verb, it’s NOT wrong because it’s intransiblahblah… it is wrong because it sounds wrong and it sounds wrong because it is nonsense.

So, the bottom line of all of this is that the case choice we do for the two-way prepositions is not just some annoying bit of grammar. It’s a way to get your message across. Accusative answers to  “where’s it headed”, Dative to “where is it (happening)” , and by the way, making this distinction explicit is a common theme of the German language. German is really anal about spatial information.
The proper choice depends on what you want to say and if something doesn’t work then it doesn’t work because it’s nonsense. And it’s most likely nonsense in other languages, too.
Cool.
Now some of you are probably on the edge of their seat now asking the following: “But, but Emanuel, EMAAAANUELLL… what about stuff like warten auf? How do I know which case to use for those?”

That’s a very good question. German has loads of sort of fixed combos between verbs and prepositions that don’t really have anything to do with space or time. And if a verb comes with a two-way preposition, many learners get confused about which case to pick.
We’ll talk about those combos a lot in the individual articles for the prepositions but I can give you a trend right away:

Fixed, abstract verb-preposition combos with two-way preps
tend to take accusative


The local notion of the Dative is very very strong and in many instances, it will sound like you’re actually talking about a location. Here’s the obligatory unicorn example

  • Ich warte auf dem Einhorn.
  • I’m waiting on top of the unicorn.

When you think about it, the anticipation that is at the heart of warten is in some way like a directed movement. My waiting has a goal, a target. But this is the stuff that we’ll do in the series, so lots of theory fun ahead of us :).
Cool.

So now that we know the how and what about two-way prepositions, all that’s missing are the prepositions themselves. Here they are

vor, hinter, in, auf, unter, über, neben, an, zwischen

 

And there’s a nice way to check keep them in mind without keeping them in mind. Just imagine a lighter and a coffee cup. If you can position these two items so that they “show” the preposition without moving or theater, then it’s two-way.
There’s really cool, simple way to quickly check if a preposition is two-way or not. If you can “arrange” a cup and a lighter so they “show” the preposition without moving, then it’s two-way.
It doesn’t really work for zwischen, to be honest, but let’s just think of that as poetic license. The lighter can be zwischen the table and the cup.

Cool. Now theory is all well and good, but practice makes perfect. So to wrap this up, let’s do a little work out.

Exercise

I’ll give you a few sentences and mark the case and you have to decide whether it is a correct sounding sentence and what it means. And if you want, you can also think about whether the other choice would work, too. Here’s an example:

  • Ich lege das Buch auf dem Tisch

We’re using Dative, so auf dem Tisch is marked as the location where the rest of the sentence takes place. That means, that I am laying the book while being on the table. And that doesn’t make too much sense, right. So this one would be “wrong” and Accusative would be the proper choice here, because it would mark the table as destination of my laying.

So here you go… and be warned, these are pretty tricky :)

  1. Ich trinke in meinen Geburtstag.

     

  2. Ich setze mich in der U-Bahn.

     

  3. Die Fliege schwimmt in die Suppe.

     

  4. Maria fährt neben dem Jogger.

     

  5. Ich lese in das Buch.
  6. Ich tanze auf der Brücke.

     

  7. Ich trinke in die Küche.

     

  8. Ich werfe im Wasser.
  9. Ich lese etwas in die E-Mail.

     

  10. Der Bus fährt im Winter nicht.
  11. Das Team liegt hinter den Zeitplan.
  12. Die Werbung kommt vor dem Video.

     

  13. Marias Haar hängt in die Suppe.
  14. Thomas kotzt vor der Bar.

And here are the solutions – with a little explanation, so you actually know what’s going on :)

  1. Correct. Dative wouldn’t work because the idiomatic preposition would be “an” for a expressing that something happens on a fixed day
  2. Textbook explanations suggest that it’s wrong but it isn’t. You can sit down while being in the subway. Accusative would work, too.
  3. Unless there’s a canal leading into the soup that the fly could swim along, making the soup the destination of the fly’s swimming makes little to no sense :)
  4. It’s correct and Accusative would work as well.
  5. It’s weird sounding, to say the least. You could understand it as giving the book a little probe reading, but reading in the book would be done with Dative.
  6. Correct, and Accusative would work as well.
  7. This doesn’t make any sense. You can’t give drinking a location in space. Dative would be correct here.
  8. Correct, and Accusative would work as well.
  9. It’s similar to number 5 but this time, it works because you’re reading something into the mail that isn’t there.
  10. It’s completely correct. Accusative would only make sense if it’s a lyrical way to say that the bus drives to the far north (where it is winter)
  11. This is nonsense. Lying is one of those verbs that you cannot give a direction to. When you’re lying, you’re 100% stationary.
  12. It’s fine. We’re told where the ad is. With accusative it would mean that we’re talking about where to put the ad.
  13. It’s fine and Dative would work as well. The two are almost the same. The accusative just puts a little focus on the hair reaching into the soup, while Dative is just a plain description of where it is.
  14. It’s fine and Accusative would work as well.

So how’d you do? How many did you get correct? Was it difficult? I bet you’re having a lot of questions about this now so let’s talk about it in the comments.
And of course, if you have other questions about any of this or if you want to try out some more examples leave a comment too.
So that’s it for today. This was our look at two-way prepositions and I hope the whole thing is a little clearer now. The case choice is a way to mark something as either destination or location for an event and the difference between right and wrong is mainly what makes sense. And with this we’re now well prepared for the upcoming series on prepositions :). It’s not gonna start next week, but it is coming and it is going to be epic.
I hope you liked it today, I wish you a schöne Woche und bis nächstes Mal.

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RuthE
RuthE

I had these all written out before I saw your list of answers. So everyone gets to see mine anyway!! :D 1.Ich trinke in meinen Geburtstag. (Accusative) Unless you were still on a drinking spree from the day before, it should be dative. 2.Ich setze mich in der U-Bahn. (Dative) I sit down in the train. This should be right. (I’m not getting how accusative might work here.) 3.Die Fliege schwimmt in die Suppe. (Accusative) The fly swims in the soup. No, should be dative. Now if you had a little diving board on the side of the bowl for the fly, then…but that would be tauchen or springen. 4.Maria fährt neben dem Jogger. (Dative) Everyone is moving, but not relative to each other. So yes, this is good. (I’m not seeing how accusative would work here.) 5.Ich lese in das Buch. (Accusative) I don’t usually read into a book – though it could be argued that I might read themes, or a significance into a book. I would think Dative would be better here, as I usually just read a book, with no destination involved. 6.Ich tanze auf der Brücke. (Dative) I am dancing on the bridge. It would also work with accusative, but then it would be ‘I am dancing onto the bridge (from somewhere else)’ 7.Ich trinke in die Küche. (Accusative) ‘I drink into the kitchen’ No. Dative works here. The wine is in the kitchen, so I drink it there. Why go anywhere else? 8.Ich werfe im Wasser. (Dative) I am throwing in the water. It’s missing a direct object. If it had a DO, then it should be accusative, ‘I am throwing (something) into the water.’ However, if you had a ball game going on while scuba diving, then maybe dative would work. (So now I’m completely baffled with this one, after reading Emmanuel’s explanation. Maybe werfen means something else?) 9.Ich lese etwas in die E-Mail.(Accusative) I read something into the email. No. You just read them. No themes, no significance, just read them. Should be dative. 10. Der Bus fährt im Winter nicht. (Dative) The bus does not run in winter. Yes, that makes sense, unless it’s a time-traveling bus. 11.Das Team liegt hinter den Zeitplan. (Accusative) The team was behind schedule. No, should be dative. ‘Legen’ feels like dative. Laying implies that the destination has been reached. 12. Die Werbung kommt vor dem Video. (Dative) The ads come before the video. Hmm. What do you do with a parade, a sequence? I guess since their relative positions are set, then dative would work. 13. Marias Haar hängt in die Suppe. (Accusative) Like the fly, Maria’s hair is there, not coming or going anywhere. So, no, should be dative. (So hängen has movement associated with it? I think I could go for it. Seems a bit of a stretch, though..) 14. Thomas kotzt vor der Bar. (Dative) Thomas pukes in front of the bar. Yes. Just keep it there. Don’t really want to know… Read more »

tohaklim

Yeah, I mostly followed the line of thinking you had. 1. apparently has to do with the right preposition, so I was confused. “I drink (my way) (in)to the birthday” is the gist I’m getting here.
2. Accusative here probably has the “normal” meaning, kinda like “I get on the train”
4. A bit of a stretch to me, but ACC could be “Maria drives up (to be) near the jogger” (?).
8. Also not sure about “werfen” usage, but your ballgame-while-in-the-water example seems to be closest to how I imagine ACC here.
9. Now this one got me properly confused, maybe because I am not aware of the “reading into” thing. Does it mean you are reading smth and adding a meaning that isn’t there?
11. If we are talking about stretching meanings, I envisioned a team lying behind a print-out timetable for ACC. A stretch, I know.
13. Also wasn’t aware hängen has a movement/reaching-into component.
14. Must be the graphic description of what the vector of Kotze is.

RuthE
RuthE

Thank you for your detailed answer, tohaklim. :-)

#4 – Maria driving up to the jogger, and therefore ACC – that fits what berlingrabers was saying. I can handle that.

Well, #9 would be a real stretch to use ACC, that’s for sure. When you read something into a book, you’re seeing themes and significance that the author may or may not have been intending. It could even be of personal significance to you, which of course the author was probably completely unaware of. I bet German expresses this some other way than just using ACC. Hehe. Then we could get into a good philosophical discussion of whether the patterns are “really” there or not. :-D

Ryan
Ryan

Such top notch work. Thank you.

dane
dane

The Coffee cup and lighter analogy isn’t crystal clear.

So I can put the lighter behind the cup (hintern) so that’s a two way. Also with in, another. But I can’t über it so über functions only in AKK or DAT, correct? What about with ‘an’? I can’t affix it to the coffee cup so that’s another that’s only one of the other (AKK or DAT).

As well as ‘unter’ which I could place under the cup so that’s a two-way as well, yes? Like ‘zwischen’ as you put in a poetic way, haha.

-for number one. I was wrong and I don’t follow the reasoning why it would be AKK. I think because you meant, ‘…would be ‘an’ for an expression that happens on a fixed day.’ ?

“Correct. Dative wouldn’t work because the idiomatic preposition would be “an” for a expressing that something happens on a fixed day”

berlingrabers
berlingrabers

A preposition that can take either Akk. or Dat. IS “two-way.” If it helps, you could use “go” and “be”: the lighter can go behind the cup or be behind the cup; it can go over the cup or be over the cup (i.e. you could move it over the top of the cup or hold it still above the cup – both could be expressed with “über”).

But you couldn’t leave the lighter “aus” the cup – “aus der Tasse” can’t mean a position. It’s one of those prepositions that only takes Dativ. In the same way, the lighter can’t BE “durch die Tasse” (I mean, I’d know what you meant if you said that, but the preposition really means where something goes) – that’s Akkusativ-only.

On #1, basically Emanuel was saying that there’s no such expression as “in meinem Geburtstag.” If you’re talking about something that happened on your birthday, you’d say “an meinem Geburtstag.”

“Ich trinke in meinen Geburtstag” would mean something like “I start drinking the evening before my birthday and keep going until after midnight.” Doesn’t translate very well into English, although “I drink late into the night” has the same “accusative” time feel to it.

perra-arrabalera
perra-arrabalera

Thank you! Still bothers the crap out of me that so much effort has to be put in the most meaningless words in German, that is articles and prepositions!

By the way, to RuthE and others correcting your English…. could you be a bit more polite with your recommendations? I get it, you speak perfect English, but this blog is about learning German. I guess it is for Emanuel to judge anyway!

RuthE
RuthE

My apologies if I came across as rude. Not my intention. And I definitely want people to correct or advise my German. :-)

berlingrabers
berlingrabers

Just a few clarification questions on the answers…

For #4, would “fährt neben den Jogger” sound like she speeds up, slows down, or steers her car/bike over to where the jogger is? Whereas with dative, it sounds like she drives alongside him, staying at the same relative position?

For #8, does “Ich werfe im/ins Wasser” sound as weird as “I throw in/into the water” does in English? Without an object, it’s just really odd to me. If so, would “Ich werfe den Ball im Wasser” sound like you’re playing water polo or something?

Back to the actual article, I’m also wondering how often a lot of the two-way prepositions that ALSO appear in fixed abstract verb-preposition combos (FAVPCs?) would pop up in the dative at all. Like in the unicorn example, in English, “I wait on the unicorn” could mean waiting while being located on top of the majestic beast, but it would be confusing enough (especially because, at least in American usage, “wait on” someone/something can also mean either “wait for” or “serve”) that you’d be far more likely to say something like “I sit on the unicorn and wait.”

So would you be likely to actually encounter “Ich warte auf dem Einhorn,” or would someone who wants to express that meaning probably say “Ich sitze auf dem Einhorn und warte”?

Francesca Greenoak
Francesca Greenoak

The observation- He slept his way to the top – would be understood in English. Perhaps such things don’t happen in German ?

Francesca Greenoak
Francesca Greenoak

And thank you for such brilliant examples and explanations.

Jessica
Jessica

Wie waer’s mit sowas?

Ich steige in den Nachtzug, mach es mir gemuetlich im Liegewagen un schlafe nach Berlin.

Sean
Sean

Hi Emmanuel,

Awesome article as always. Thanks a lot for the membership! I am hoping to take full advantage of this wonderful resource. :0

Grüß Gott!

Andrew Ridley
Andrew Ridley

I can’t understand your lighter cup analogy at all, please could you amplify this analogy a bit more, because I’m sure it can be useful.

Valentin
Valentin

I support this request, I also didn’t get this analogy, sorry.

Dermot385
Dermot385

Ich auch nicht verstehen?

Dermot385
Dermot385

What about sleep walking to berlin?
Would that. be accusative?

Valentin
Valentin

Guys, if Emanuel picks something to explain, we can be sure it is going to be the best we could get across, so friends, make yourself comfortable and let’s follow the development of the ideas, which is not just about education, teaching or even language anymore, it is becoming a work of art! .

Yort
Yort

“Like, für for instance will ALWAYS be followed by accusative, no matter what.”

Was für “einen” Fehler mache ich denn hier? :)

Anonymous
Anonymous

“German is really anal about spatial information”
what are you trying to say haha

person243
person243

Hi Emanuel, the concept of two-way prepositions is a well deserving one and I like how you explained it. Quite easy to understand but not too simple. I think your allegory with cup and lighter needs a closer analysis. I’ll try with any preposition how that I think could work: “an”, “unter”, “hinter”, “vor”, “in”, “neben” work by just positioning the lighter differently or choosing another point of view. For “auf” you have to turn the cup around but that should not pose a problem. You already explained “zwischen” with the help of the table so that’s fine. Let’s look at “über”. That posed a slight hurdle for me but then I remembered you can easily position the cup “über” the lighter. Still “über” is a bit special in this cathegory. The accusative does not play the normal role. With dative, “über” is quite normal. “Die Vögel fliegen Kreise über unseren Köpfen.” = “THe birds fly in circles above our heads.” It is the position above. But with accusative, “über” can act a bit strange: “Wir gehen über die Brücke.” = “We cross the bridge.” which is not the same as going to the position above the bridge. The target lies beyond the thing “über” which you move. Let’s take the picture of the cup and the lighter again. There you can not reach the lighter, because it is covered by the cup. The best thing you can do is climb the cup and slide down on the other side. Which is exactly the movement which the accusative “über” wants. Unless you are the thing that covers. Like a blanket or a helmet, they are positioned like the cup if hit by the accusative “über”. “Er zog sich die Decke über das Gesicht.” = “He pulled the blanket over his face.” Or more metaphorical: “Es legte sich ein Schatten über das Land.” = “A shadow subsided on the land.” But what about “bei”? I can easily imagine a lighter “bei” a cup. And my grandmother would agree that “bei” can be used with accusative. She always talks about how she has to go “bei den Arzt” again. Which is only understandable as one also talks about what one did when having been “beim Arzt”. Still standard German forbids any other case than dative with “bei”, although I think everyone would understand it if you used “bei” like my grandma. I think also “gegen” is interesting. If you have enough patience you can probably somehow balance the lighter so that it leans against (gegen) the cup. That suggests that you could use dative with “gegen”. Problem is you would need a situation were the noun after “gegen” is not something that is the target of some striving. Which is somehow against the definition of “gegen” so we are only left with accusative. A similar argument could work with “mit” (you know the classic combo of a lighter and a cup as an advertising gift). You know the phrase: “You are either… Read more »

Tinbum
Tinbum

> In fact, I’d be curious, if there’s any language at all on the planet where you can give sleeping a direction in space (let me know in the comments if you can in your language).

In English, you can use it as a derogative e.g. saying that someone slept their way into a job, or onto a team. Maybe a little bit different from what you mean though ;-)

Jen
Jen

Great post, as always. I love the graphic with the two way prepositions defined visually!

Random thought: I would love to read a blog post of yours written in your typical silly, informal style, but in German. I feel like a lot of the German I end up reading is news articles, government websites, or other formal-ish things. I’d love to hear your style in German!

Jamie Shepherd
Jamie Shepherd

Which is correct?

Der Schweiß ist runter meinem Gesicht geronnen.
Der Schweiß ist runter mein Gesicht geronnen.

I feel like the dative is correct because the location is the face. But then again it could be accusative because the sweat is moving.

Vielen Dank

gamesforlanguage

Hi Emanuel, we love your post, will add it to our German Facebook page and let our German users know as well! Well done!

Manoj
Manoj

Thanks to Emanuel and the people who help others who can’t afford to get subscription for free! I really appreciate it!

This is such a great website for learning German, I particularly like the detailed and meticulous explanation which helps to understand any topic without ambiguity. And of course the comment/reply section helps clear any doubts that may arise. Lots to learn here :D, Thanks once again for the subscription Emanuel!