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.

  • Die Tasse steht auf dem Tisch.
  • The cup is standing on the table.
  • Die Tasse fällt auf den Tisch.
  • The cup falls on the table.

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:

  • Ich jogge im (in dem) Park.
  • Ich jogge in den Park.

     

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.

  • Ich schreibe auf dem Tisch.
  • Ich schreibe auf den Tisch.

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.

  • Thomas schläft auf der Couch.
  • Thomas schläft auf die Couch.

     

     

     

     

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 …

  • Ich schlafe ins neue Jahr.
  • I sleep into the new year.

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…

  • Traumversunken schlafe ich nach Berlin.
  • Sunk in dreams, I sleep to Berlin… meeeeeehhhhhhh, maybe
  • “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. Two-Way Prepositions are a way to get our message across. Using Accusative answers to  “where’s it headed”, using Dative to “where is it (happening)” . And  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.

  • Ich warte auf das Einhorn.
  • I’m waiting for 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.

 

  • Ich setze mich in der U-Bahn.

 

 

  • Die Fliege schwimmt in die Suppe.

 

 

  • Maria fährt neben dem Jogger.

 

 

  • Ich lese in das Buch.
  • Ich tanze auf der Brücke.

 

 

  • Ich trinke in die Küche.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

  • Marias Haar hängt in die Suppe.
  • 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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Harvey
Harvey
5 months ago

Gerade als ich dachte, ich hätte den Dreh mit den Präpositionen raus, kommt dieser Satz:

                Ich habe ein Herz auf meinen Unterarm tätowiert, knapp über meinem Handgelenk.
 

Bedeutet “tätowiert werden” eine Bewegung in Richtung des Arms? Warum nicht „auf meinem Unterarm“?

Ich wünsche Ihnen alles Gute.

Emanuel Boboiu
Emanuel Boboiu
1 year ago

Who learned Latin language can understand better, some prepositions are two-way as well… The difference there is that the two cases are accusative and ablative, not accusative and dative:

  The four prepositions of this kind are:
– in (= into, onto / in, on);
– sub (= under);
– subter (= underneath);
– super (= over / upon).

In Latin language, in most situations, the dative forms are the same as the ablative forms. In the plural even in all declensions they are the same forms.

It is a pity that the ablative case has disappeared, but its main beneficiary was the accusative, not the dative.

As I learn German, I discover more and more similarities between this language and Latin.
As someone might say, the German language was the least subjected to the process of barbarization.  
At least the German language still has something of the old declensions, even if the burden has passed from the shoulders of the substantive, to those of the article.
Ah, is it ok to say in English “substantive”? My teachers never called it that, but “noun”. In Romanian we only call it „substantiv”, They still remember from time to time that his name was „nume” (= “name”) many decades ago, but no student would understand what a “nume” would be nowadays in the context of grammar.

psjohnson74
psjohnson74
1 year ago

My instructor on Italki always tells me to pay attention to motion, i.e. if something is moving it generally needs accusative, if not then it’s generally dative. So in my head now I say “stay-tive” for dative, since the subject is staying, not moving, and “a-cruise-ative” for accusative, since the subject is moving (or cruising) somewhere. I’m not sure if this would help anyone else, but thought I’d share.

cbodien@yahoo.com
cbodien@yahoo.com
1 month ago
Reply to  psjohnson74

Cute! And helpful!

Tolulope Aina
Tolulope Aina
2 years ago

Hello, I’m so sorry I am Tolulope, I will send you another email and if it doesn’t still work out I will use another email to contact you.
Thank you so much for all you have done for me I really appreciate it.

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago

Do you plan a series on place perpostions?
Like should I use (auf,an,in,beim). It really confuses me

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

2020. I knew it . 31 December. You cannot hide the truth from me

anerbenartzi
anerbenartzi
3 years ago

Hi Emanuel, it really seems like “aus” should have been a 2way preposition, to pair with “in”. Can you shed some light on a native’s approach to this example: Over the phone: “Wo bist du?” “Ich laufe in dem/den Park.” or “Ich laufe aus dem/den(wrong?) Park.” This is trying to say “I am currently walking out of the park, i.e. exiting the park.” Thanks.

anerbenartzi
anerbenartzi
3 years ago

Thanks for the clear answer. Since there are times that the preposition demands a certain case, the next obvious question is: What happens when there are two opposing prepositions? This phone can come either with or without a charger. Do you need an taxi to or from the airport? He came to the party with and because of the new suit. (It would be a bit contrived, but things can get tricky with a two-way preposition and a fixed preposition that doesn’t want the ‘right’ way.)

anerbenartzi
anerbenartzi
3 years ago

Thanks for the helpful paradigm. It seems very reasonable for a language to use the cases for the dynamic-vs-static distinction. (Even if it makes jokes like https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/57396/how-many-flies-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-light-bulb impossible.)
It actually seems a shame that German doesn’t do this with all prepositions… Is there a way to take some poetic licence and convince oneself that all prepositions follow this pattern, but some just rarely make sense with the dynamic (or static ) sense?

crittermonster
crittermonster
4 years ago

The question (is this hülyeség, nonsense, wackiness) was for other Hungarian speakers, to ask whether they shared my feeling about this.

You wanted to know whether any language allows the verb “to sleep” a direction. Well, maybe none of them really do– but I nominate this one for as close as we’re going to get.

To me, it just feels a lot more literal than the English (or German) “fall asleep”. In Hungarian a sleeper doesn’t simply “fall into” or “go to” sleep itself– instead s/he actively performs the verb “sleeping”, in the direction “away”, and by doing so reaches some other state/dimension.

(if you get two answers from me on this it’s because I accidentally hit “post” without putting my info. I think your website ate it LOL)

Anonymous
Anonymous
4 years ago

Hi! my question actually was for other Hungarian speakers…. to ask them whether they share my feeling. In Hungarian we say you “slept AWAY”.

You asked whether any language gives sleep a direction– perhaps none of them truly do, but I think this one seems to approach it. Somehow to me, it feels a lot more literal than the English (or German, I assume) “fall asleep” does. The sleeper doesn’t simply “fall into” or “go to” sleep itself, but rather s/he actively performs the action of sleeping, and doing so takes her AWAY into some other…. state/place/dimension.

I nominate this for “close to what Emanuel had in mind”.

crittermonster
4 years ago

Sleeping direction, does this count? I know the English “fall” asleep isn’t the kind of literal spatial movement you’re looking for. But in Hungarian you could say someone “sleeps away”— elalszík– meaning they fall asleep….and maybe it’s just me, but “elaludni” does seem to have a more concrete quality than the English “to fall asleep”. It almost makes me feel as if the person is receding into the sleep, sort of vanishing away from us into a deep sleep-vortex.

Can anyone tell me if this is csak hülyeség or what?

oniongood
oniongood
5 years ago

Hi,
I have a question about sleeping a direction. If I want to express that someone is troubled and therefore cannot sleep soundly and during his sleep he turns around and around? Or simply if a kid is very active in his sleep and he moves a lot, can we use acc case in this situation? Thank you!

endernik
endernik
5 years ago

Großartige und hilfreich wie immer!

Another way to remember the two way preposition thing is this song – https://youtu.be/qmF7m1H25p0,
May not be for everyone, but I thought it’d help. :)

Kinjal
Kinjal
5 years ago

Hey Em,
I have a question to ask… I asked my german friend here as well but she hasn’t exactly been able to give me a very satisfying answer…

Since you had an article about two way prepositions…
Why is it :

Ich bin auf eine Party (auf as a preposition for the party… I am on a Party???)

and the other question is:

why is it um 1 (Uhr) [with time] : I mean um means around…
Considering Germans are generally so punctual and so strict about time… it isn’t an ‘at’ as preposition, but around…

I mean we were simply asked to learn it as fixed prepositions but then I think there has to be logical answer to it.
Would be great if you could help me with it.

Manoj
Manoj
5 years ago

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!

gamesforlanguage
5 years ago

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

Jamie Shepherd
Jamie Shepherd
5 years ago

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

Jen
Jen
5 years ago

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!

Tinbum
Tinbum
5 years ago

> 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 ;-)

person243
person243
5 years ago

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 »