German Prepositions Explained – “vor”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the very firstest episode of the brand new series. It’s called German Prepositions Explained and my good friend Captain Obvious is gonna tell us what it’s about
“It’s about German Prepositions.”
Thanks man.
“I say things that are obvious.”
Nobody does it better, man.
In this series, we’ll take a thorough look at each preposition one at a time – normal usage, usage as a prefix, usage in combos with verbs, underlying themes. Everything.
So, when we’re done with the series the preps are gonna be a herd of sheep doing their thing, walking around the field, munching grass. But they all know full well who is chilling under the tree. The boss. You. The German shepherd dog, ready to reign them in at any moment.
Sounds good?
Awesome. Then let’s jump right into the first episode and take a thorough look at

vor

And we’ll start with the look at vor in its day job – as a preposition.

“vor” as a preposition

The core idea of vor is what we could call ahead-ness.
That idea can be about space as well as time. And while English usually uses different words for each domain, German is all Einstein about it. So, Captain Obvious’ Nemesis Captain Context has to step in in German.

  • Thomas steht vor Maria.
  • Thomas stands in front of/before Maria.
    (could technically also mean that he’s the first one to stand)

  • Thomas duscht vor Maria.
  • Thomas showers before Maria.
    (could technically also mean that he showers in front of her)

Those two are not the only translations though. There’s a third one which is also super important: ago. And if you’re now like “Wait, how does the past fit in with the idea of ahead-ness”, just think of ago as the word prior or simply before now

  • Vor ein paar Tagen war es noch richtig kalt.
  • A few days ago (before now) it was still really cold.

Now, vor is in the beginning of the chunk while ago is at its end is something that throws of many people in the beginning. But if you to think of the phrase that is kind of the opposite, you’ll see that German is actually kind of more consistent here.

  • in ein paar Tagen – in a few days
  • vor ein paar Tagen – a few days ago

Cool.
So in front of, before and ago… those are the main translations for vor. Before is a bit tricky though and leads to one super uber mega common mistake.

  • Vor ich gehe schlafenNOPE

The thing is, that vor is a prepositions and as such, it can only connect “things”. But here, we’re connecting an action/a verb (schlafen gehen). Connecting actions is the job of conjunctions and in our case, the word we need is bevor. The English before has both functions but German usually uses distinct words for distinct functions. Think of it as a pair like during-while.

  • During I slept… ultra wrong
  • While dinner… uber wrong

They both express “simultanous-ness” but they’re not interchangeable because of their grammatical function. During connects things, while connects actions.
This distinction is a pretty important one and I’ve talked about it in more detail in an article another article, so I’ll add the link below.
Cool.
Now, there’s one more thing that we need to talk about before we move on to vor as a prefix – the elephant in the room of prepositions, if you will. And that is the question which case to use.
And vor is one of those lovely two-way prepositions. If you don’t know what that is or if you’re uncertain about them, you really should check out my article about the topic.
In a nutshell it’s like this: two-way prepositions can be followed by Dative or Accusative. Dative if you want to mark something as a location where something happens, Accusative if you want to mark it as the destination of something.

  • Ich warte vor dem Café.
  • I wait in front of the café.
    (“in front of the café” is where my waiting takes place.)

  • Ich gehe vor das Café.
  • I go in front of the café.
    (“in front of the café” is the destination of my going)

I think, it’s pretty clear in context of location but what about time? Like… for example, if we want to say “before the meeting“, would that be Dative or Accusative. Well, let’s find out.

  • Thomas macht vor dem Meeting Schwangerschaftsyoga.
  • Thomas does pregnancy yoga before the meeting.

  • Das letzte Mal, dass ich im Kino war, war vor einem Monat.
  • The last time I was at the movies was a month ago.
  • Vor einer Prüfung trinkt Maria zur Beruhigung einen Shot.
  • Before an exam, Maria drinks a shot to calm down.

It’s Dative, and the big question is WHY Thomas does pregnancy yoga. I have no answer to that but I do have an answer to why it is Dative. What we’re doing here with the before-part is answering the question when something takes place. And that’s basically the same as where something takes place, just in the dimension of time. So Dative makes perfect sense and that’s what you’ll usually use with the time-vor. Could it ever be Accusative? Well, technically yes. If you want to mark before X as the destination (in time) of something. But that pretty much only makes sense in contexts of scheduling.

  • Thomas verschiebt seinen Pediküre-Termin vor das Meeting.
  • Thomas moves his pedicure appointment before the meeting.

Gee, what is going on with Thomas.
Anyway, so now that we have a good impression of

“vor” as a prefix

Like all prefixes, vor- takes the core idea of the preposition and then improvises over it. Kind of like a jazz musician doing a solo, going from pleasing to fascinating to challenging and eventually to “What the hell… is that even still music.”
So how crazy is vor-?
Not that crazy. The ideas of the preposition are still recognizable. In examples like vordrängeln for instance, it’s even quite obvious.

  • Der Mann drängelt sich vor.
  • The man is jumping the line. (lit.: pushing himself to the front)

“Not obvious enough for me.”
Yeah, whatever, Cpt. Obvious. That’s the best you’ll get. And these examples are rare. Usually literal forward movement is expressed using voran or nach vorne.
Way more common for the prefix-vor is the a little abstract twist on the space-component – the idea of showing, presenting. Which makes lots of sense.
You do something in front of others.
Examples for that are verbs like vorsingen (singing to others), vorlesen (reading out) or the super useful vormachen which basically means do in front of others so they can see how it’s done.

  • Maria liest Thomas den Zeitungsartikel vor.
  • Maria reads (out) the newspaper article to Thomas.
  • Kinder machen das, was ihre Eltern ihnen vorleben.
  • “Kids copy what they see from how their parents are living (in front of them).”
    (not the best translation, probably. Let me know if you have an idea)

  • Der Fitnesstrainer macht die Übung vor.
  • The fitness coach shows/demonstrates the exercise.

But of course showing, presenting can also just be that you put something in front of people. And this simple idea is actually the base for some of the craziest vor-verbs. Vorschlagen for instance means to propose – you virtually smash your idea of the table. Or vorwerfen – just imagine a guy sitting on the couch playing Counter Strike and then his girlfriend comes in and throws the dirty clothes he left all over the flat to his feet. With this completely fictional image it’s no problem to remember why vorwerfen is about accusing.

  • Maria hat beim Meeting vorgeschlagen, eine Bürokatze zu kaufen.
  • Maria suggested/proposed at the meeting to buy an office cat.
  • Maria wirft Thomas vor, heimlich ihre Hautcremes zu benutzen.
  • Maria reproaches/accuses Thomas of secretly using her skin lotions.
    Lit.: “throws in front of him”

And of course we need to mention the infamous vorstellen, which means to introduce and to imagine. A random combo at random at first glance but is it really…

  • Ich stelle dir das Einhorn vor.
  • I introduce the unicorn to you.
    “Here man, this is the unicorn. Tadahh”

  • Ich stelle mir das Einhorn vor.
  • I visualize/imagine the unicorn.
    “Look brain, this is the unicorn. Tadahh.”

They’re not that different, are they? Both are essentially about putting something in front of someone.
Quite impressive what you can do with an idea as simple as in front of :):
And we can do just as much with the time-aspect of vor. And there, we don’t even have much of a twist. Vor- is about ahead, in advance and so it’s is kind of the English pre-. Which is a direct relative of vor, by the way.
Vor- can be added to many verbs to give them the idea idea of in advance

  • Den Backofen auf 200 Grad vorheizen.
  • Preheat the oven to 200 Celsius.
  • Das Fleisch ist vorgegart. Sie müssen es nur noch aufwärmen.
  • The meat is pre-cooked. You just have to heat it up.
  • Wir treffen uns um 7 bei mir zum vorglühen.
  • We’ll meet at 7 at my place for “pre-glowing
    (vorglühen is a common slang word for the warm up drinking before the actual party drinking)

  • Ich bereite mich auf den Marathon vor.
  • I prepare myself for the marathon
  • Lit.: I pre-ready myself.

By the way, prepare… it never really occurred to me that this is a prefix verb, before today :). It’s pre- combined with the same base verb as in appear or empire.
But anyway, back to vor-verbs. There are two other super common ones: sich vornehmen and vorhaben. Literally, they mean to take/have ahead of oneself and they’re basically about making and having plans for the future.

  • Am 3.5. feiere ich meinen Geburtstag, also nimm dir nichts vor.
  • On the third of May, I’ll celebrate my birthday, so don’t make any plans.

  • Thomas hat sich vorgenommen, regelmäßiger zum Step Aerobic zu gehen.
  • Thomas has decided/is resolved to go to step aerobics more regularly.
  • Hast du heute schon was vor?
  • Du you have plans for tonight?
  • Ich hab noch nichts vor.
  • I don’t have plans yet. /I‘m free.
  • “Wollen wir gehen?”
    “Ja, ich hatte eh nicht vor, lange hierzubleiben.
  • “Should we go?”
    “Yeah, I wasn’t planning on staying here for long anyway.

Vornehmen and vorhaben are super common for these daily life plans and you should definitely add them to your vocab.
Cool.

So this was a little overview of what vor- and I hope you got a good impression of what it does with the ideas of ahead and in front. Of course, we didn’t cover all the aspects and there are other important vor-verbs but this was really to get a “feel”. And we’ve covered some of the most important vor-verbs in the series on prefix verbs to do them justice. I’ll add the links below so you can check those out in more detail.
But now let’s get to the “Königsdisziplin” of prepositions, as we say in German; the end boss if you will.

“vor” and verbs

When you start learning German, it doesn’t take very long before you discover something that’ll frustrate you for… well… ever. No, I don’t mean gender. And I don’t mean cases. I’m talking about Fixed Verb-Preposition Combinations. Now you might be like “Wait, we already talked about prefixes?!” but that’s not what I mean. There’s another way to combine verb and preposition. And before you start hyperventilating – it is nothing particularly German. English has these combos, too: to wait for, to be angry about, to be scared of... the list is endless. The problem with these combos is that most of them do not match up!!!
The English to wait goes with for, the German warten goes with auf. There is no logic or system to it and you just have to learn over time which preposition a certain verb would like to have.

But we can at least try to bring some order into the chaos. So in this section, we’ll learn the most common combos for our preposition and see if there are any underlying themes to those combos.
That won’t always work, but for vor, there is a theme and we actually don’t need much mind yoga to see it. Let’s look at some examples right away.

  • Der Löwe fürchtet sich vor allem.
  • The lion is frightened by everything.
  • Viele Kinder haben Angst vor dem Zahnarzt.
  • Many kids are scared of the dentist.
  • Ich mag den Musiker nicht, aber ich habe Respekt vor ihm.
  • I don’t like the musician but I respect him/have respect for him.

Hmm… sure, respect is not the same as fear but they do have things in common. So maybe that’s a theme?
Let’s check out some more…

  • Maria hat Thomas davor gewarnt, sich die Beine zu rasieren.
  • Maria has warned Thomas not to shave his legs. (lit.: of leg-shaving)
  • Der Experte warnt vor einer neuen Finanzkrise.
  • The expert warns of a new financial crisis.
  • Unwissenheit schützt vor Strafe nicht.
  • Ignorance is no excuse in law.
    Lit.: Ignorance doesn’t protect from punishment.

  • Sonnencreme schützt die Haut vor der UV-Strahlung der Sonne.
  • Sun screen protects the skin from the UV-radiation of the sun.

Warning and protecting… hmmm… that fits the fear-stuff. But what about the next ones…

  • Maria kann vor ihren Problemen nicht weglaufen.
  • Maria can’t run away from her problems.
  • Die Gazellen fliehen vor dem Löwenrudel.
  • The gazelles are fleeing before the pride (pack) of lions.

Yup, I think that’s a clear theme :). You probably all have it, too. All these verbs revolve around the idea of potential danger. That’s the main theme of verb-combos with vor. And if we take the last example, that actually makes a lot of sense. The fleeing gazelles are literally “in front of” the lions. Like… if they were behind the lions, they could be all chill like “Pffff, these dumb lions. Look at them. They don’t even see us. So stup…. oh crap. RUN!!!”
That’s when the lions turned their heads, turning behind to in front of in the blink of an eye. The relativity of language; gazelles never cared. Now they have to pay for their ignorance. Gee, what am I saying. It’s been a long article :).

But yeah, the gazelle example can help us understand something else. We’ve learned that vor is a two-way preposition, so it could go with Dative or Accusative. Usually Accusative is much more common for these fixed verb-prep-combos, but as the color in the examples already hinted at, the vor-combos all go with Dative. That might seem weird to you. I mean, the fleeing gazelles are clearly making a move with a destination, so Dative doesn’t seem like a good fit. BUT if we were to use Accusative, we would mark “in front of the lions” as the destination of the fleeing. So it would sound like the gazelles run in front of the lions on purpose. Suicidal gazelles – that would be a good name for a hipster band.
Seriously though, the general theme of all these verbs is stationary. Danger is ahead. So Dative does make sense.

Now, the idea of potential danger works for most of the vor-verbs but there’s one useful phrasing that’s not limited to danger.

  • Als Thomas gesehen hat, dass das Gesichtspeeling im Angebot ist, hat er vor Freude geweint.
  • When Thomas saw, that the facial peeling was on offer, he cried for joy.
  • Marias Kollegin wurde grün vor Neid, als sie Marias neues Kleid gesehen hat.
  • Maria’s colleague turned green with envy, when she saw Maria’s new dress.
  • “Wie war’s in der Oper?”
    “Ich habe vor Langeweile angefangen meine Armhaare zu zählen.”
  • “How was it at the opera?”
    “I started counting my arm hairs out of boredom.

Here, vor is used as a way to express that the sentiment is the cause of something. And actually we can see a direct parallel to the English brother of vor, because in English you say for a reason. In German, reasons are often connected with aus but using vor is a pretty elegant alternative. Most common is the combination with sentiments like anger, nervousness, frustration, hunger. But it can also work for “external conditions” at times.

  • Ich weiß vor lauter Informationen gar nicht mehr, was wir am Anfang des Artikels gelernt haben.
  • I don’t even remember what we’ve learned in the beginning of the article, because of all this information.

All too true, and that’s why it’s more than time for a wrecup.

wrecup

Uh… that’s a mix between wrap up and recap by the way.
So, the core idea of the word vor is ahead-ness. That can be in sense of space and time and so we get the three main translations in front of, before and ago (“before now”). Verbs with vor as a prefix are often on some level about showing, presenting (the space-component) or about making stuff in advance, planning (the time component). When it comes to those sucky fixed combos of verbs with vor, most of them revolve around the idea of some sort of danger. And last but not least, something really weird is going on with Thomas.
And that’s it :).
Hooray.
This was the first episode of our series on prepositions,
and I really hope you enjoyed this. I’m gonna get a big coffee now and head to the comments section to clear up all the questions you might have :). Like.. is there any prefix-version that you can’t quite make sense of? Or any prep-verb-combo that doesn’t seem to fit the general trend? Whatever it is, don’t feel too shy to ask.
I hope you like this new series, have a great week and see you next time.

further reading:

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