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



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.

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 

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

“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. 

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.

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…

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 

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.

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

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.

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…

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

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.

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.

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