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Two-Way Prepositions in German

Part 1: Wo oder Wohin? - Motion or Not?

 More of this Feature
• Dual Verbs (2)
• Horiz. vs Vert. (3)
• Two-Way Prep. Quiz
 Related Resources
• Prepositional Pitfalls
• How to Say "to" in German
• Preposition Quiz 1
• The Four German Cases
• am See = at the lake
• im Wasser = in the water
• auf dem Tisch = on the table
• an den See = to the lake
• ins Wasser = into the water
• auf den Tisch = onto the table

The German two-way prepositions are sometimes called the “doubtful” prepositions, and that word “doubtful” is the reason German-learners so often get confused by these prepositions that take either the dative or the accusative case. However, we are about to clear up that confusion and show you how easy it is to get rid of your doubts when using accusative/dative prepositions (Präpositionen mit Dativ und Akkusativ).

The reason that native German-speakers rarely give these pesky critters a thought is simple: They understand intuitively the basic logic of how the two-way prepositions work, and that's what you have to learn also. So here's the basic idea:

Most German prepositions take an object in only one particular case. For instance, mit (with) always takes the dative case, as in mit dem Geld (with the money), while durch (through) always takes the accusative case, as in durch den Wald (through the forest). The two-way prepositions take an object in either the accusative or dative case — but they don't do so just at random. When an accusative/dative preposition answers the question "where to?" (wohin?), it takes the accusative case. When answering the question "where" (wo?), a two-way preposition takes the dative case.

For an example of this, take a look at the following two graphics. The top picture illustrates a "where to" situation: "into the water" (in das Wasser or ins Wasser). The second picture represents a "where" situation. Where is the box? In the water (in dem Wasser or im Wasser). To express the two different situations, English uses two different prepositions: in or into. To express the same idea, German uses one preposition — in — with either the accusative or the dative.

WOHIN? - Akkusativ
Ins Wasser
WO? - Dativ
Im Wasser
Graphic: H. Flippo
When you use a two-way preposition, you always have to decide which question you're answering. In this illustrated case, if an object is going into the water (moving towards a destination, the water) the question is wohin? and the answer is in the accusative. Once the object is located in the water, no longer moving from one place to another, the question is wo? and the answer is in the dative.

All of the two-way prepositions work the same way. (See the list of dative/accusative prepositions below.) They take the dative case when they deal with a single location or a state of rest (wo?), and the accusative case when they describe motion towards a destination (wohin?), even if the distance covered is as short as from your hand to the table.

Let's use another in example to further clarify this. See if you can answer this question: Is in der Kirche dative or accusative, wo or wohin? - If you think that in der Kirche is dative and the phrase answers the question wo, then you are correct! In der Kirche means "in (inside) the church," while in die Kirche means "into the church" (wohin?). (Now you see yet another reason why you need to know your German genders! Knowing that "church" is die Kirche, which changes to der Kirche in the dative is an essential element in using any preposition, but especially the two-way ones.) Now we'll put the Kirche phrases with in into sentences to further illustrate the point:

Akkusativ: Die Leute gehen in die Kirche. The people are going into the church. (motion > wohin)

Dativ: Die Leute sitzen in der Kirche. The people are sitting in the church. (location, wo, X marks the spot)

The "arrow" vs "blob" hint: Some people find it easier to remember the accusative-versus-dative difference by thinking of the "accusative" A on its side, representing an arrow ( > ) for motion in a specific direction, and the dative D on its side to represent a blob at rest. It matters little HOW you remember the difference, as long as you have a clear understanding of when a two-way preposition uses the dative or accusative. Here are the two-way prepositions:

Two-Way Prepositions
Accusative / Dative
NOTE: The meaning of a two-way preposition may depend on whether it is in the accusative or dative.
an at, on, to
auf at, to, on, upon
hinter behind
in in, into
neben beside, near, next to
über about, above, across, over
unter under, among
vor in front of, before; ago (time)
zwischen between

In Part Two we'll give you some more examples of two-way prepositions and discuss a few verbs that are used with the accusative/dative prepositions. (These verbal phrases do NOT necessarily follow the above rules!) If you need help with the articles (der, die, das) and their forms in various cases, see our summary of The Four German Cases.

NEXT > Part 2: Dual Verbs | Part 3 | Quiz

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