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Dual Prepositions in German

Also Known as Doubtful or Two-way Prepositions


Dual-prepositions (also called two-way or doubtful prepositions) are prepositions that can take either the accusative or dative case. There are nine of them: an, auf, hinter, neben, in, über, unter, vor, zwischen.

When to Use the Accusative Case

If you want to convey a direction or destination in your sentence, then you need to use the accusative. Further, when you use the accusative, it will always answer the question whereto/wohin?

For example:
Die Katze springt auf den Stuhl.
(The cat jumps on(to) the chair.)

Wohin springt die Katze? Auf den Stuhl.

The accusative is also used when you can ask what about/worüber?

For example:

Sie diskutieren über den Film.
(They are discussing about the film.)
Worüber diskutieren sie? Über den Film.

When to Use the Dative Case

The dative is used to indicate a stable position or situation. It answers the question where/wo?

For example:
Die Katze sitzt auf dem Stuhl. (The cat sits on the chair.)

The dative is also used when there is no particular direction or goal intended.

For example:
Sie ist die ganze Zeit in der Stadt herumgefahren.
(She drove around town all day.)

Please remember that the above rules apply only to dual-prepositions. In other words dative-only prepositions will always remain dative even if the sentence indicates motion or direction. (See Dative Prepositions) Likewise, accusative-only prepositions will always remain accusative even if there is no motion described in the sentence. (See Accusative Prepositions)

When I was in elementary school, I used the following rhyme to help me memorize these dual-prepositions (also called doubtful prepositions in some textbooks):

An, auf, hinter, neben, in, über, unter, vor und zwischen
stehen mit dem vierten Fall, wenn man fragen kann “wohin”,
mit dem dritten steh’n sie so,
daß man nur fragen kann “wo”.

In the following chart I have listed an example of the dative and accusative cases for several dual-prepositions.

Dual Prepositions

Preposition Definition Dative Example Accusative Example
an at, by, on Der Lehrer steht an der Tafel.
The teacher is standing at the blackboard.
Der Student schreibt es an die Tafel.
The student writes it on the board.
auf on, onto Sie sitzt auf dem Stuhl.
She is sitting on the chair.
Er legt das Papier auf den Tisch.
He is putting the paper on the table.
hinter behind Das Kind steht hinter dem Baum.
The child is standing behind the tree.
Die Maus läuft hinter die Tür.
The mouse runs behind the door
neben beside Der Mann steht neben der Frau.

The man is standing beside the woman.
Sie setzt sich neben den Vater.

She sits down beside the father
in in, into, to Die Socken sind in der Schublade.
The socks are in the drawer.
Der Junge geht in die Schule.
The boy goes to school
über over(above), about Das Bild hängt über dem Schreibtisch.
The picture hangs over the desk.
Er hängt die Pflanze über den Tisch.
He hangs the plant over the table.
unter under, below Die Frau schläft unter den Bäumen.

The woman is sleeping under the trees.
Der Hund läuft unter die Brücke.

The dog runs under the bridge.
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