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by Mehedi 

May 10, 2022

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As in English, prepositions are an important part of the German language.They might seem like small, unassuming words, but you will find it hard to do without them. Sometimes they can have multiple meanings, depending on context. This can be confusing, but the more you hear and use them, the easier it gets.

In this article we will focus on two-way prepositions, also called Wechselpräpositionen. The word Wechsel means Change, because the meaning of these prepositions change depending on whether they are used with the dative or accusative case. Don´t panic, with this step-by-step guide you will learn (and maybe love?) using them.

First let us do a quick recap on prepositions in general.

What are prepositions?

Prepositions are (often short) words that are positioned in front of a noun, pronoun, adverb or group of words. They indicate temporal, local, causal or modal relationships between people, objects or circumstances. In plain English: They tell you where or what something is in relation to something else. Some common English prepositions are: at, behind, for, from, in, on, over, through, to, with

In German the only difference is that you have to decide with which grammatical case to use them. Some prepositions are only used in combination with the dative, some only with the accusative, and a few only with the genitive. 

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Which leads us to the small group of so called two-way prepositions which can be used with both, dative and accusative, depending on the context of the sentence.

What are two-way prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen)?

Usually two-way prepositions relate to locality, including movement/direction. Try to memorize the following most common ones: 

Two-way prepositions indicating locality:

anat, on
aufon, onto
hinterbehind
inin, into
nebennext to
überabove, over
unterunder
vorin front of, before
zwischenbetween, in between
  1. 1
    Use the dative case when a location is described rather than a movement. You can also check by asking the question: Wo? (Where?)
  2. 2
    Use the accusative case when a movement towards a different place is described. Ask yourself the question Wohin? (Where to?/To where?)

Examples with dative and accusative:

dative (location)
anDas Bild hängt an der Wand.The picture hangs on the wall.
aufDas Buch ist auf dem Tisch.The book is on the table.
hinterDer Baum steht hinter dem Haus.The tree stands behind the house.
inSie sind in dem Wald.They are in the woods.
nebenEr sitzt neben mir.He sits next to me.
über Die Lampe hängt über dem Tisch.The lamp hangs over the table.
unterDie Katze ist unter dem Sofa.The cat is under the sofa.
vorDie Stiefel stehen vor der Tür.The boots are standing in front of the door.
zwischenDie Notiz liegt zwischen den Seiten.The note is in between the pages.
accusative (movement, direction)
anSie hängt das Bild an die Wand.She hangs the picture on the wall.
aufIch lege das Buch auf den Tisch.I place the book on the Table.
hinterLisa pflanzt den Baum hinter das Haus.Lisa plants the tree behind the house.
inSie gehen in den Wald.They are going into the woods.
nebenEr setzt sich neben mich.He seats himself next to me.
über Wir hängen die Lampe über den Tisch.We hang the lamp over the table.
unterDie Katze läuft unter das Sofa.The cat runs under the sofa.
vorStell die Stiefel vor die Tür.Put the boots in front of the door!
zwischenDie Notiz ist zwischen die Seiten gelegt worden.The note has been placed in between the pages.

Now it gets a little bit trickier, because there are always exceptions to the rules. 

Five of the above prepositions (an, auf, in, vor, zwischen) are not exclusively used to indicate locality. They can also have temporal, modal and causal meanings.

In this case, they are always used with the dative. 

Two-way prepositions with temporal, modal and causal meanings:

dative (temporal)
anAn dem Wochenende habe ich Geburtstag.On the weekend is my birthday.
inIn der Woche arbeitet er immer.He always works during the week.
Wir trinken Tee in der Pause.We drink tea at break-time.
vorSie geht vor dem Essen mit dem Hund.She is walking the dog before the meal.
Vor einem Jahr waren wir glücklich.A year ago we were happy.
zwischenZwischen dem 1. und 8. Juni habe ich Urlaub.I have holidays between the 1. and the 8. of July.
dative (modal)
inIn der Eile hat sie es vergessen.She forgot it in the hurry.
aufIch habe es auf meine Weise getan.I did it my way.
Wie sagt man das auf Deutsch?How do you say it in German?
dative (causal)
vorVor Hunger konnte er nicht schlafen.He could not sleep because of Hunger.
Ich sprang in die Luft vor Freude.I jumped into the air for joy.

It is good to know that prepositions always stay the same, regardless of the grammatical case they are used with.

But some prepositions can be merged with a shortened form of the definite article. Have a look at the examples below.

Prepositions merged with the definite article:

an+das → ansan+dem → am
auf+das → aufs
hinter+das → hinters hinter+dem → hintermhinter+den → hintern
in+das → insin+dem → im
über+das → übersüber+dem → übermüber+den → übern
unter+das → untersunter+dem → untermunter+den → untern
vor+das → vorsvor+dem → vorm

Conclusion

Prepositions express temporal, local, modal or causal relationships between people, objects and circumstances. Most prepositions are used with a specific grammatical case. Exceptions are the two-way prepositions.

  • So get to know your two-way prepositions by learning the most important ones by heart. There are only nine of them!
  • Remember that most of the time they express locality. Use them with dative, if a location is described, or with accusative when there is a movement to towards a different location.
  • Unfortunately there are always rule breakers: an, auf, in, vor, zwischen have sometimes temporal, modal or causal meanings, the context of the sentence will help to identify this. In these circumstances you can only combine them with the dative.
  • Some prepositions can be merged with the definite article. It is not strictly necessary, but quite common.

Now that you are acquainted with two-way prepositions, you will notice them everywhere! Start using them and build your confidence through practice.

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Mehedi

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