Dual or Two-Way Prepositions in German

Spoken German Classes

Dual or Two-Way Prepositions in German

Most German prepositions are always followed by the same case, but dual-prepositions (also called two-way or doubtful prepositions) are prepositions can take either the accusative or dative case. When an accusative/dative preposition answers the question “where to?” (wohin?) or “what about?” (worüber ?), it takes the accusative case. When answering the question “where” (wo?), a two-way preposition takes the dative case. Think about the English phrases ‘he jumps into the water’ versus ‘he is swimming in the water.’ The first answers a “where to” question: where is he jumping? “Into the water” (in das Wasser or ins Wasser). The second phrase represents a “where” situation. Where is he swimming? “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 — followed by either the accusative case (motion) or the dative (location). There are nine of these doubtful prepositions:
  • 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. These sentences will always answer the question where to/wohin? For example:
  • Die Katze springt auf den Stuhl. | The cat jumps on(to) the chair.
  • Wohin springt die Katze? Auf den Stuhl. | Where is the cat jumping? On(to) the chair.
The accusative is also used when you can ask what about/worüber? For example:
  • Sie diskutieren über den Film. | They are discussing the film.)
  • Worüber diskutieren sie? Über den Film. | What are they talking about? About the 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. Likewise, accusative-only prepositions will always remain accusative even if there is no motion described in the sentence.

Clever Ways to Remember German Prepositions

“Arrow” vs “Blob”: 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. Rhyme Time: You can the following rhyme to help memorize dual-prepositions):
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”.
(At, on, behind, near, in, over, under, before, and between/Go with the fourth case, when one asks “where to”/The third case is different/With that you can only ask where.)

Dual Prepositions and Sample Sentences

The following chart lists an example of the dative and accusative cases for several 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, near, next to Die Socken sind in der Schublade. The socks are in the drawer. Der Junge geht in die Schule. The boy goes to school
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, across Das Bild hängt über dem Schreibtisch. The picture hangs over the desk. Der Junge geht in die Schule. The boy goes to school
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.
zwischen between Der Katze stand zwischen mir und dem Stuhl. The cat is between me and the chair. Sie stellte die Katze zwischen mich und den Tisch. She put the cat between me and the table.

Test Yourself

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:
  • AkkusativDie Leute gehen in die Kirche. The people are going into the church. (motion >wohin)
  • DativDie Leute sitzen in der Kirche. The people are sitting in the church. (location, wo, X marks the spot)

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