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Two-way Prepositions in German


There are some prepositions in the German language that can take dative or accusative depending on the situation. In German, they are called Wechselpräpositionen (two-way prepositions).

German two-way prepositions are:

This page is part of the step-by-step German learning A2 level course. To see the complete grammatical details of German prepositions, please visit the page German prepositions in the section Summary of German Grammer.

How to use German two-way prepositions?

  1. If the sentence shows a movement, the proposition takes accusative case, e.g. Ich gehe in die Stadt. (I am going to the city.)
  2. If the sentence shows a state, the proposition would take dative e.g. Ich bin in der Stadt. (I'm in the city.)

In simple, if the sentence is an answer to the question pronoun "wohin" (where to), the preposition in it would take the accusative case and if the sentence is an answer to the question pronoun "wo" (where), the preposition in it would take the dative case after it.

an (on, next to)

Accusative:
Sabine hängt den Hut an den Haken. (Sabine hangs the hat on the hook.)
Jan hängt das Bild an die Wand. (Jan hangs the picture on the wall.)
Dative:
Jetzt hängt der Hut an dem Haken. (Now the hat hangs on the hook.)
Jetzt hängt das Bild an der Wand. (Now the picture hangs on the wall.)

In the above examples where the hat and picture are in the movement phase, the preposition "an" takes the accusative case. When the hat and picture are in the resting phase, the preposition "an" takes the dative.

When the preposition "an" takes accusative, we can ask a question with the interrogative pronoun "wohin". For example, wohin hängt Sabine den Hut? (where does Sabine hang the hat? or where does Sabine going to hang the hat? or where is Sabine hanging the hat?)
All three possible English translations and the original German question give a sense of movement phase i.e. "where to" is Sabine taking the hat? The hat is moving from one place to another. When the movement phase is complete, we can now ask, wo ist der Hut? (where is the hat?) In answer to this question the preposition "an" would take dative.

auf (on)

Accusative:
Hans legt den Kuli auf den Tisch. (Hans puts the pen on the table.)
Dative:
Jetzt liegt der Kuli auf dem Tisch. (Now the pen is on the table.)
der Tisch (table) plural: die Tische

Difference between the verb stellen, legen, stehen and liegen

stellen: (to place something vertically) Ich stelle die Flasche auf den Tisch. (I place (vertically) the bottle on the table.)
legen: (to place something horizontally) Ich lege den Kuli auf den Tisch. (I place (horizontally) the pen on the table.)
Ich lege die Flasche auf den Tisch. (I place (horizontally) the bottle on the table.)
stehen: (to stand) Die Flasche steht auf dem Tisch. (The bottle is on the table. Literaly, bottle stands on the table.)
liegen: (to lie, to be lying down) Der Kuli liegt auf dem Tisch. (The pen is on the table. Literaly, the pen is lying on the table.)

Stellen and legen are the verbs that show a process (a process of movement). Stehen and liegen indicate a position (a state).

hinter (behind)

Accusative:
Er stellt die Flasche hinter den Tisch. (He places (in standing position) the bottle behind the table.)
Dative:
Die Flasche steht hinter dem Tisch. (The bottle is (in standing position) behind the table.)

in (in)

Accusative:
Tobias legt das Handy in die Schublade. (Tobias puts the phone in the drawer.)
Dative:
Das Handy liegt in der Schublade. (The phone is in the drawer.)
die Schublade (drawer) plural: die Schubladen

neben (near, next to)

Accusative:
Ich lege meinen Kuli neben das Heft. (I put my pen next to the notebook.)
Dative:
Der Kuli liegt neben dem Heft. (The pen is next to the handbook.)

über (over)

Accusative:
Hanna hängt die Lampe über das Buch. (Hanna hangs the lamp over the book.)
Dative:
Die Lampe hängt über dem Buch. (The lamp hangs over the book.)

unter (under)

Accusative:
Er versteckt das Geld unter das Bett. (He hides the money under the bed.)
Dative:
Das Geld liegt unter dem Bett. (The money is under the bed.)
versteckt (to hide, to stash)

vor (in front of)

Accusative:
Die Mutter stellt das Glas vor die Flasche. (The mother puts the glass in front of the bottle.)
Dative:
Das Glas steht vor der Flasche. (The glass is in front of the bottle.)

zwischen (between)

Accusative:
Er legt die Wurst zwischen die beiden Brötchen. (He puts the sausage between the two pieces of bread.)
Dative:
Die Wurst liegt zwischen den beiden Brötchen. (The sausage lies between the two pieces of bread.)
das Stück (piece), die Stücke (pieces)

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