Prepositions Part 3: Two-Way Prepositions

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Prepositions Part 3: Two-Way Prepositions

So for the past two weeks we’ve been learning our accusative and dative preposition. We’ve made up rhymes and sing them to waltzes and we feel confident. What are the most important ones? Right!

Well there are still two types of prepositions to look at. If you’ve ever learnt French, you’ll be familiar with these preposition as there was a song you’d sing with your hands:

sur (on), sous (under), dans (in), devant (in front of), derrière (behind), à côté de (beside), en haut (above)… [tune of Mary had a little lamb]

In German these prepositions are slightly more complicated than in French. They are what we call two-way prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen). These are prepositions that change their case depending on how they are used. Remember out discussion of “to put” and “to be lying”? Exactly, we need to ask whether the object or subject is being moved or in a static position.

What you need to ask yourself!

Wohin (where to) = movement = accusative

Wo (where) = static = dative

So what are these prepositions in German? Let’s take a look: an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen.

Quite the list I know, but you’ll mantrify them quickly, I’m sure. However, we’ll need to take a closer look to help you understand. In my German lessons one of the best ways to train students to use these prepositions correctly is to actually get of the class and actively use them. I encourage you to think about these prepositions every time your in town or doing something around the house.

an (at, on, to)

As you may recall german has two words for “on”. An is used for on when we refer to vertical surfaces. We also use it for dates (+ dative). Let’s compare the cases:

  • AmMontag muss ich leider schon wieder arbeiten.
    • On Monday, I unfortunately already have to word again.
  • Steve Prefontaine wurde am25. Januar 1951 in Coos Bay, Oregon geboren.
    • Steve Prefontaine was born on January 25, 1951 in Coos Bay, Oregon.

**Note: an + dem = am; an + das = ans

auf (at, to, on, upon)

This is our second preposition for on. We use auf for on horizontal surfaces. A common expression worth learning is “auf jeden Fall” (in any case / anyhow) and when written or said “Auf jeden Fall!” (Damn straight!). Unlike many of the two-way preposition, we don’t use auf in a temporal sense. The example with the market is also a fixed expression. We also use auf when talking about islands. Lastly, though in English you would say “I’m on the bus.” if you said “Ich bin auf dem Bus”, it would mean that your on the roof of the bus. In German you are “in the bus.”

**Note: auf + das = aufs

hinter (behind)

Finally, a simple preposition — hinter means behind. Like auf we don’t use hinter in a temporal sense either.

in (in, into)

It sounds and looks like the English preposition “in” and means just that. However, for movement (accusative) in means “into”.  In is also used temporally (+ dative) with months and to suggest a time in the future.

  • Im November wollen wir auf Kuba fliegen.
    • We want to fly to Cuba in November.
  • Im Sommerist es in Zürich am schönsten.
    • Zurich is the nicest place in the summer.
  • Meine Freundin will mich in drei Wochenbesuchen kommen.
    • My girlfriend wants to visit me in three weeks.

**Note: in + dem = im; in + das = ins

neben (beside, near, next to)

Neben is used for beside as in physically beside something. But it can also be used to suggest in addition to and for comparisons. We don’t use neben as a temporal preposition.

  • Neben einem guten Rucksack sollten die Kinder auch gute Wanderschuche mitbringen.
    • In addition to a good backpack, the children should also bring good hiking boots with them.
  • Neben Mariamachst du aber ein sehr schlechte Figur.
    • Compared to Maria, you make a poor role model.

über (about, above, across, over)

Most English speaking people have used this word in English, though they leave out the umlaut. Über means above when talking where something is located it means “above” or “over”. We also use it to say what we are talking “about” or what something is “about”. Temporally it means “over” as in over a period of time.

  • Über Weihnachtensollen wir in die Berge fahren.
    • We should go to the mountains over Christmas.
  • Wie jedes Jahr kommen uns unsere Freunde über Osternbesuchen.
    • Our friends are coming to visit over Easter, like they do every year.

**Note: über + das = übers

unter (under, among)

Unter somewhat looks like the English “under”, which is an easy way to remember it. We can also use it for saying that we are among a group of people. Temporally, unter is used the most in the set phrase “unter der Woche” (during the week).

  • Unter all den Menschenhat keiner etwas gesagt.
    • Among all the people, no one said anything.
  • Unter der Wochemuss ich immer früh zu Hause sein.
    • I always have to be home early during the week.
  • Unter diesen Umständen…
    • Under these circumstances

vor (in front of, before, ago)

This is an important preposition, because of its “ago” meaning. Locally vor means “in front of” and “before”. Temporally it means “ago”.  You’ll often hear it with time also meaning “before” as in “Zehn vor acht” (Ten to eight). We also use vor with the set phrase “vor Angst” (out of fear) and “Angst vor etwas haben” (to be afraid of something).

  • Christine kann vor Angstnicht schlafen.
    • Because of fear Christine can’t sleep.
  • Vor einer Stundehat es noch geregnet.
    • An hour ago it was still raining.

zwischen (between)

Zwischen is harder for many to pronounce than to use. We use it just like “between” in English. Like with all of the prepositions you must always ask yourself is there movement or is it static / temporal?

  • Zwischen den Monaten Oktober und Dezember muss nich viel gearbeitet werden.
    • There is still much work to do between the months of October and December.
  • Herr Langenegger wird zwischen drei und vier Uhr erwartet.
    • Mr. Langenegger is expected between three and four o’clock.

Sing your prepositions:

Here is a little song to help you remember the two-way prepositions. Sing it to the tune of “La Cucaracha” with the folowing lyrics:

an, auf, und hinter

und über, unter

neben, zwischen, vor und in

auf Frage “wo”, da kommt das Dativ

Akkusativ auf “wohin”! cha, cha, cha

Please enter the url to a YouTube video.

You can also try these hand gestures when saying them:

an(hands in front like they’re on a wall)
auf(palms of hands down)
hinter(hands behind back)
in(hands in pockets)
neben(hands together to your left, then your right side on the second bit)
über(hands above your head, fingertips together, arms making an o)
unter(hands mid thigh, fingertips together, arms making an o)
vor(hands in front, fingertips together, arms making an o parallel to the ground)
zwischen(move one hand to between the outer hand and the body)
Dativ wo, wohin Akkusativ! (clap clap clap)


Complete with the correct preposition and article. (m = masculine, f = feminine, n = neutral, pl = plural)

  1. Pablo fliegt ____________ Wochenende nach Madrid. (n.)
  2. Alysha legt die Bierflaschen ____________ Badewanne. (f.)
  3. Evert stellt die Lampe ____________ Ecke. (f.)
  4. Das Bild hängt ____________ Fenstern. (pl.)
  5. Die Kinder spielen ____________ Wasser. (n.)
  6. Das Billet liegt ____________ Tisch. (m.)
  7. David steckt seine dreckige Wäsche ____________ Bett. (n.)
  8. Das Badezimmer ist ____________ Küche. (f.)
  9. ____________ zwei Jahren lebten wir noch in Bern.
  10. ____________ Montag müssen wir unsere erste Prüfung schreiben.
  11. Nein, ich komme zuerst! Du bist ____________ mir dran.


übers, in die, in die, zwischen den, im, auf dem, unter das/sein, neben der, vor, am, hinter

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