Unlike other German language tutors, I usually teach the rules for how to use the four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) separately from prepositions as they follow a different logic. In my experience, when students learn the two topics together, they do not fully appreciate why, for instance, the dative case is used as both an indirect object (e.g. "Ich schenke der Frau einen Blumenstrauß") as well as after a spatial preposition such as "in" ("Die Frau sitzt im Kino"). So my advice would be that you learn about the four German cases first before you continue with my explanation of prepositions that you'll find below.
Prepositions enforce their own rules and take a particular case. If you have a preposition before a noun, this noun no longer performs the function of a direct or indirect object but its case is determined by the preposition. In this part of my four blog posts on prepositions, I explain the so-called dual or two-way prepositions, which in German are called "Wechselpräpositionen" as they change their case depending on whether the verb implies a change of location (Akkusativ) or not (Dativ).
Part II then focuses on the prepositions with the accusative case
Part III on the prepositions with the dative case
and, finally, Part IV on the prepositions with the genitive case
Since the case of the two-way prepositions is determined by the verb, it's important to focus on the verb. The most common verbs we use with this set of prepositions are
ACCUSATIVE (change of location or "Wohin?")
DATIVE (no change of location or "Wo?")
stellen (to put or place something vertically)
stehen (literally "to stand")
(sich) legen (to lay something horizontally)
liegen (to lie)
(sich) setzen (to sit down)
sitzen (to sit, be seated)
Keeping your eyes on the verbs, let's now look at the nine dual prepositions with some examples.
an = at (leaning against, attached to, up to)
Wir hängen das Bild an die Wand. Wir gehen an den Strand.
Das Bild hängt jetzt an der Wand. Wir sitzen an dem (am) Strand.
auf = on top of, upon
Ich stelle die Blume auf den Tisch. Ich setze mich auf den Stuhl.
Die Blume steht auf dem Tisch. Jetzt sitze ich auf dem Stuhl.
hinter = behind
Sie stellt das Fahrrad hinter das Haus. Er parkt sein Motorrad hinter der Garage.
Ihr Fahrrad steht nun hinter dem Haus. Sein Motorrad steht jetzt hinter der Garage.
in = in, inside, into
Sollen wir in das (ins) Kino gehen? Du gehst in den Park.
Ja, in dem (im) Kino war ich schon lange nicht mehr. Nun bist du im Park.
neben = next to
Ich stelle das neue Buch neben die alten Bücher. Der Kellner legt das Besteck neben den Teller.
Jetzt steht es neben den alten Büchern. Nun liegt es neben dem Teller.
über = over ("about" only takes the accusative case)
Die Vögel fliegen über das Haus. Wir sprechen über die Hausaufgaben.
In diesem Moment fliegen sie über dem Haus. -
unter = under, among
Der Hund legt sich unter den Tisch. Sie legt ihm ein Kissen unter den Kopf.
Der Hund liegt unter dem Tisch. Das Kissen liegt unter dem Kopf.
vor = in front of ("before" and "ago" only go with the dative case)
Heute gehe ich nicht vor die Tür. - -
Vor der Tür steht eine Pflanze. Vor dem Frühstück dusche ich mich. Ich bin vor 15 Jahren nach Großbritannien umgezogen.
zwischen = between
Wir setzen uns zwischen zwei Leute. Ich stelle die Teekanne zwischen zwei Tassen.
Nun sitzen wir zwischen zwei Leuten. Jetzt steht die Teekanne zwischen zwei Tassen.
As you can see from the examples, with the prepositions "an" and "in" we often combine article and preposition (e.g. "ins" for "in das", "im" for "in dem", "am" for an dem"). These two prepositions can be used as temporal and spatial prepositions. However, when they are used in a temporal sense, they only go with the dative case since time does not change location. This also explains why the two temporal meanings of "vor" (before and ago) take the dative as well.
By contrast, the second translation of "über" as about doesn't imply a change of location either, but it takes the accusative case because the rule doesn't apply here. In fact, it is used in combination with verbs such as "sprechen", "reden", "diskutieren" that take the accusative case for introducing the topic of the conversation (e.g. "Wir sprechen heute über die Wechselpräpositionen"). Frustratingly perhaps, many other German verbs with prepositions don't follow the aforementioned rules and simply need to be memorised with the preposition and case they take (e.g. "sich erinnern an+ accusative).
English native speakers need to be particularly careful when trying to translate the English preposition "on" into German. In English, "on" can be used in many different contexts and couldn't be translated as "auf" into German.
I'm on the bus <-> Ich bin im Haus ("auf" would imply on top of the bus).
I'm on the phone <-> Ich bin am Telefon ("auf" would suggest that you're standing on top of the phone).
Some verbs are not specific enough and can therefore be used with both cases. "Fahren" and "fliegen", for example, don't necessarily imply a change of location.
Das Auto fährt auf die Straße <-> Das Auto fährt auf der Straße
Die Vögel fliegen über das Haus <-> In diesem Moment Vögel fliegen über dem Haus.
The sentences on the left use the accusative case because the car is coming from somewhere else and drives onto the road and the birds fly from another location over the house. By contrast, with the sentences on the right there is no change of location as the car is already on the road and just travelling along, while the birds are being observed in the very moment they are flying over the house. So the dative case needs to be used for these two sentences. This goes to show that the rule really is whether there is a change of location implied by the verb or not. Misleadingly, some German teachers use movement/no movement as a way of explaining when the accusative and the dative should be used. However, as the examples for "fahren" and fliegen" show, this explanation wouldn't account for verbs that are not specific enough. Both always imply a movement, but not necessarily a change in location.
By now you will hopefully understand why it is correct to say “ich gehe ins Kino” for two reasons. First, the verb “gehen” implies a change of location, so the accusative needs to be used. Second, “ins” is a combination of “in” and the accusative article “das”, and since Kino is neuter, the sentence is grammatically correct.
Learn about accusative only prepositions, dative only prepositions, and prepositions that go with the genitive case in German in our next three posts on the topic.
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