Seit and vor are two prepositions that many German students find confusing. In this post, I explain the difference between them and show how to use them.
While seit and vor are both prepositions, they go with different cases. Vor is one of nine dual prepositions in German that go with either accusative or dative case, depending on whether the main verb implies a change of location or not. If it does, vor must be used with the accusative case, otherwise with the dative case. By contrast, seit is one of the dative prepositions in German. With this category of prepositions, the case simply must be learned.
The most common cause of confusion, however, is their use. Even though both refer to the past with seit meaning since or for and vor translating as ago, seit is used for continuous action whereas vor is not. That is the reason why seit is used with the present tense in German as the present tense expresses continuity, whereas vor is used with the past.
Sie wohnt seit 10 Jahren in Deutschland.
(She has been living in Germany for 10 years)
Er arbeitet seit dem 1.Januar bei BMW
(He has been working for BMW since the 1st of January)
Vor 10 Jahren ist sie nach Deutschland umgezogen.
(She moved to Germany 10 years ago)
Er hat vor fast einem Jahr eine neue Arbeitsstelle angefangen.
(He started a new job almost a year ago)
As the examples for seit show, unlike English, the German language doesn‘t distinguish between since (so specific dates) and for (i.e. periods of time).
Another element of confusion is that vor can have multiple meanings. Not only can it also translate as before or prior to, it can also be used in a spatial sense as in front of.
Vor ihrer Prüfung müssen sie viel lernen.
(Prior to their exam, they have to study a lot)
Sie hat einen schönen Garten vor ihrem Haus.
(She has a beautiful garden in front of her house)
However, the main confusion between vor and seit in my experience is really the difference between continuous and past events, so make sure you focus on that and give it some practice.
If you're interested to improve your German with us, find out more by clicking on the links below. You might also want to read our posts on the difference between bei and mit, as well as aus vs. von in German.