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Two-Way Prepositions In German- On Why It Is Correct To Say "Ich gehe ins Kino"

Updated: Jan 10

Among the many facets of German grammar, two-way prepositions (also known as "dual prepositions") stand out as both fascinating and challenging. In this blog post, we'll delve into the realm of two-way prepositions, providing you with the key insights to confidently navigate these linguistic elements. Whether you're a beginner navigating the basics or a seasoned learner seeking a deeper comprehension, this exploration will serve as your guide through the linguistic intricacies of German grammar.

When it comes to unraveling the intricacies of German grammar, the terrain of prepositions can be both challenging and captivating. Unlike some German language tutors, I prefer to separate the teaching of the four cases in German (i.e. nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) from prepositions. This approach stems from the belief that understanding the distinct logic of each enhances the comprehension of both. My advice is to learn the cases system first before you continue with my explanation on dual prepositions. That is because 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.

The Essence of Two-Way Prepositions:

Understanding the case of two-way prepositions hinges on the accompanying verb. The dichotomy between accusative and dative hinges on whether the action implies a change of location or not. Key verbs include:

ACCUSATIVE (change of location or where to/wohin?)

DATIVE (no change of location or where/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. (We hang the picture on the wall) Wir gehen an den Strand. (We go to the beach)

Das Bild hängt jetzt an der Wand. (The picture is now hang on the wall) Wir sitzen an dem (am) Strand. (We're sitting at the beach)

auf = on top of, upon

Ich stelle die Blumen auf den Tisch. (I put the flowers on the table) Ich setze mich auf den Stuhl. (I'm sitting down on the chair)

​Die Blumen stehen auf dem Tisch. (The flower are on the table) Jetzt sitze ich auf dem Stuhl. (I'm sitting on the chair now)

hinter = behind

​Sie stellt das Fahrrad hinter das Haus. (She puts the bicycle behind the house) Er parkt sein Motorrad hinter der Garage. (He parks his motorbike behind the garage)

​Ihr Fahrrad steht nun hinter dem Haus. (Her bicycle is now behind the house) Sein Motorrad steht jetzt hinter der Garage. (His motorbike is now behind the garage)

in = in, inside, into

​Sollen wir in das (ins) Kino gehen? (Should we go to the cinema?) Du gehst in den Park. (You are going to the park)

​Ja, in dem (im) Kino war ich schon lange nicht mehr. (Yes, I haven't been to the cinema for a while) Nun bist du im Park. (Now, you're in the park)

neben = next to

​Ich stelle das neue Buch neben die alten Bücher. (I put the new book next to the old ones) Der Kellner legt das Besteck neben den Teller. (The waiter places the cutlery next to the plate)

​Jetzt steht es neben den alten Büchern. (It's next to the old books now) Nun liegt es neben dem Teller. (Now, it lies next to the plate)

über = over ("about" only takes the accusative case)

Die Vögel fliegen über das Haus. (The birds are flying over the house) Wir sprechen über die Hausaufgaben. (We're talking about the homework)

In diesem Moment fliegen sie über dem Haus. (At this moment, they're flying over the house) -

unter = under, among

​Der Hund legt sich unter den Tisch. (The dog lays down under the table) Sie legt ihm ein Kissen unter den Kopf. (She lays a pillow under his head)

​Der Hund liegt unter dem Tisch. (The dog is lying under the table) Das Kissen liegt unter dem Kopf. (The pillow is lying under the head)

vor = in front of ("before" and "ago" only go with the dative case)

Heute gehe ich nicht vor die Tür. (Today, I'm not leaving my house) -

​Vor der Tür steht eine Pflanze. (There is a plant in front of the door) Vor dem Frühstück dusche ich mich. (Before breakfast, I take a shower) Ich bin vor 15 Jahren nach Großbritannien umgezogen. (I moved to the UK 15 years ago)

zwischen = between

Wir setzen uns zwischen zwei Leute. (We're sitting down in between two people) Ich stelle die Teekanne zwischen zwei Tassen. (I put the teapot between two cups)

​Nun sitzen wir zwischen zwei Leuten. (We're sitting between two people now) Jetzt steht die Teekanne zwischen zwei Tassen. (Now, the teapot is between two cups)

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 in German. 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.

English speakers, beware of the subtle nuances in translating "on" into German, as the contexts vary. In English, "on" can be used in many different contexts and couldn't be translated as "auf" into German.

I'm on the bus vs. Ich bin im Haus ("auf" would imply on top of the bus).

I'm on the phone vs. 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 vs. Das Auto fährt auf der Straße

Die Vögel fliegen über das Haus vs. 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.

As you navigate these linguistic intricacies, you'll discover the beauty of precision in German prepositions.

Stay tuned for a comprehensive exploration of each prepositional realm, unraveling the intricacies of German grammar one layer at a time. For now, let the journey into the realm of two-way prepositions begin!

On our blog, you will find posts on many topics in German grammar- from adjective endings in German, the difference between aber and sondern in German, to German syntax.


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