Aus Versus Von

How to Express Where You are From

Whatever language you may be learning, trying to explain where you are from or where you have been, can be very frustrating and is often stated incorrectly in the beginning stages of your language learning. That is because expressing where you are from takes the accurate knowledge of preposition usage and that can differ greatly from your native tongue. For German learners, you have the added disadvantage that prepositions can sound similar between German and English.

(von/ from, zu/ to) and you instinctively associate the same patterns and meaning in both languages. Mastering this German grammar hurdle is really just a matter of retraining your brain and, most importantly, to stop comparing it to English grammar (if your native tongue is English).

First things first: What is the difference between aus and von? Strictly speaking:

Aus means ‘out of’ as in:

Ein Neugeborenes kommt aus dem Mutterleib. -- A newborn comes out of the mother’s womb.

Aus explains your roots:

Ich komme aus Spanien. -- I come from Spain.

Or that you are moving physically ‘out of’ a place:

Wann kommt sie aus dem Bad? -- When are done your bath?

Von means ‘from’ as in: Es ist nicht sehr weit von hier bis zum Bahnhof. -- It is not too far from here to the train station.

Or when you want to explain the starting point of a physical motion:
Wann kommst du von der Arbeit zurück? -- When are getting back from work?

Wir kommen gerade vom Spielplatz. -- We are returning from the playground.

As you can see, the problem for English native speakers especially is that there is usually only one general translation for both of these German pronouns, namely ‘from’.

What you need to do is always keep these literal core German meanings at the forefront, while being aware of the following when wanting to express where you are from or have come from:

To explain that you are from a certain city or country, be it either you grew up there or were born there, you use aus:

Ich komme aus Deutschland.

When you want to explain that you have traveled from a certain city or country geographically, you will also use aus, however, you need to add more explanation to convey the correct context:

Ich komme aus gerade aus Italien, wo ich meine Familie besucht habe.

In English you have the verbs to distinguish which meaning you are relating (‘am from’ versus come from), in German, it is the context of the sentence that will reveal the meaning. Having said all that, I need to throw a wrench in your learning: Colloquially, Germans will also use von to state where a person has traveled from geographically. Ich komme von Italien.

Even so, all of the German grammar books, state that the correct pronoun for the above usage is aus and I encourage you to do so. Remember, the von/aus dilemma is confusing for Germans too! Now that you have grumbled over this double standard, let me boost your morale with this grammatical tidbit: BOTH PRONOUNS USE THE DATIVE! That knowledge in itself is a cause for celebration, knowing that you have one less decision to make in your German phrasing. (German grammar can be kind at times…) Here is a good rule of thumb to help you determine whether to use aus or von:

The preposition aus is used, when you can answer a wo(where) - question with in.

Die Fische kommen aus dem Meer. ​Where are the fish? /Wo sind die Fische? In the ocean/Im Meer.

In other words, the fish are not physically coming out of the ocean. This sentence states where they are from.

The preposition von is used, when you can answer a wo (where) - question with either an, auf, bei, zu Das Mädchen kommt gerade von ihrer Oma. Where was the girl? Wo war das Mädchen? Sie war bei ihrer Oma.

Note: Notice that the word gerade was placed before von ihrer in the above sentence. This adverb strengthens the phrasal context that the girl was actually physically coming from her grandmother’s. You will often see an adverb or other word that helps define the action in a von sentence:

Heidi kommt aus den Bergen.

Heidi kommt vom Berg runter.

It’s no secret that prepositions are hard in German. Because of their different nuances in meaning, the most important words are actually the other words around the prepositions that form the context of the meaning. Keep this in mind as you learn their subtle differences and remember to not think in your native tongue.

Read more in-depth about the preposition aus.