Avoid These German Prepositional Pitfalls

Prepositional pitfalls are much less cute than pitbulls. Getty Images/Holly Hildreth

Prepositions (Präpositionen) are a hazardous area in the learning of any second language, and German is no exception. These short, seemingly innocent words — an, auf, bei, bis, in, mit, über, um, zu, and others — can often be gefährlich (dangerous). One of the most common mistakes made by the foreign speaker of a language is the incorrect use of prepositions.

Prepositional Pitfalls Fall Into Three Main Categories

  • Grammatical: Is the preposition one governed by the accusative, dative, or genitive case? Or is it a so-called "doubtful" or "two-way" preposition? The German noun cases play an important role.
  • Idiomatic: How does a native-speaker say it? To illustrate this, I often use the English example of "stand IN line" or "stand ON line"—which do you say? (Both are "correct," but your answer may reveal which part of the English-speaking world you're from. If you're British, you'd simply queue.) And the way a German might say "in" or "on" depends on a number of factors, even including whether a surface is vertical (on the wall) or horizontal (on the table)! Using the wrong preposition can also lead to an unintentional change in meaning... and sometimes to embarrassment.
  • English Interference: Because some German prepositions are similar or identical to English, or sound like an English preposition (bei, in, an, zu), you may choose the wrong one. And several German prepositions can equal more than one English preposition: an can mean at, in, on, or to—depending on how it's used in a German sentence. So you can't just assume that an will always mean "on." The word "since" can be translated into German with either the preposition seit (for time) or the conjunction da (for cause).

    Below are brief discussions of each category.

    Grammar

    Sorry, but there's really only one way to solve this problem: memorize the prepositions! But do it right! The traditional way, learning to rattle off the case groups (e.g., bis, durch, für, gegen, ohne, um, wider take the accusative), works for some people, but I prefer the phrase approach—learning prepositions as part of a prepositional phrase.

    (This is similar to learning nouns with their genders, as I also recommend.)

    For example, memorizing the phrases mit mir and ohne mich sets the combination in your mind AND reminds you that mit takes a dative object (mir), while ohne takes the accusative (mich). Learning the difference between the phrases am See (at the lake) and an den See (to the lake) will tell you that an with the dative is about location (stationary), whereas an with the accusative is about direction (movement). This method is also closer to what a native-speaker does naturally, and it can help move the learner towards an increased level of Sprachgefühl or a feeling for the language.

    Idioms

    Speaking of Sprachgefühl, here is where you really need it! In most cases,​ you'll just have to learn the right way to say it. For example, where English uses the preposition "to," German has at least six possibilities: an, auf, bis, in, nach, or zu! But there are some helpful categorical guidelines. For example, if you're going to a country or geographic destination, you almost always use nach—as in nach Berlin or nach Deutschland. But there are always exceptions to the rule: in die Schweiz, to Switzerland. The rule for the exception is that feminine (die) and plural countries (die USA) use in instead of nach.

    But there are many cases where rules aren't much help. Then you simply have to learn the phrase as a vocabulary item. A good example is a phrase such as "to wait for." An English-speaker has a tendency to say warten für when the correct German is warten auf—as in Ich warte auf ihn (I'm waiting for him) or Er wartet auf den Bus. (He's waiting for the bus). Also, see "Interference" below.

    Here are a few standard prepositional idiomatic expressions:

    • to die of/sterben an (dat.)
    • to believe in/glauben an (dat.)
    • to depend on/ankommen auf (acc.)
    • to fight for/kämpfen um
    • to smell of/riechen nach

    Sometimes German uses a preposition where English doesn't: "He was elected mayor." = Er wurde zum Bürgermeister gewählt.

    German often makes distinctions that English does not. We go to the movies or to the cinema in English.

    But zum Kino means "to the movie theater" (but not necessarily inside) and ins Kino means "to the movies" (to see a show).

    Interference

    First-language interference is always a problem in learning a second language, but nowhere is this more critical than with prepositions. As we have already seen above, just because English uses a given preposition doesn't mean German will use the equivalent in the same situation. In English we are afraid OF something; a German has fear BEFORE (vor) something. In English we take something FOR a cold; in German you take something AGAINST (gegen) a cold. 

    Another example of interference can be seen in the preposition "by." Though German bei sounds almost identical to English "by," it is rarely used in that meaning. "By car" or "by train" is mit dem Auto or mit der Bahn (beim Auto means "next to" or "at the car"). The author of a literary work is designated in a von-phrase: von Schiller (by Schiller). The closest bei usually comes to "by" is in an expression such as bei München (near/by Munich) or bei Nacht (at/by night), but bei mir means "at my house" or "at my place." (For more about "by" in German, see By-Expressions in German.)

    Obviously, there are many more prepositional pitfalls than we have space for here. See our German Grammar page and The Four German Cases for more information in several categories. If you feel you're ready, you can test yourself on this Preposition Quiz.