Learn All About Dual Prepositions in German

Two-Way German Prepositions Can Be Dative or Accusative

If there is motion towards something or to a specific location (wohin?, where to?), then usually the object of that preposition is accusative. Getty Images/Donald Iain Smith

Most German prepositions are always followed by the same case, but dual prepositions (also called two-way or doubtful prepositions) are prepositions that can take either the accusative or dative case.

What Are the Dual Prepositions in German?

There are nine of these dual prepositions:

  • an
  • auf
  • hinter
  • neben
  • in
  • über
  • unter
  • vor
  • zwischen

How to Decide Whether A Dual Preposition Is Dative or Accusative?

When a dual preposition answers the question "where to?" (wohin?

) or "what about?" (worüber?), it takes the accusative case. When answering the question "where" (wo?), it takes the dative case. 

In other words, the accusative prepositions typically refer to an action or movement to another place, whereas the dative prepositions refer to something that is not changing location. 

Think about the English phrases "he jumps into the water" versus "he is swimming in the water." The first answers a "where to" question: Where is he jumping? Into the water. Or in German, in das Wasser or ins Wasser. He is changing location by moving from the land into the water.

The second phrase represents a "where" situation. Where is he swimming? In the water. In German, in dem Wasser or im Wasser. He is swimming inside the body of water and not moving in and out of that one location. 

To express the two different situations, English uses two different prepositions: in or into.

To express the same idea, German uses one preposition — in — followed by either the accusative case (motion) or the dative (location).

More About Using the Accusative Case

If you want to convey a direction or destination in your sentence, then you need to use the accusative. These sentences will always answer the question where to/wohin?

For example:

  • Die Katze springt auf den Stuhl. | The cat jumps on(to) the chair.
  • Wohin springt die Katze? Auf den Stuhl. | Where is the cat jumping? On(to) the chair.

The accusative case is also used when you can ask what about/worüber?

For example:

  • Sie diskutieren über den Film. | They are discussing the film.
  • Worüber diskutieren sie? Über den Film. | What are they talking about? About the film.

More About Using the Dative Case

The dative case is used to indicate a stable position or situation. It answers the question where/wo? For example:

  • Die Katze sitzt auf dem Stuhl. (The cat sits on the chair.)

The dative is also used when there is no particular direction or goal intended. For example:

  • Sie ist die ganze Zeit in der Stadt herumgefahren.| (She drove around town all day.)

Remember that the above rules apply only to dual prepositions. Dative-only prepositions will always remain dative, even if the sentence indicates motion or direction. (See dative prepositions). Likewise, accusative-only prepositions will always remain accusative, even if there is no motion described in the sentence. (See accusative prepositions)

Clever Ways to Remember German Prepositions

"Arrow" verses "Blob"

Some people find it easier to remember the accusative-versus-dative rule by thinking of the "accusative"  letter A on its side, representing an arrow ( > ) for motion in a specific direction, and the dative letter D on its side to represent a blob at rest.

Of course, it matters little how you remember the difference, as long as you have a clear understanding of when a two-way preposition uses the dative or accusative. 

Rhyme Time: You can the following rhyme to help memorize dual-prepositions):

An, auf, hinter, neben, in, über, unter, vor und zwischen
stehen mit dem vierten Fall, wenn man fragen kann “wohin,”
mit dem dritten steh’n sie so,
daß man nur fragen kann “wo.”

Translated:

At, on, behind, near, in, over, under, before and between

Go with the fourth case, when one asks "where to"

The third case is different

With that you can only ask where.

Dual Prepositions and Sample Sentences

The following chart lists an example of the dative and accusative cases for several dual prepositions.

PrepositionDefinitionDative ExampleAccusative Example
anat, by, on

Der Lehrer steht an der Tafel.
The teacher is standing at the blackboard.

Der Student schreibt es an die Tafel. 
The student writes it on the board.

aufon, ontoSie sitzt auf dem Stuhl.
She is sitting on the chair.
Er legt das Papier auf den Tisch.
He is putting the paper on the table.
hinterbehindDas Kind steht hinter dem Baum.
The child is standing behind the tree.
Die Maus läuft hinter die Tür.
The mouse runs behind the door.
nebenbeside, near, next to

Ich stehe neben der Wand. 
I stand next to the wall.

Ich setzte mich neben ihn.
I sat down next to him. 
inin, into, toDie Socken sind in der Schublade.
The socks are in the drawer.
Der Junge geht in die Schule.
The boy goes to school.
überover (above), about, acrossDas Bild hängt über dem Schreibtisch.
The picture hangs over the desk.

Öffne den Regenschirm über meinen Kopf. 
Open the umbrella over my head. 

unterunder, belowDie Frau schläft unter den Bäumen.
The woman is sleeping under the trees.
Der Hund läuft unter die Brücke.
The dog runs under the bridge.
zwischenbetween

Der Katze stand zwischen mir und dem Stuhl.
The cat is between me and the chair.

Sie stellte die Katze zwischen mich und den Tisch.
She put the cat between me and the table.

Test Yourself

See if you can answer this question: Is in der Kirche dative or accusative? Wo or wohin

If you think that in der Kirche is dative and the phrase answers the question "wo?" then you are correct. In der Kirche means "in (inside) the church," while in die Kirche means "into the church" (wohin?).

Now you see yet another reason why you need to know your German genders. Knowing that "church" is die Kirche, which changes to  der Kirche in the dative case, is an essential element in using any preposition, but especially the two-way ones.

Now we'll put the Kirche phrases into sentences to further illustrate the point:

  • AkkusativDie Leute gehen in die Kirche. The people are going into the church. 
  • DativDie Leute sitzen in der Kirche. The people are sitting in the church.