in vs im: Understanding German Prepositions

Hallo, Deutschlerner. Never in the history of German learning have there ever been two more misunderstood two-letter words than the words “in” and “im”. What are they? What do they mean? Are they the same word or different words? All of that and more will be explained in today’s shallow German deep dive.

In vs Im: Understanding German Prepositions in 2024 - Shallow German Deep Dive
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Let’s start with the big answer. “in” and “im” are the same word. The difference is that “im” is a sort of contraction. “Im” can be split into “in” and “dem”. This is used when “in” is used in the dative case with either a masculine or neuter noun. For example:

Wir schwimmen im See. –
We are swimming in the lake.

“See” is masculine. When “in” is used to indicate a static location, we use the dative case. The dative masculine article is “dem”. You could rewrite this sentence as:

Wir schwimmen in dem See. –
We are swimming in the lake.

When to use accusative vs dative

In case you didn’t already know this, “in” is one of the Wechselpräpositionen, which use either the accusative or the dative case depending on the way in which they are used. When describing a static location or state, use the dative case. When describing a change in location, use the accusative case.

You’ll often see “im” right before a month or season, such as “im Sommer” or “im Januar”. While we do say “in the summer” in English, we don’t say “in the January”, so it is worth noting that the German version uses “im” and not “in”.

When is dative masculine or neuter not “im”?

I should also point out that you will never use “im”, if you follow the preposition with something other than the definite article, dem. For example:

Wir schwimmen in einem See. –
We are swimming in a lake.

Since the accusative case doesn’t use the article “dem”, there is never a time to use “im” in the accusative case. Similarly, the only dative case articles that use “dem” are those for the masculine and neuter nouns. This means, if you are using “in” in the accusative case or for a feminine or plural noun, you need to use “in” and not “im”.

Wir gehen täglich in die Schule. –
We go to school daily.

Er hält zwei kleine Vögel in den Händen. –
He is holding two little birds in his hands.

Sie geht in den Laden, um etwas zu kaufen. –
She is going into the store in order to buy something.

Sooo… what’s with “ins”?

There is one other small thing you should know. The neuter article “das” can be combined with “in” to become “ins”. Generally this is done to make it simpler to say, but it is also used to remove a bit of emphasis from the article.

Er springt ins Wasser. –
He jumps into the water.

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