This week’s 3 Minuten Deutsch video is about the two-way prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen). To get a general overview of how these prepositions work in German, you can watch the video above, but this blog is going to help you be able to choose between the accusative and dative cases more easily when using these prepositions.
Tips for Choosing Accusative or Dative with Two-Way Prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen)
Tip #1: Wo vs Wohin
The biggest tip that anyone can give about the two-way prepositions is that you need to know the difference between “wo” (where) and “wohin” (to where). This subtle difference can help you determine which case to use in any sentence using a two-way preposition.
Let’s take the sentence “Das Kind krabbelt unter _____ Tisch.” (The child is crawling under the table.) Here we can use either the accusative or the dative case, but the connotation changes based on the case used.
If we say “Wo krabbelt das Kind?” We answer with “Das Kind krabbelt unter dem Tisch.” This means that the child is crawling under the table, but never gets out from under the table. They are staying under the table, which means that they are not changing locations. This means that we have to use the dative case.
If we say, “Wohin krabbelt das Kind?” We answer with “Das Kind krabbelt unter den Tisch.” This means that the child started somewhere else and the destination is “under the table”.
an vs auf & der vs die Wand
This difference is a bit unclear in certain situations. Let’s say that a person is climbing a wall. First, do we use “an” or “auf” to mean “on” here? Since a wall is a vertical thing, we use “an”.
Do we use the accusative case or the dative case? Obviously, in English when we say “The man is climbing on the wall.” we would assume that the man is moving, which means our instinct says that we should use the accusative case, but we have to think in terms of “is this object moving in relation to the object after the preposition? In this case, no, because the man is staying on the wall during his entire climb. In German we say, “Der Mann klettert an der Wand.”
Do you swim “in das Schwimmbad” or “in dem Schwimmbad”?
Let’s say you are swimming in a pool. You are going from one end of the pool to the other. Is this accusative or dative? Since you aren’t going from the outside of the pool to the inside of the pool when you say “I am swimming in the pool.” you have to use the dative case here. “Ich schimme im (in dem) Schwimmbad.”
The preposition “in” is slightly easier, because in English we have the word “into”, which tells us there is motion involved. For example: “I am jumping into the pool.” (Ich springe in das Schwimmbad.) is distinctly different from “I am jumping in the pool.” (Ich springe im (in dem) Schwimmbad.) The problem here is that a lot of native English speakers don’t use “in” and “into” properly in their day-to-day speech.
Tip #2: Direct Object vs No Direct Object
While it is preferred to know the difference between “wo” and “wohin” in order to understand which case to use, there is a handy trick that works most of the time to figure it out without understanding that.
Certain verbs will lend themselves more to use the two-way prepositions with the accusative case and certain ones will mostly use the dative case. Generally speaking, if there is a direct object, you will more than likely use the accusative case. If there is not a direct object, you will use the dative case. WARNING: THIS IS A GENERALIZATION. IT DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK!
Two-Way Prepositions with Accusative Case, because of the Direct Object
Der Mann hängt das Foto an die Wand.
The man is hanging the photo onto the wall.
Die Frau stellt das Essen auf den Tisch.
The woman is putting the food on the table.
Der Junge legt die Bonbons hinter das Regal.
The boy puts the candy behind the shelf.
Das Kind wirft den Ball in das Haus.
The child is throwing the ball into the house.
Two-Way Prepositions with Dative Case, because of the Direct Object
Das Foto hängt an der Wand.
The photo is hanging on the wall.
Das Essen steht auf dem Tisch. –
The food is on the table.
Die Bonbons liegen hinter dem Regal.
The candy is behind the shelf.
Der Ball ist in dem Haus.
The ball is in the house.
When This Trick Doesn’t Work
Depending upon the answer to the question of “wo” vs “wohin”, there are certain situation where the direct object or lack thereof will not help you determine the correct case. Here are a few examples of those.
Die Kinder essen Abendessen an dem Tisch.
The children are eating dinner at the table.
Because the verb “essen” can’t be used with motion, this has to be used with the dative case.
Das Kind wirft den Ball in dem Haus.
The child is throwing the ball in the house.
Because the ball is within the house during the entire sentence, the preposition requires the dative case.
Tip #3: Opposite Verbs
As you may have seen in some of the other examples, there are certain verbs that require these prepositions with the accusative case and certain ones that require the dative case. This is closely related to the direct “object vs no direct object” tip, but is specifically about a list of verbs that have counterparts. See if you can spot the difference between the following examples.
legen vs liegen
Die Lehrerin legt die Prüfung auf den Schreibtisch.
The teacher is laying the test on the desk.
Die Prüfung liegt auf dem Schreibtisch.
The test is lying on the desk.
senken vs sinken
Das U-Boot versenkt den Zerstörer im (in dem) Meer.
The submarine is sinking the destroyer in the sea.
Der Zerstörer sinkt in das Meer.
The destroyer is sinking into the sea.
Caution: This one is the opposite of the general rule. Use the question words “wo” and “wohin” to help you here. “Wohin sinkt der Zerstörer? In das Meer. Wo senkt das U-Boot den Zerstörer? Im Meer.”
setzen vs sitzen
Das Mädchen setzt sich an den Tisch.
The girl set herself down at the table.
Das Mädchen sitzt am (an dem) Tisch.
The girl is sitting at the table.
stellen vs stehen
Der Mann stellt die Action-Figur in das Regal.
The man places the action figure on the shelf.
Die Action-Figur steht im (in dem) Regal.
The action figure is standing on the shelf.
Caution: Germans tend to say that you put things “in” shelves instead of “on” them. If you say “auf” in this situation, it means that they are “on top of” the shelf, where they more than likely shouldn’t be.
You’re Doing It Wrong Explanation
In another lesson I told you that your German teacher taught you the Perfekt tense incorrectly or at the very least inaccurately. Now I am going to fix another problem that your teacher caused. If the Perfekt is used with “sein” when there is motion and two-way prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen) are accusative when there is motion, why do you almost always use the accusative case with the Wechselpräpositionen when you use “haben” as your helping verb in the Perfekt? There are times when the present perfect tense is used with a form of “sein”, which according to your German teacher means this verb is a motion verb, but you use a two-way preposition in the dative case, because there is no motion involved. Get ready, because I’m going to blow your mind.
If you would like a copy of this video script along with a worksheet and answer key to practice your knowledge, click here.
(Curious Antrim) Herr Lehrer, how do I know if a two-way preposition uses the accusative or dative case?
(Herr Lehrer) Simple. If the prepositional phrase indicates motion, you use accusative. If not, use dative.
(Curious Antrim) So for example: “Ich bin auf den Gehweg gelaufen.” means “I walked on the sidewalk.” The verb “laufen” is a motion verb, as you taught us, which means there is motion in this sentence, so we use the accusative case.
(Herr Lehrer) No. You mean to say “Ich bin auf DEM Gehweg gelaufen.”
(Curious Antrim) But the Perfekt uses “sein” when there is motion, so I used “sein” and the accusative case is used with the Wechselpräpositionen (two-way) prepositions when there is motion, so I used accusative.
(Herr Lehrer) What you said is that you walked from the street or somewhere else onto the sidewalk.
(Curious Antrim) Ok. But swimming is motion. So I can say “Ich bin in das Schwimmbecken geschwommen.”
(Herr Lehrer) No. “Ich bin IM Schwimmbecken geschwommen.”
(Curious Antrim) Ok. This is confusing. Maybe the problem is the motion verb. Let’s try this with a non-motion verb. “Ich habe mich an dem Tisch gesetzt.” No motion in the verb, so we use “haben” and therefore no motion in the prepositional phrase so we use dative.
(Herr Lehrer) No. You use the accusative, because there is motion.
(Curious Antrim) So why don’t we use “sein” in the Perfekt.
(Herr Lehrer) That’s just the way German works.
Real Herr Antrim: NO, IT ISN’T!
Why You Are Wrong About Wechselpräpositionen
The first problem with Wechselpräpositionen was cleared up last week. The rule is not “motion vs non-motion”, but rather “transitive vs intransitive”. The problem this week is similar. It isn’t about motion, it is about change of location or lack thereof. Let’s take a look at the following examples.
Ich bin auf der Autobahn gefahren.
I drove on the Autobahn (interstate/highway).
Ich bin auf die Autobahn gefahren.
I drove onto the Autobahn (interstate/highway).
In the first sentence we were driving, which is an intransitive verb, because we don’t have a direct object, so we use “sein”, but we are not changing our location throughout this sentence. I am on the Autobahn in the beginning and I end the sentence still on the Autobahn. In the second sentence, the verb still uses “sein”, because there is still no direct object, but the action of the sentence moves me from not being on the Autobahn to being on the Autobahn. This change of location forces us to use the accusative case.
Change of Location or Static Location
So the question we must ask ourselves is not necessarily directly related to the verb. Our question is whether or not the location described within the prepositional phrase is indicating a change in location or a constant location.
Ich schwimme im (in dem) Schwimmbecken.
I am swimming in the swimming pool.
In this sentence, the location of the action does not change. If you were to write this sentence with the accusative case, it would mean you can swim on land and you are swimming into the pool, which is ridiculous unless you are Chuck Norris.
Now let’s take a look at the commonly used verbs that your teacher probably told you require you to use the accusative or dative case, as the case may be… pun intended. Your teacher likely gave you examples like this:
Ich habe mich auf den Stuhl gesetzt.
I sat myself down on the chair.
Ich habe auf dem Stuhl gesessen.
I sat on the chair.
In the first one, I wasn’t sitting, but now I am. The change is indicated in the prepositional phrase with the accusative case. In the second sentence, I am already in the sitting position, which means I did not change location, so we use the dative case to indicate that the location does not change throughout the sentence.
Er hat das Buch in das Regal gestellt.
He put the book on the shelf.
Das Buch hat im Regal gestanden.
The book stood on the shelf.
Wir haben die Blätter auf den Tisch gelegt.
We laid the papers on the table.
Die Blätter haben auf dem Tisch gelegen.
The papers lay on the table.
Fun Fact of the Day
The differences between “lay” and “lie” and “legen” and “liegen” are the same differences in English as they are in German. “Lay” is a transitive verb, which requires a direct object, the same as “legen”. “Lie” is an intransitive verb, which will not use a direct object, the same as “liegen”.
Was Herr Antrim Wrong?
(Herr Lehrer) AHA! I caught you! If intransitive verbs require “sein” in the Perfekt and “liegen” is an intransitive verb, as you just said, why doesn’t “liegen” take “sein” in the Perfekt? Don’t answer that, I know already. It is a non-motion verb, which is why it really needs “haben”! I was right!
Nice try, but no. In northern Germany, where most people consider “proper” German to come from, they do use “haben” with “liegen”, but in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland, they use “sein”. The reason textbooks and other resource materials use “haben” is because of this assumption that northern Germans speak more correctly than their southern counterparts and this infestation of the idea of motion vs non-motion for deciding the helping verb. Long story short: both are correct.
Two Wechselpräpositionen with Different Cases
Back to the Wechselpräpositionen (two-way prepositions). You probably understand the general idea of how to use these now, but let’s make things more confusing.
Ich habe das Blatt Papier auf den Tisch in dem Wohnzimmer gelegt.
I laid the piece of paper onto the table in the living room.
In this sentence we used both the accusative and dative cases with different two-way prepositions. The first one indicates a change in location for the piece of paper, which means we need the accusative case, but the second one is referring to the location of the table, which is not changing, so we use the dative case.
Motion Verbs Used without Motion
Ich bin mit meinem Hund in meinem Auto nach Chicago gefahren.
I drove to Chicago with my dog in my car.
Neither the dog nor I are leaving or entering the car during this sentence, which is why we use the dative case with “in meinem Auto”. The fact that the car is traveling to Chicago is not relevant for the location indicated by the prepositional phrase “in meinem Auto”.
Could be Dative. Could be Accusative.
Das Flugzeug ist über die Wolke geflogen.
The airplane flew over the cloud.
Das Flugzeug ist über der Wolke geflogen.
The airplane flew over the cloud.
I like sentences like this, because it shows you how precise the German language can be. In the first one, the airplane is at some point not over the cloud. Whether this means it started not over the cloud and ended over it or the plane started over the cloud and ended not over it or even started not over it and ended not over it, but in the middle it was over the cloud is not clear. In the second one, the airplane never leaves the position of being over the cloud.
Mein Bruder ist in den Bergen gewandert.
My brother hiked in the mountains.
Mein Bruder ist in die Berge gewandert.
My brother hiked into the mountains.
In the first one we used the dative case, because there is no change of location. Throughout the entire sentence, my brother is in the mountains. In the second one, he started not in the mountains and ended in the mountains, which is a change of location, which requires the accusative case.
Let me confuse you, again.
Ich setze mich auf dem Tisch hin, da mein Stuhl schon auf dem Tisch ist.
I set myself down on the table, because my chair is already on the table.
In this sentence I purposefully confused you. The verb “hinsetzen” is usually used with the Wechselpräpositionen (two-way prepositions) using the accusative case, but that is because the act of setting oneself down indicates a change of position from not sitting to sitting. In this sentence, however, the entire action of setting oneself down happens on top of the table, as the chair onto which the person is setting themselves is on the table. Of course this is an extreme example of the distinction between when to use the accusative and when to use the dative, but this it might help you to see things like this.
So the next time you are trying to figure out if a Wechselpräposition uses the accusative or dative case, ask yourself if you are trying to express a change in location with that preposition or not. If you are, use accusative. If not, use dative.
Isn’t that what the teacher said about Wechselpräpositionen?
Yeah, but not clearly enough that your students could understand what you were trying to say. (eye roll)