Two-Way Prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen)

    This week’s 3 Minuten Deutsch video is about the two-way prepositions. To get a general overview of how these prepositions work in German, you can watch the video below, but this blog is going to help you be able to choose between the accusative and dative cases more easily when using these prepositions.

    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 differnce 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”.

    Beginner German with Herr Antrim

    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.”

    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!

    Here are a few examples that use the 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.

    Here are a few examples that use the dative case, because of the lack of a 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.

    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.)

    Reward for Reading the Full Blog

    If you have made it this far in the blog, you deserve a reward. How about a gif of me throwing a ball over my head to illustrate the preposition “über” in the accusative case, which I forgot to include in the video at the top of this blog.

    Herr Antrim wirft den Ball über seinen Kopf.

    Two-Way Prepositions in German

    Herr Antrim

    Herr Antrim is a German teacher with over 10 years of teaching experience. In 2011 he started his successful YouTube Channel "Learn German with Herr Antrim". In 2015 he created this website to enhance the German language lessons he was providing on YouTube. He is now the author of his own e-book, "Beginner German with Herr Antrim". He has also been featured on numerous blogs and other sites.