German Accusative Prepositions: Your Essential Guide

When you first start learning German, you realize fast that you can’t get far without learning prepositions.

Prepositions are little words such as with, for, against, to, on, over, under, in, behind, between, through, etc. that we use all. the. time. in both English & German!

Of course, as you’ve probably accepted by now, German prepositions are a little trickier than their English counterparts and for the same reason that is pretty much always behind a German-learner’s woes: the dreaded German case system!

Thankfully, we’ve demystified how to use declensions in the German case system (it’s really not so bad!).

And if you’ve already read my guide on the Accusative Case (which I recommend before reading this guide), then learning German accusative prepositions will be a cinch — there are only 5! 

You’ll learn the following:

  • how prepositions work in English vs. German
  • what the 5 German accusative prepositions are
  • how to use the accusative case with accusative prepositions
  • how to use accusative prepositions idiomatically
  • 3 ‘sort of’ accusative prepositions (honorable mentions!)

Section 1: The Basics What you need to know to start getting the hang of German Accusative Prepositions

What are prepositions?

Prepositions are important little words such as with, for, under, over, to, etc.Prepositions are used in combination with a noun (or pronoun) to indicate…
  • location(e.g. under the bed)
  • direction (e.g. tothe post office)
  • time (e.g. for the long weekend)
  • manner (e.g. witha cheery attitude)
Prepositions introduce prepositional phrases that might be as short as preposition + noun (e.g. with Mom, for you, to Granddad, etc.) or as long as preposition + determiner + adjective(s) + noun:

with the long, sharp knife for a poor, hungry boy under many warm, cozy covers over a few grassy hills to some impatient, bossy supervisors

As you can see, prepositional phrases can’t stand alone ^^ — they have to be part of a larger sentence in order to make sense (e.g. This sandwich is …. for a poor, hungry boy).

How do prepositions work in English vs. German?

Prepositions are are one of THE HARDEST groups of words to learn in a new language. Why? Because there are rarely 1-to-1 translations of prepositions.

For example, as an English speaker you might think ‘ok, I just need to learn the German words for to, from, at, etc. — that’s not so bad!’

But the way we use, say, ‘to’ in English might be the German preposition zu … or nach … or auf.

OR ‘at’ used in English might be the German preposition bei … or auf … or in.

Do you see what I mean? Prepositions are not 1-to-1 in English and German.

You have to learn all the German prepositions and how they are used in German — which doesn’t necessarily line up in a neat-and-tidy way with how we use prepositions in English.

English Prepositions

Prepositions in English are relatively very simple and we have about 28 common ones:

above, across, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, by, down, from, in, into, near, of, off, on, to, toward, under, upon, with and within

You take whatever preposition indicates the meaning you want, pair it with whatever noun, maybe use a determiner or some adjectives and done. Seems easy (to us, at least).

German Accusative Prepositions

Turns out there are also about 28 common German prepositions! And only 5 accusative ones. That doesn’t sound so scary.

The 5 German accusative prepositions with their approximate English translations (on a very basic, surface level) are:

durch (through)
für (for)
gegen (against)
ohne (without)
um (around)

But wait!

Remember: we can’t just pair a noun with a preposition all willy-nilly. Oh no. All German nouns have to be in a particular case. And nouns in prepositional phrases are no exceptions!

Section 2: Putting it into practice
When & how to use Accusative Prepositions

When to use accusative prepositions is a more complex topic than we will tackle in this section. 

Sure, you have the provided approximate English translations to get you started … But remember that it’s not often a simple 1-to-1 with English & German prepositions!

It’s far better to pay close attention to authentic German (native speakers, music, movies, books, etc.) and the contexts in which the 5 accusative prepositions are used — that is how you’ll really learn when to use durch, für, gegen, ohne and um

How to use the accusative prepositions is much more straightforward! 

In order to use an accusative preposition, you have to know how to ‘signal’ that your prepositional phrase is in the accusative case and that is a matter of knowing …

  • which declensions (<– the signalers!) are used in the accusative case
  • which words in a prepositional phrase need declensions
  • declension types (strong or weak) & patterns (there are 4)
  • how to pick out the correct declensions for the right words every time!

How to ‘signal’ an accusative prepositional phrase

All prepositions occur within a prepositional phrase — and all German prepositional phrases must be in one of the 4 cases.

If you think of every sentence as having ‘slots’ that get filled up with nouns, those ‘slots’ are the German cases:

nominative (for the subject noun)
accusative or dative (for object nouns)
genitive (for nouns that express ‘possession’, loosely defined, of another noun)

Chart on how nouns work in a sentence with their cases, roles, and description.

Now, at the same time that we can have other nouns functioning within these different roles, we might optionally have prepositional phrases on top of that — and, again, every prepositional phrase has to be in a particular case, too!

There are prepositional phrases that have to be in the accusative, dative, or genitive cases (none in the nominative case except for the idiomatic was für ein … ‘whatta … [cool guy!]’).

HOWEVER, nouns in prepositional phrases aren’t playing the role of subject or direct object, etc. They are in whatever case because of the preposition, not because of the noun’s function.

So, sometimes German nouns are in a particular case because of the role they play in the sentence, but sometimes just because another word (e.g. a preposition … but also verbs and adjectives!) require the following noun to be in a particular case.

In this guide, we’re focusing on accusative prepositional phrases — so how do we make sure the noun in the phrase is properly marked as being in the accusative case?

It’s all about declensions!

How Accusative Declensions Work

Declensions are just single letters (-r, -e, -s, -n, -m) added to the ends of certain groups of words that come in front of nouns. Declensions are what signal the gender & case of that noun.

This is important because the case of the noun tells us who/what is the subject (or an object), etc. — we need to know who is doing what to whom, etc. in order for a sentence to have meaning.

The gender of the noun isn’t actually important — it’s just that gender is an inherent part of every German noun (there’s not separating a noun from its gender), so it has to come along for the ride and be taken into account when we’re selecting the correct declensions.

Words that need declensions

There are only 2 categories of words that come in front of nouns (including nouns in a prepositional phrase) and, therefore, need declensions:

Determiners: a, the, some, few, this, etc. that tell us how many of the noun or which one.

Adjectives: describe some feature of the noun (e.g. big, small, round, flat, blue).

2 Types of Declensions

All determiners or adjectives in an accusative prepositional phrase will take either the strong or weak declension listed under the gender that lines up with the gender of the noun in the phrase:

Knowing which word (i.e. determiner or adjective?) needs which declension (i.e. strong( ) or weak ( )?) is a matter of working with declensions patterns!

4 Declensions Patterns

There are 4 total declension patterns that help us use the declensions chart properly.

Notice a general preference for strong declensions over weak ones. 😀

ANY of these four declensions patterns may be used within an accusative prepositional phrase.

Let’s look at examples of each declension pattern along with each of the 5 accusative prepositions!

Accusative Prepositions Examples

Again, there are 5 prepositions that are always accusative:

Note that in the following examples…

    • the whole prepositional phrase has been italicized
    • the accusative noun / pronoun has been bolded
    • the examples are numbered 1-4 for each preposition and line up with the 4 declensions patterns in the order listed!
‘durch’ (through)
  1. Ich gehe durchden langen Tunnel (I go through the long tunnel)
  2. Ich mag es, durch lange Tunnelzu gehen (I like to go through long tunnels)
  3. Ich laufe durch ein großes Feld(I’m walking through a big field).
  4. Ich laufe durch zahlreiche große Felder(I’m walking through numerous big fields)
‘für’ (for)
  1. Dieses Geschenk ist für sie (this gift is for her).
  2. Mutterstag wird für geliebte Mütter gefeiert (Mother’s Day is celebrated for beloved mothers)
  3. Dieses Geschenk muss für ein kleines Baby sein! (This present must be for a young baby!)
  4. Ich kaufe gerne Geschenke für etliche kleine Babys in meiner Verwandtschaft! (I like buying gifts for quite a lot of babies in my extended family!)
‘gegen’ (against)
  1. Ich habe nichts gegen diesen Mann (I have nothing againstthis man).
  2.  Ich habe nichts gegen reiche Menschen (I have nothing against rich people).
  3.  Ich habe nichts gegen ein kleines Nickerchen (I have nothing against [taking] a little nap!)
  4.  Ich habe nichts gegen manche doofe Menschen, aber … (I have nothing against some dumb people, but …)
‘ohne’ (without)
  1. Ich kann ohne dich nicht leben (I can’t live without you).
  2.  Ich kann ohne täglichen Kaffee nicht leben (I can’t live without daily coffee).
  3.  Ich könnte ohne mein Baby nicht weiter leben (I couldn’t live on without my baby).
  4.  Ich könnte ohne viele Kaffeine den Tag nicht überstehen! (I couldn’t survive the day without a lot of caffeine!)
‘um’ (around)
  1. Ich tanze um meinen lieben, engen, deutschen Freunden Markus & Anna herum (I’m dancing around my dear, close, German friends, Markus & Anna).
  2.  Ich tanze um enge, liebe Freunden herum (I dance around close, dear friends).
  3.  Ich gehe um unser neues Hausherum. (I walk around [the outside of] our new home).
  4.  Ich springe um viele gefährliche Gruben (I’m jumping around many dangerous holes).

REMEMBER: This means that every time you use one of these 5 prepositions, the noun that follows it has to be in the accusative case. (Read this info on dative prepositions and genitive prepositions).

Summary

Learning the 5 prepositions that are always accusative is important because

  1. you’ll use them a lot and
  2. you have to keep them separate in your head from the dative prepositions (which you’ll also use a lot).

When using an accusative preposition, you have to put the noun (<– that’s in the prepositional phrase) into the accusative case.

Doing that successfully is a matter of putting the correct declensions (strong or weak) onto the correct words (determiners or adjectives) so as to reflect the gender [masc., fem., neut., or plur.] & case [accusative] of the noun!

Main Takeaways

  1. Prepositions introduce prepositional phrases, which always include a noun(s). 
  2. Accusative prepositions require nouns that are in the accusative case.
  3. Each gender of noun has a particular set of declensions used in the accusative case.
  4. Declensions are single letters (-m, -r, -n, -s, -e) that indicate the gender & case of nouns.
  5. The two types of declensions (strong & weak) get put on the tailends of determiners & adjectives (<– words that come in front of nouns) according to 1 of 4 different declensions patterns.
  6. The 5 German prepositions that always require that the noun in the phrase be in the accusative case are durch, für, gegen, ohne, um.
  7. Prepositions do NOT have tidy 1-to-1 English-German translations and must be learned within authentic spoken/written German context.