German Dative Prepositions: Your Essential Guide

No language-learning is complete without tackling prepositions. They are pretty necessary little words that add important info on when, where, how and with whom things are done!

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.

In English, all prepositions are … just prepositions. But in German there are 4 categories of prepositions (and one of those is dative prepositions!).

WHY are there these 4 separate categories? Because each group of prepositions get plugs into the German case system differently!

There are 9 dative prepositions (<– that require nouns in the dative case). If you don’t already feel familiar with the dative case, I recommend reading that guide first and then coming back to this one in which …

You’ll learn the following:

  • how prepositions work in English vs. German
  • what the 9 German dative prepositions are
  • how to use the dative case with dative prepositions
  • how to use dative prepositions idiomatically

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

What are prepositions?

Prepositions are frequently-used little words such as from, between, behind, after, etc. 

Prepositions are used within prepositional phrases (that contain a noun (or pronoun) to indicate…

  • how (e.g. without your help)
  • when (e.g. after the holidays)
  • where (e.g. behind the tree, over the mountains)
  • why (e.g. on account of the weather, despite my exhaustion)

Prepositional phrases can also be used to describe nouns (e.g. the teacher in the 70’s jumpsuit, the young mom with bags under her eyes, the pastor with a loud voice).

How do prepositions work in English vs. German?

It can be helpful to give yourself some initial, basic, or ‘starter’ translations of prepositions, but be very, very careful! Prepositions are arguably the trickiest words to learn in a new language.

That’s because more than any other group of words, prepositions can have many, many (and very different) meanings — it all depends on context.

For example, the German preposition bis translates to until … and to, as far as, and by.

And the one German preposition über might mean over, across, above, or about.

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

You’ve probably never thought to count how many prepositions we use in English — guess what?! There are about 150. WHOA. Thankfully, the list of ones we commonly use is pretty short (~28):

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 (<– words like ‘the’, or ‘a’ that tell us how many or which one) or some adjectives (<– words that describe nouns, like sharp, or brand-new) and done.

That’s how we get prepositional phrases such as …

in the brand-new car
with the sharp scissors
for my mother
from Atlanta, Georgia
after my college graduation

German Dative Prepositions

Turns out there are also about 28 common German prepositions, including 9 exclusively dative ones (<– almost twice the number of strictly accusative prepositions). That’s doable, right?

The 9 German dative prepositions with their approximate English translations are:

aus (from, out of)
außer (except for, besides)
bei (at, near, by)
mit (with, by means of)
nach (after, to, according to)
seit (since, for)
von (from, by, of, about)
zu (to)
gegenüber (across from)

But wait!

Remember: we can’t just simply pair a noun with a preposition and done. Nope! All German nouns have to be in a particular case. And nouns in prepositional phrases are no exceptions!

All these dative prepositions have to coupled with nouns put into the dative case. What does that mean and how do you do it? … Keep reading!

Section 2: Putting it into practice
When & how to use dative prepositions

When exactly to use dative prepositions is a more complex topic that we’ll save for another day.

How to use the dative prepositions is thankfully much more straightforward. 😀 

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

  • which declensions (<– the signalers!) are used in the dative 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’ a dative prepositional phrase

All prepositions occur within a prepositional phrase — and all German prepositional phrases also contain at least one noun that must be in one of the 4 cases.

Normally, when a noun is in a particular case, it means that it’s playing a specific role in the sentence (e.g. the subject noun is in the nominative case).

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

In this guide, we’re focusing on dative prepositional phrases and declensions are what properly ‘flag’ that the noun in the prepositional phrase is in the dative case like it’s supposed to be!

How dative 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.

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).

All determiners or adjectives in a dative 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

This graphic shows you ALL the declensions patterns that are ever used in German!

Of these 4 patterns, all but #3 may be used within a dative prepositional phrase.

Let’s look at examples with each of the 9 dative prepositions!

Dative Prepositions Examples

Again, there are 9 prepositions that are always dative: aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, gegenüber.

Remember: every time you use one of these exclusively dative prepositions, the noun that follows it has to be in the dative case.

Check out the following examples and note:

  • the whole prepositional phrase has been italicized
  • the dative noun / pronoun has been bolded
NO determiner / adjectives!

All of these examples demonstrate how you often pair the dative preposition directly with a noun / pronoun — no determiners or adjectives needed!

Dieser Mantel ist komplett aus Seide
(This coat is [made out of] 100% silk).

Alle außer ihm gab mir ein Geschenk
(Everyone but he gave me a present).

Du kannst bei mir übernachten
(You can stay over at my place).

Ich gehe mit dir!
(I’ll go with you!).

Das hast du nicht von mir gehört!
(You didn’t hear it from me!).

Declension pattern #1

Wir gehen zum Bahnhof
(We are going to the train station).

NOTE: this example uses a contraction: zu + dem = zum

The other common dative preposition contractions are:

  • beim (bei + dem, masculine / neuter dative)
  • vom (von + dem, masculine / neuter dative)
  • zur (zu + der, feminine dative)
Declension pattern #2

Here is an example of a preposition + adj. + noun (no determiner):

Wir sehen uns nach ewiger Zeit endlich wieder mal!
(We’re finally seeing each other for the first time in ages!).

Declension pattern #4

This example first uses preposition + rulebreaker plural determiner + adj. + noun and then has a 2nd dative prepositional phrase: mit ihm (no determiner / adjective).

Ich habe seit vielen langen Jahren nicht mehr mit ihm geredet
(I haven’t talked with him in many, long years).

Oddball dative preposition gegenüber

The dative preposition gegenüber is an oddball because it follows the dative noun:

Sie sitzt mir gegenüber
(She’s sitting across from me).

It is NOT used with determiners or adjectives, so it’s outside of the declension patterns system just like the initial examples of just preposition + noun / pronoun.

Summary

The 9 German dative prepositions are used in a vast array of common, everyday, you-need-to-know-it speech & writing.

When using a dative preposition, you have to put the noun (<– that’s in the prepositional phrase) into the dative 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 [dative] of the noun!

Main Takeaways

  1. Prepositions introduce prepositional phrases, which always include a noun(s). 
  2. Dative prepositions require nouns that are in the dative case.
  3. Each gender of noun has a particular set of declensions used in the dative 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 9 German prepositions that always require that the noun in the phrase be in the dative case are aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, gegenüber.
  7. Prepositions do NOT have tidy 1-to-1 English-German translations and must be learned within authentic spoken/written German context.