German Two-Way Prepositions: Your Essential Guide

At this point in your German-learning journey, you’ve probably got a good sense for accusative and dative prepositions (<– if not, start there!). 

But now there’s a whole category of prepositions that switch back-and-forth between the accusative (when indicating direction) and dative (when indicating location)?! *facepalm*

Nah, actually it’s not that bad. 😉

You already know how to use accusative and dative case declensions (<– or at least you should; read up on that first!). And that’s the main battle.

So, really, all you need is to study the list of two-way prepositions and check out some examples of when they’re used with the accusative and when with the dative. You’ve got this!

You’ll learn the following:

  • brief overview of how prepositions work in English vs. German
  • what the 10 German two-way prepositions are
  • how to use the accusative or dative cases with two-way prepositions
  • how to use two-way prepositions idiomatically

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

What are two-way prepositions?

Prepositions in general are important little words such as with, for, under, over, to, etc.

Two-Way Prepositions, specifically are used to indicate…

  • location (e.g. under the bed) OR
  • direction (e.g. to the post office)

The 10 German two-way prepositions with some ‘starter’ English translations for you are:

an (on [vertical surface])
auf (on top of [horizontal surface])
hinter (bedhind)
in (in)
neben (next to )
entlang (along)
über (above)
unter  (under)
vor (in front of)
zwischen (between)

That list in and of itself doesn’t seem so bad!

But the trickier part is knowing when to use these two-way prepositions with a noun in the accusative case and when to use them with a noun in the dative.

And then, of course, the vital question: how do you put a noun ‘into a case’ (<– and what does that mean anyway)?

Gotcha covered! Keep reading!

Section 2: Putting it into practice
When & how to use two-way prepositions

There are some pretty simple guidelines for when to use a two-way preposition in the accusative vs. dative. It’s easiest to remember the difference as a direction (acc.) vs. location (dat.) rule.

Then, in order to use a two-way preposition, you have to also know how to ‘signal’ which case your prepositional phrase is in, which is a matter of …

  • which declensions (<– the signalers!) are used in the accusative vs. dative cases
  • which words in a prepositional phrase need declensions in the first place
  • declension types (strong or weak) & patterns (there are 4) to choose between

Learn all that, you and you’ll know how to pick out the correct declensions for the right words every time! Are you ready to use two-way prepositions like a pro?

Accusative vs. Dative

The two principles of using two-way prepositions are these:

  1. Use the dative when a static position is being referenced
  2. Use the accusative when a change in position is involved

Ich setze das Glas auf den Tisch (acc.) vs. Das Glas steht auf dem Tisch (dat.)
(I’m setting the glass on the table vs. The glass is on the table.)

The two-way preposition used here is auf (on [top of a horizontal surface]).

Do you see how the process of setting the glass on the table involves a change of position (or movement) from point A to point B? But once the glass is there (static position) we use the dative.

The accusative is NOT for all movement!

The distinction of movement from A to B (or change of position) is important. The accusative is NOT simply used whenever there is movement (in a general sense).

For example, Die Kinder laufen im Garten
(The children run in the garden.)

The verb laufen obviously deals with movement. But we see the dative being used (im Garten), not the accusative. Why? Because the children are moving, yes, but while staying within the same location (the garden).

Compare that with Die Kinder laufen in den Garten
(The children run into the garden).

Here we DO use the accusative precisely because there’s a change in position — a movement from point A (somewhere outside the garden) to point B (within the garden).

The dative is used for movement too … sometimes

In addition to the previous examples with the Kinder in the Garten, look at this, too:

Das Kind geht neben seiner Mama.
(The child walks next to his mom.)

Das Kind springt zwischen seinen Eltern.
(The child jumps between his parents.)

Here we see movement — the child is walking or jumping — BUT that general or vague movement (there is NO location change specified!) is occuring while a constant position is being maintained (next to the mom, or between the parents).

With the 2nd example, visualize 2 parents standing still and a child jumping up and down between them. That’s what the usage of the dative indicates here.

In contrast, if we were to say Das Kind springt zwischen seine Eltern (acc.), it would paint a different picture! It would mean that the child started out at a location not between his parents (point A) and then jumped to land between them (point B).

Summary

Rather than thinking that the accusative case is used with two-way prepositions that indicate “movement” and the dative case is used with those same prepositions when location is being referenced, it is more accurate to word it this way:

Use the accusative case when there is a position change from point A to point B … and use the dative the rest of the time. 😉

Now that that’s settled, let’s make sure that you know how to put nouns into the accusative vs. dative cases, hm?

Declensions for two-way prepositions

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 two-way 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.

These are the accusative case declensions:

and these are the dative case declensions:

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 declension patterns that are ever used in German!

ANY of these four declension patterns may be used within a two-way prepositional phrase.

Let’s look at examples of each declension pattern along with each of the 10 two-way prepositions!

Accusative vs. Dative Examples

Again, there are 10 prepositions that are can be used with the accusative OR dative, dependent on the meaning: an, auf, hinter, in, neben, entlang, über, unter, vor, zwischen.

Check out the following examples and note:

  • the whole prepositional phrase has been italicized
  • the accusative or dative noun / pronoun has been bolded
an

Ich hänge das Bild an die Wand (acc) — I’m hanging the picture on the wall.
Das Bild hängt an der Wand (dat) — The picture is hanging on the wall.

Notice the accusative being used to indicate the process of hanging the picture — its position is changing from one of not being on the wall to being on the wall. Once it’s there: dative case!

auf

Wir hüpfen auf die Tanzfläche (acc) — We hop onto the dance floor.
Wir hüpfen auf der Fläche (dat) — We’re hopping on the dance floor.

This is another great example of the difference between movement that involves a location change (acc) from not-on-the-dance-floor to onto-the-dance-floor and movement that is happening without a location change (dat) while staying on the dance floor.

hinter

Wir gehen hinter die Kulissen (acc) — We are going behind the curtains.
Wir sind hinter den Kulissen (dat) — We are behind the the curtains.

To really get the difference between when to use the accusative vs. dative, it’s helpful to truly envision / imagine what’s happening with the examples:

First, see the movement (or process) from A to B — starting from not being behind the curtains to being indeed behind them! That is what the accusative case captures.

Then, imagine the ‘we’ simply standing behind the curtains, not moving — that’s the dative.

in

Ich gehe in das kleine, niedliche Haus hinein (acc) — I’m going into the small, cute house.
Ich bin im kleinen, niedlichen Haus (dat) — I’m inside the small, cute house.

Notice here that we’re using declension pattern #1, including with adjectives (the examples up until this point have also been declension pattern #1, but only with determiners).

Notice also the common contraction of in + dem [masc. & neut. dat.] = im.

neben

Ich parke ungern neben große Einkaufszentren (acc) — I don’t like parking (lit, ‘park ungladly’) next to big shopping centers.
Neben wenigen großen Einkaufszentren findet man keinen Parkplatz (dat) — One rarely finds no parking lot next to a shopping center (lit., ‘Next to few shopping centers finds one no parking lot’)

In the 1st [acc] example, notice that we’re using declension pattern #3 — there is an adjective present without a preceding determiner.

entlang

Wir gehen ein Stückchen dieser Straße entlang (acc) — We’ll walk down this street a stretch.
Viele wütende Demonstranten protestieren entlang der Straße (dat) — Many angry demonstrators are protesting down the side of the street.

Notice in the 1st example that we’re using declension pattern #2 with an ein-word determiner in the neuter accusative. Note, too, that in the accusative, the preposition entlang follows the noun! Finally, as a side-point, notice that ein Stückchen dieser Straße involves the genitive case!

In the 2nd example [dat], we’re using declension pattern #4 — the ‘rulebreaker plural determinerand the adjective both take the strong declension for the plural accusative! Notice that when entlang is used in the dative, it precedes the noun as per usual.

über

Ich hänge den Spiegel über das Bett (acc) — I’m hanging the mirror above the bed.
Der Spiegel hängt über dem Bett (dat) — The mirror is hanging above the bed.

This is obviously very similar to the very first examples with the preposition an!

unter

Das Kind kroch unter das Bett (acc) — The child crawled under the bed.
Das Kind versteckt sich unter dem Bett (dat) — The child is hiding under the bed.

First we see the process of changing location from point A (not under the bed) to point B (under the bed). Then, the dative case example indicates the static location / position of the child.

NOTE the use of the verb verstecken as optionally reflexive! Das Kind versteckt sich (the child hides himself). Basically any transitive verb may be optionally reflexive.

vor

Ich gehe vor das Haus und warte da auf dich (acc) — I’ll go in front of the house and wait for you there.
Ich warte auf dich vor dem Haus! (dat) — I’ll be waiting for you in front of the house!

Hopefully you’re feeling really solid now on the differences between when to use the accusative or dative with a two-way preposition! Do you see the location change vs. the static location?

zwischen

Wir fahren zwischen zwei kleine Bergen (acc) — We’re driving between two small mountains.
Das Dorf liegt zwischen zwei kleinen Bergen (dat) — The village is located between two small mountains.

I’m going to assume at this point that you get what’s going on here. ^^
To really see the accusative & dative contrasts, though, check out this alteration:

Wir fahren in den Tal zwischen den kleinen Bergen
(We’re driving into the valley between two small mountains.)

Do you see how in den Tal is the accusative (with the two-way preposition in) because that’s the location that’s being driving into (from point A outside of the valley to point B inside of it)?

Do you also see how zwischen den kleinen Bergen is in the dative because the valley’s location is static relative to the 2 small mountains? Cool, huh? 😀

Summary

The 10 German two-way prepositions are obviously used a lot.

When using a two-way preposition, you have to put the noun (<– that’s in the prepositional phrase) into either the accusative OR dative case dependent on if the location is static (dative) OR if there’s a change of position (accusative).

Successfully putting the noun into the right case 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 of the noun!

Main Takeaways

  1. Prepositions introduce prepositional phrases, which always include a noun(s). 
  2. Two-way prepositions require nouns either in the accusative case or in the dative case.
  3. There are 10 two-way prepositions: an, auf, hinter, in, neben, entlang, über, unter, vor, zwischen. NOTE: these are easy to remember as distinct from exclusively accusative or exclusively dative prepositions because they are all the prepositions that can be used to indicate a noun’s location.
  4. The accusative case is used when the prepositional phrase is being used to indicate a change of position (from point A to point B) for the sentence’s subject relative to the noun in the prepositional phrase.
  5. The dative case is used to indicate the static position of the sentence’s subject relative to the noun in the prepositional phrase.
  6. To correctly indicate which case you’re using in the prepositional phrase with a two-way preposition, you have to use declensions.
  7. Declensions are single letters (-m, -r, -n, -s, -e) that indicate the gender & case of nouns.
  8. 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 declension patterns.
  9. Prepositions do NOT have tidy 1-to-1 English-German translations and must be learned within authentic spoken/written German context.