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The Puzzle of the German Prepositions and Cases

German prepositions and cases can be tricky sometimes, and my 7 year old son is evidence of that. We were riding in the car recently and suddenly he asked me: Mommy, why do we say “in der Fahrspur “and then “in die Fahrspur”?

Great question!

In fact, the only difference we can see in German is in the article. For example:

Ich fahre in der Fahrspur.

Ich fahre in die Fahrspur.

As a language learner, this is important to know because this tiny switch in the article changes the meaning of the entire sentence.

Ich fahre in der Fahrspur. I am driving in this lane.  –>  Dative (Expresses a location)

Ich fahre in die Fahrspur. I am driving into this lane. –> Accusative (Expresses a Direction)

With the English translation you can see the difference clearly in this example.

Let me give you an even more drastic example related to the change in meaning:

Ich fahre in dem Auto.  I am driving in the car. –> Dative (Expresses a location)

Ich fahre in das Auto. I am driving into the car. (Ouch!) –> Accusative (Expresses a Direction)

In das Auto Fahren

In das Auto Fahren

You see in this case how important it can be to use the correct German case and article.

There are many more German verbs that can express both – location as well as direction.

gehen – to go

fliegen – to fly

hüpfen – to hop

springen – to jump

schweben – to float, hover

rollen – to roll

rennen – to run

laufen – to walk

and many more…

All of these verbs express some kind of movement. The movement can happen in a particular spot = location. The person or thing doesn’t change the location, even though he/she/it moves.

The movement can also happen into a direction. In this case, a change of location happens.

There are two English prepositions that express that well: across and above

The bird flies above the town. Der Vogel fliegt über der Stadt. –> Dative (Expresses a location)

The bird flies across the town. Der Vogel fliegt über die Stadt. –> Accusative (Expresses a Direction)

You see, in English a different preposition is used to express location vs. direction. In German, the change in case (Dative vs. Accusative) expresses the difference in meaning.

There are 9 German prepositions: an, in, über, hinter, unter, vor, auf, neben, zwischen that can be used for both – expressing a location (Dative) and direction (Accusative). They are also called dual prepositions or two-way prepositions.

As you can tell already in some cases only the case of the article determines whether one or the other is being expressed.

Recently I read a discussion about how important grammar is in language. This proves the point that grammar can be extremely important in expressing meaning in a language. The German cases and prepositions can make that much difference.

Let’s step it up a notch. Even trickier in these examples:

Er läuft hinter dem Haus. He is walking behind the house. Dative –> Expresses a location

Er läuft hinter das Haus.  He is walking behind the house. Accusative –> Expresses a Direction

Der Hund rennt vor dem Auto. The dog is running in front of the car. Dative –> Expresses a location 

Der Hund rennt vor das Auto. The dog is running in front of the car. Accusative –> Expresses a Direction 

Dog Tired After Running

Dog Tired After Running

For the Germans among us these two examples won’t pose a problem.

But how about the language learners among us? Can you figure out how the meaning changes in these two examples and what the two cases in each one of the above examples exactly express?

Feel  free to give me your take on it in the comment section…

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  • Wil Ferch May 19, 2010, 10:26 AM

    I am a German-Americsn born in USA to German parents. As such we spoke German in the home as I was growing up but after a while it was common for me to speak English to my parents when they contiunued to speak German to me. After all this time (I am now an adult and my parents have long since passed-on)… I find a need to speak German in my business. I find pronounciation and 90% accuracy of my word structure not to be a problem….but the “article” aspect you bring up is a constant irritation to get right after such a long time not practicing my second language.

    Here is another example and it’s not just the German aspect..it applies to most Europeans when forced to speak Englich. I’ve been told in a teleconference from a business partner that long awaited information he was looking for ….”was not received until today”. For Americans…this means he finally got it today after a long wait. However, his intended meaning was that EVEN THROUGH TODAY, he has STILL NOT received the information. We must have our ears tuned for just such nuances that completely alter the meaning of sentences, much as you describe.

    • German Coach May 19, 2010, 11:00 AM


      Thank you for your comment. I am glad you are bringing this up. There are a lot of those little nuances between English and German which can lead to misunderstandings. I’ll try to pick up more of those on my future blog posts.
      This is where the typical online programs fall short and only interaction with native speakers or spending time in that country really helps.
      Thank you again.

  • enquibeendure June 6, 2010, 5:10 PM

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  • Soll ich studieren January 4, 2011, 7:54 PM

    Guter Artikel, es fehlen nur Fotos! 🙂