German grammar series: Wechselpräpositionen (two-way prepositions)

A simple guide to German two-way prepositions or Wechselpräpositionen auf, voe, unter, hinter, an, in and others.

Sherzod Gafar
December 21, 2021
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German grammar series: Wechselpräpositionen (two-way prepositions)

German two-way prepositions or Wechselpräpositionen can be quite tricky unless you know the rules and shortcuts to using them correctly. What makes them tricky is that they require a different case depending on the context. That means that quite often you have to use a different article for the same prepositions.

Here is a short teaser. In English, we say that we are putting a mug on the table and if it's already there, then we say that, well, it's on the table. No change in how we use the preposition. In German that's not the case, of course 😅. Although the preposition would be 'auf' in both examples, the case would be different. We'll get back to this example in a bit.

These nine naughty prepositions are:

  • auf (on top of)
  • unter (under)
  • über (over)
  • vor (in front of)
  • hinter (behind)
  • neben (next to)
  • zwischen (inbetween)
  • in (in)
  • an (at)
Nine German prepositions that take a different case depending on the context and situation

These nine prepositions are called “Wechselpräpositionen” (lit. changing prepositions) because they can attract the Akkusativ (direct object) or the Dativ (indirect object) depending on the situation.

But when do we need which case? Let’s take a look!

Ich stelle die Tasse auf den Tisch. — I am putting my mug down on the table.
Die Tasse steht auf dem Tisch. — The mug is on the table.

Wechselpräpositionen explanation

What is the difference between these two sentences? Take a guess?

It is the movement - or the lack thereof!

In the first sentence my mug is in motion since I am putting it down on the table. In the second sentence my mug is not moving. It is standing still on top of the table. The rule is thus as follows:

Wechselpräpositionen in German take a different case depending if the object is in motion or not

Let’s take a look at a few more examples:

Das Lama geht ins (in das) Café.  – The llama walks into the coffee shop.

Es wartet jetzt im Café. – It is waiting now in the coffee shop.

Ich hänge das Foto meines Lieblingslamas an die Wand. — I am hanging the picture of my favourite llama on the wall.

Das Foto meines Lieblingslamas hängt an der Wand. — The picture of my favourite llama is hanging on the wall

funny Llama
Some Llama

Watch out for these special German Verbs

You might have noticed that there are some words, which are exclusive to the Akkusativ or the Dativ. They are good to know, just in case you have trouble deciding which case to use:

Verbs that always take Akkusativ Verbs that always take Dativ
stellen (to put down) stehen (to stand)
legen (to put down/ to lie down) liegen (to lie or stand)
setzen (to put down / to sit down) sitzen (to sit)

Practice time

You would like to practice? Ja, aber natürlich! Here are some of our favorite exercises:

Grammatik: wo / wohin on

Grammatikübung - Wechselpräpositionen on