Prepositions – small, important and cruel words for the language learner

A pictorial representation of many German prepositions



Prepositions are often utterly unpredictable. It is difficult to discern any clear rules for their use. When you learn them as a child they don’t give you too much trouble, but even the most proficient speaker of English as a second or third language is sometimes tripped up by our prepositions. The same goes for foreign speakers of German.

If you think I’m exaggerating about English prepositions, consider a few instances that bear me out:

Illustrative examples:

  • I’m disappointed with my test result yet I’m sad about my test result.
  • I’m capable of doing that yet I have the capacity to do that.
  • I’m angry with my friend yet I’m angry about what he did.
  • You can sit on a train or bus and still be inside it, yet if you sit on a car, you’re outside it. Therefore we can travel on a train or bus but we must travel in a car. That is, unless we want to die.
  • You can hold something for someone, hold something against someone or hold something over someone. In each case the addition of the preposition to the verb changes its meaning.
  • You can be a member of a group, but you play in a group and you belong to a group.
Die Frauen stehen vor dem Fenster.
The women are standing in front of the window.

I could go on… As you can see from these examples, prepositions are often capricious little words, but they are essential for showing relationships between people, things and events. They are also some of the most common words in any language.

That’s why as a foreign language learner you have to tackle them with a certain dour resolution. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Don’t let those pesky little words beat you.

Here are just a few examples of the usage of prepositions in German that would sound odd to an English speaker:

  • Ich bin stolz auf dich. – I am proud of you. (literally of you)
  • The phrase „am Himmel“ means „in the sky“; the phrase „im Himmel“ means „in heaven“.
  • Something is „auf dem Bild“ or „auf dem Foto“, literally „on the picture“ or „on the photo“ – not „in the picture“ or „in the photo“, as English speakers would say.
  • One goes somewhere „mit dem Zug“ or „mit dem Fahrrad“ (literally with the train or bike) not by train or by bike.
  • Something is „an der Wand“ (literally at the wall), not „on the wall“.  
  • Something is „auf der Welt“ (literally „on the world“) not „in the world“, as we would say.

The little multiple choice quiz below  will show you pictures of cats, deer, children and other living or inanimate objects that are situated in the physical world. Choose the description that matches the picture. If you need help with the vocabulary, click on the „Help“ light globe on the top left of the quiz screen.

You can learn a few German prepositions as you complete this quiz or practise using them if you know them already. Most of the quiz items are straightforward.

Prepositions in the quiz below, with samples of usage:

  • auf – on – e.g. Die Katze sitzt auf dem Schreibtisch. – The cat’s sitting on the desk.
  • an – at, also can have the meaning of to or on (an + dem = am) – Jemand ist an der Tür. – Someone is at the door.
  • zwischen – between – Ich sitze zwischen meinem Vater und meiner Mutter. Der Mathelehrer sitzt vor mir, hinter seinem Schreibtisch. Elternsprechtage sind furchtbar. – I am sitting between my father and my mother. The Maths teacher is sitting in front of me, behind his desk. Parent-teacher days are awful.
  • vor – in front of – Wir treffen uns vor dem Eingang, ja? – We’ll meet in front of the entrance, OK?
  • über – over, above – Sie wohnt in der Wohnung über uns. – She lives in the apartment above us.
  • unter – under – Mein Handy war unter meinem Bett. Kein Wunder, dass ich es nicht finden konnte. – My mobile was under my bed. No wonder that I couldn’t find it.
  • neben – beside – Neben meinem Bett habe ich viele Bücher, denn ich lese immer gern. Ich bin wirklich eine Leseratte. – Beside my bed I have a lot of books, because I love reading. I’m a real bookworm.
  • in – in (in + dem = im) – Meine Schuhe sind im Kleiderschrank. My shoes are in the wardrobe.
  • hinter – behind – Hinter unserem Haus gibt es einen kleinen Garten. – Behind our house there’s a little garden.

Click here to complete the quiz on the whole screen.


Below are two items to help you become familiar with German prepositions – first a video with many cats in all sorts of positions. Andrea Thionvillethe clever woman who made this video, clearly had cats like my cat in the quiz above. I love her work! Click on her name above to see more of her videos.

Easy Languages has also made this helpful video with students from Münster Schillergymnasium on prepositions in and around the city of Münster.

Easy Languages has a wide range of videos on a number of languages to help you see how languages are spoken everyday on the street.


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