1. Objectives

In this unit you will learn how to:

  • Translate prepositions.
  • Identify and translate prepositional phrases.
  • Identify and translate reflexive pronouns and reflexive verbs.
  • Identify relationships between certain categories of nouns and their root word.
Last revised on September 10, 2014.

2. Prepositions

Almost all of the prepositions you will encounter in German are listed here with their most common meanings:

an at nach to (with place names),
after, according to
(an)statt instead of neben next to
auf up, on ohne without
aus out of, from seit since, for (with time)
außer except trotz in spite of
bei with, in the case of, at über over, about / concerning
durch through, by means of um around, at (with time)
entlang along unter under, among
für for (on behalf of) von from, of, by (means of)
gegen against, towards vor in front of / before, ago
gegenüber opposite während during
gemäß according to wegen on account of / because of
hinter behind wider against
in in zu to
mit with zwischen between


It is advisable to learn the above list of prepositions and their common meanings because, as in English, they occur frequently, and in German many of them are used in the formation of other words (for example, as verb prefixes).

Just be careful to not count on any German prepositions equating to any single English preposition. As your dictionary will show you (for both English and German!), the meanings of prepositions are very context-dependent.

Sometimes the combination of particular prepositions with certain verbs or adjectives will determine the meaning of the preposition involved, as in the idioms: denken an (to think of or about), glauben an (to believe in), stolz auf (proud of), warten auf (to wait for), or sich fürchten vor (to be afraid of).

Therefore, when consulting your dictionary for verbs and nouns generally, pay attention to how particular word + preposition combinations can determine very different directions for the meaning of the main word. For example, compare your dictionary entries for bestehen + aus vs. bestehen + auf. Dictionaries explain such prepositional combinations within the entry for the main word, not under the preposition’s own entry.

In other words, it’s often best to translate prepositions last, after you’ve analyzed the sentence structure and after understanding the surrounding context. Always start with the meaning of the entire construction, rather than how you would translate the preposition if it stood on its own, and only then express that meaning using English.

Last revised on September 12, 2016.

3. Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional Phrases

“Pre-positions,” as their name suggests, usually appear before nouns, pronouns, and sometimes adjectives. They mark the beginning of a prepositional phrase, and the corresponding noun marks the end of that phrase. Examples:

Der Junge steht hinter dem Stuhl.
The boy is standing behind the chair.

Sie fährt in die Stadt mit ihrer Freundin.
She is travelling to town with her girlfriend.

Trotz schweren Unwetters kam das Flugzeug pünktlich an.
Despite bad weather, the airplane arrived on time.

As you begin to read longer German sentences, it becomes very useful to recognize prepositional phrases and remember the absolutely reliable law that prepositional phrases are stand-alone, self-enclosed units of meaning (just as in English). All of the words enclosed between a preposition and its object (usually a noun) all belong within that phrase – and thus are not modifiers of anything outside of that phrase! Consider, for example:

Lange sinnte sie über seine frühen Gedichte in der Zeitschrift nach.

First you can easily identify über seine frühen Gedichte and in der Zeitschrift as two prepositional phrases. That leaves you with a much simpler sentence skeleton to work on: Lange sinnte sie … nach, or roughly: “For a long while she pondered ….” Next, moving your attention to the prepositional phrases, you can confidently take as an absolute law that, for example, seine frühen are words applying only to Gedichte. Even as you then add in the prepositional phrases, respect the solid work you’ve done so far on the skeleton; don’t let the addition of the prepositional phrases corrupt it. Likewise, as you add on the prepositional phrases to your skeleton, respect the integrity of the prepositional phrases. Thus: “For a long while she pondered his early poems in the journal,” or, equivalently: “She meditated for a long time on his early poems in the magazine.”

Handy tip: Sometimes the object of a preposition is a noun that itself has further genitive-case nouns modifying it. The above rule still holds: all of the genitive-case nouns tied to the actual prepositional object are still just modifiers of that object, so they also belong inside of the prepositional phrase. Example:

Hegels Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte
Object: die Philosophie, which is modified by der Geschichte
Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of history

Now play the Syntax Untangler activity with prepositional phrases to practice this skill. (Link opens in a new window.)

Word Order Exceptions

Notable exceptions to the “pre“-position placement of prepositions are – in certain situations – the prepositions entlang (along), gegenüber (opposite), gemäß (according to), and in even rarer cases nach (according to), and wegen (on account of / because of). Examples:

Er läuft die Straße entlang.
He runs along the street.

Diese Familie wohnt dem Hotel gegenüber.
This family lives opposite the hotel.

Meiner Meinung nach ist diese Aufgabe schwierig.
In my opinion this exercise is difficult.

Des Wetters wegen bleiben sie zu Hause.
Because of the weather, they are staying at home.

The reliability of prepositional phrases as inviolable units of meaning still applies in these cases, too. The boldface above demonstrates where the prepositional phrases begin and end.

Last revised on August 15, 2017.

4. Prepositional Cases


German prepositions govern different cases. That is, the phrase that follows them will be in either the accusative case, the dative case, or the genitive case. Memorizing which case each preposition governs is not critical for reading comprehension, but you should be aware that articles, pronouns, and adjectives will change form after the preposition. If you wish to know which case(s) a preposition governs, refer to your dictionary.

Rarely, you may encounter situations where case does matter for reading comprehension. The meaning of a certain group of prepositions – the so-called "two-way prepositions" (an, auf, hinter, neben, in, über, unter, vor and zwischen) – changes subtly depending on whether the accusative or dative case is used after them. If you see accusative case, then a changing condition is being described. If dative case, then a static, unchanging condition. Normally the rest of the sentence will clarify the preposition’s meaning for you, but in a few circumstances, mainly relating to physical movement or location, you may be left unsure, and you will need to consider the case as useful information. For example:

Er geht in das Haus.
He walks into the house.

Note the accusative case. Here a change is being described, from "not in the house" (before) to "in the house" (afterwards). Compare to:

Er geht in dem Haus.
He is walking, in the house.

Note the dative case. Here there is no change regarding the state of being "in the house." In English we don’t have this clarity, so you may need to take extra care to communicate this in your translation. The second sentence could also be translated as: "He is in the house, walking," or, using parentheses to acknowledge that we’re embellishing the sentence: "He walks (around) in the house."

Last revised on September 8, 2014.

5. Reflexive Pronouns

A reflexive pronoun is a reference back to the subject. In the English sentence, “I dress myself,” the reflexive pronoun is “myself.” In German, just as with other pronouns, reflexive pronouns come in a greater variety than they do in English, and they reflect the case and number of the subject.

First let’s consider a third-person example, because in this case the distinctive word sich will be the reflexive pronoun. The separable-prefix verb anziehen is a verb that – only when used reflexively – means “to dress oneself / to get dressed.” 

Er zieht sich an.
He dresses himself. / He gets dressed.

 Jeden morgen ziehen sie sich an.
Every morning they dress themselves.

Contrast this with the non-reflexive use of anziehen (to put on an article of clothing):

Er zieht die Jacke an.
He puts on the jacket.

Because the meanings of verbs can be quite different when used reflexively, it is important to recognize when pronouns are reflexive or not.

The only instantly recognizable reflexive pronoun is sich. This pronoun is used for all third-person singular and third-person plural reflexive references. English equivalents of sich are: “himself,” “herself,” “itself,” “themselves,” and “yourself” (formal only). Whereas the German reflexive pronoun for all other situations is simply the normal pronoun for that subject as you learned them in Unit 2.

For example, mich and uns are reflexive pronouns in the next two sentences, corresponding in each case to the sentence subjects ich and wir:

Ich ziehe mich an.
I get dressed.

Wir ziehen uns an.
We get dressed.

If a direct object is also present in the sentence, the reflexive pronoun will appear in the dative form instead of the accusative form. Example:

Ich kaufe mir einen Hut.
I am buying myself a hat.

Kaufst du dir morgen eine neue Armbanduhr?
Are you going to buy yourself a new watch tomorrow?

Last revised on September 8, 2014.

6. Reflexive Verbs

There are some verbs in German that are always used with a reflexive pronoun and it may not be appropriate to translate that pronoun literally. Such verbs are indicated in dictionaries with a “sich” or “v.r.,” or “refl.” which means that the verb is used with a reflexive pronoun. Familiarize yourself with how your dictionary describes these two common examples: sich + interessieren + für (to be interested in) and sich + erinnern + an (to remember).

Die Studenten interessieren sich für die Musik.
The students are interested in music.

Ich erinnere mich immer an den Geburtstag meiner Mutter.
I always remember my mother’s birthday.

Note that many German verbs are only sometimes used reflexively, and then they have slightly different meanings accordingly. One example is anziehen, as demonstrated in the preceding section. German-English dictionaries will usually give translations of the reflexive meanings separately from the non-reflexive meanings of these verbs. Watch out for abbreviations such as refl. in your dictionary, and remember in any case that the German reflexive pronoun in the sentence will often not correspond to an English word – it is instead primarily a signal that the German verb is being used reflexively.

Last revised on September 11, 2017.

7. Position of nicht and other adverbs

Like all adverbs, and as with English adverbs, nicht modifies the sentence’s main verb unless it appears within a particular phrase, such as within a prepositional phrase, a noun phrase, etc. Also, like in English, adverbs in German placed before a word or phrase are thereby given emphasis that they modify that following word or phrase. Thus you can generally rely on your English-language sensibilities to interpret the role of German adverbs.

In German we do encounter a few uses of multiple, neighboring adverbs which we aren’t familiar with in English. When you do, keep the above word-order rule in mind. This can be particularly crucial with the adverb nicht when it precedes another adverb.

Die Stadt fühlt sich nicht besonders für Radfahrer verantwortlich.
The city does not feel particularly responsible for bicyclists.

In the above example, nicht is placed to emphasize that it modifies besonders. That leaves the meaning "not particularly" as the adverbial modifier of "for bicyclists." Compare when the order of nicht and besonders is reversed, so that besonders now modifies nicht, which in turn modifies für Radfahrer:

Die Stadt fühlt sich besonders nicht für Radfahrer verantwortlich.
The city feels not responsible for bicyclists in particular.
(Literally: "especially not for bicyclists," a phrase which would be clumsy in English in the context of this whole sentence.)

In summary: Remember to first determine what an adverb is modifying, by using this word-order rule, before translating. Adverbs modify their following word or phrase, if there is one and if that’s possible. Otherwise, it modifies the main verb of the entire sentence.

Last revised on September 24, 2015.

8. Noun Formation

Word Formation

These sections of the textbook help improve your speed during the skimming phase of reading and help you gradually build vocabulary.

Knowing how words are formed is most helpful in learning vocabulary and preparing yourself to be able to determine the meaning of new vocabulary. It is very useful to know that German forms nouns from verbs, from adjectives, and from adding suffixes to other nouns and adjectives among other ways. Study the following examples of word relationships, and as you work on translating the exercises in this book, look for possible connections between words. Check your guesses in the dictionary and list related words together for purposes of learning them more quickly. Remember, these are just some examples; there are thousands of words formed in these various ways.

Noun – Verb Relationships

Related to simple verbs:

Noun Verb
das Band (string / band) binden
die Bindung (bond / binding) binden
die Fahrt (drive / ride) fahren
die Reise (journey) reisen
der Spruch (saying) sprechen

Related to verbs with prefixes:

Noun Verb
die Abfahrt (departure) abfahren
der Ausgang (exit) ausgehen
der Eingang (entrance eingehen
der Gewinn (gain / winning) gewinnen
der Niedergang (decline) niedergehen
der Übergang (crossing) übergehen
der Umgang (circuit) umgehen
der Verstand (reason) verstehen
der Widerstand (resistance) widerstehen

Noun – Adjective Relationships

Noun Adjective
die Breite (breadth) breit
die Dicke (thickness) dick
die Größe (size) groß
die Länge (length) lang
die Kälte (cold) kalt
die Röte (redness) rot

Noun Suffixes

  1. chen and –lein (diminutives, always neuter)

    Bettchen (little bed) Bett
    Städtlein (little town) Stadt
  2. er denotes “doer” or “that which does”

    These are always masculine, but can take feminine form with -in ending if appropriate (see number 4 below).

    Musiker (musician) Musik
    Tänzer (dancer) tanzen
    Zeiger (pointer / indicator) zeigen
  3. heit and –keit denotes “state of being” (always feminine)

    Abhängigkeit (dependence) abhängig
    Aufmerksamkeit (attentiveness) aufmerksam
    Freiheit (freedom) frei
    Gesundheit (health) gesund
    Schönheit (beauty) schön
  4. in denotes females

    Lehrerin (female teacher) Lehrer
    Professorin (female professor) Professor
  5. schaft denotes “relationship,” “collective state” (always feminine)

    Bruderschaft (brotherhood) Bruder
    Freundschaft (friendship Freund
    Landschaft (landscape) Land
    Wissenschaft (science) wissen
  6. tum denotes “condition”

    der Reichtum (wealth / richness) reich
    das Wachstum (growth) wachsen
  7. ung (always feminine)

    Sammlung (collection) sammeln
    Vergrößerung (enlargement) vergrößern
    Zeitung (newspaper) Zeit

The topic of word formation will continue to be covered throughout later units to help you both with building vocabulary and with quickly guessing the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Last revised on July 12, 2016.