“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.