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I have noticed in German sein is not used as frequently as "to be" in English to denote where something is.

The store is on the corner

Your poster is on the wall

Where is the closest restroom?

I mostly get stehen/sein/sich befinden/etc compared to hängen and liegen.

Das Papier liegt auf dem Tisch (not ist)

Das Bild hängt an der Wand (not ist)

But I don't really get when you would use stehen, sein and sich befinden (or any other similar verb) to say where something is (the parenthetical text is my guess)

Where is the closet ATM? (Wo befindet sich der nächste Geldautomat?)

The store is on the corner (Der Laden steht an der Ecke)

The door is behind you (Die Tür ist hinter dir)

I don't really grasp if there is a difference and if so what it is.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

While sein is is the most generally applicable way to denote the location of anything, it is indeed quite common in German to be be more precise if possible.

Befinden is not more specific than sein when referring to locations, but it is a higher register in terms of formality.

Which more specific verb you can use depends a lot less on the kind of object you are referring to than on the position it is in (rule of thumb, there are exceptions):

Stehen (to stand):

  1. applies to objects resting on a roughly flat surface if their height measured perpendicularly from that surface is significant relative to its other dimensions. It applies to towers (and buildings in general), trees, flowers in a vase, furniture in a room, "Ein Buch steht im Regal" but "Ein Buch liegt auf dem Tisch" etc.

  2. to indicate that something is oriented the way it is supposed to, independently of its shape (most specifically when it is resting on some kind of legs or wheels): a bed steht somewhere, even if it is not very high, glasses on tables (unless they have toppled over), plates on tables (unless they are upside down), pans and pots on the oven etc.

  3. to indicate that some vehicle is currenly immobile (a car in a garage, a train in a station) but ships are an exception, they liegen im Wasser/Hafen/vor Anker etc.

Liegen (to lie) applies to flat or elongated objects resting on a roughly flat surface if their elevation above that plain is insignificant: paper (and pens) on a desk, cutlery on a table, [an estate/a village/a city] in a landscape, etc.

Hängen (to hang) is used if an object is either fixed to a vertical wall or suspended from above: A picture or a mirror on the wall, a towel on a hook etc.

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Nice definition of "stehen", but it totally fails with "Bett" and "Tisch" and "Couch" , "Pfanne" (steht auf dem Herd), "Teller" (steht auf dem Tisch)... there are many things that are not as high as they are wide or long and they still stehen. –  Emanuel Jul 25 at 10:17
    
Well, as always with such rules of thumb, the boundaries are blurry - what is considered insignificant varies. I'll edit a bit to highlight exceptions. –  Hulk Jul 25 at 10:27
    
yes, that covers all the important ones I'd say :) –  Emanuel Jul 25 at 11:08

Good news: you can use "sein" in all of this cases, especially when talking, and even more so as a foreigner. It is just an issue of style in written language to avoid these weak verbs ("sein", "haben") and use more specialized ones.

I have just a small problem with your choice "der Laden steht an der Ecke" (also confirmed by @hellcode). While I had no problem to use "steht" if there would be "das Haus" (the house, i. e. something touchable), using the function like "shop" appears a bit strange and "befindet sich" would be my first choice. For more flat things like the paper on the table, a plot of land or a meadow "liegen" would be more appropriate due to the horizontal orientation.

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In these cases "sein" and "sich befinden" are used to describe or ask where something is. Then you can use both words with the same meaning. "Stehen" is similar to "liegen" and "hängen". It doesn't fit to everything. You cannot say "Die Tür steht hinter dir" (unless the door is hanged out of the anchors and it just lean against the wall). But to complicate it a bit, you can say "Die Tür steht offen", but this is just because the verb is "offen stehen".

Here are my proposed translations:

Where is the closet ATM?
Wo befindet sich der nächste Geldautomat?
Wo ist der nächste Geldautomat?
Wo finde ich den nächsten Geldautomaten?

The store is on the corner.
Der Laden befindet sich im Eckhaus.
Der Laden steht an der Ecke.

The door is behind you.
Die Tür ist hinter dir.
Die Tür befindet sich hinter dir.

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1  
I would not use stehen with Laden - this sounds strange to me. Stehen can be used for buildings, but a shop is usually only part of a building. Similarly, stehen is not used for appartments. –  Hulk Jul 25 at 9:34
    
"Laden" could also be a kiosk. Then "stehen" is ok. –  hellcode Jul 25 at 11:21

Geographically, a location word that is often used is liegt (liegen). It means "lies" rather than "is"

"Kalkutta liegt am Ganges, Paris liegt an der Seine..."

If the location is unknown (originally), befinden sich (a form of "finden") is sometimes used.

Wo befindet sich eine Bank?

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