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The two-way prepositions are all the prepositions that can take both the accusative and dative case. When they are used together with a verb indicating movement there is a simple rule for figuring out the case. (See for example the German part of about.com for an explanation.) But I have problems figuring out which case I am supposed to use when the verbs are more abstract.

Lots of examples:

  • an etwas [akk] denken
  • an etwas [dat] zweifeln
  • an etwas [dat] teilnehmen
  • an etwas [dat] leiden
  • an etwas [dat] arbeiten

  • sich auf etwas [akk] konzentrieren

  • sich auf etwas [akk] freuen
  • auf etwas [akk] ankommen
  • auf etwas [akk] achten
  • auf etwas [akk] warten
  • auf etwas [akk] bestehen (means "to demand")
  • auf etwas [dat] bestehen (means "to insist on")

  • sich in jdm [dat] täuschen

  • sich in jdn [akk] verlieben

Is there a system or law governing what case to use for two-way prepositions with non-movement verbs? Or must they all be learned by rote?

If you have an example which you think further enlightens the problem, please add it in a comment, and I will append it to the list of examples.

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2 Answers 2

It is a widespread misconception that you use the accusative in the case of movement and else the dative. For example you can say "er läuft in dem Park" although motion is definitely present. The phrase means he is running inside the park, as opposed to "er läuft in den Park hinein" which means he is not in the park but is running into it. So the operational concept here is direction.

Even with that caveat there are many cases where the rule is (or seems to be) violated:

Er steigt im Hotel ab.
Das Pferd ist an den Baum gebunden.
Er verschwand im Nebel.
Er stand da, in seinen Mantel gewickelt.

In the figured, abstract or metaphorical sense, things are even more complicated:

Es waren an die fünfzig Gäste anwesend
Auf jeden Fall
Auf die Dauer wird es schon gut gehen
Sein Referat war über alle Erwartungen gut
Ein Vortrag über die Cohomologie kohärenter Garben

are definitely difficult to justify by invoking direction ...

In conclusion, I think that you could worse than learn a few expressions by heart and read as much as possible …

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1  
It's "Kohomologie" in German. ;-) –  Stefan Walter Jul 22 '11 at 11:03
1  
About the movement verbs: I think the rule correctly predicts the answer for your first two examples: "Wo (not wohin) steigt er ab? Im Hotel!" and "Wo ist das Pferd gebunden? Auf der Wiese, aber an einen Baum." –  Stovner Jul 22 '11 at 12:14
    
And as for the abstract verbs: Yes, it cannot be justified by direction, and hence my question. It would be a great help for learners if there was some underlying principle here; even if it was complicated. –  Stovner Jul 22 '11 at 12:16
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@Stefan: Im Buch "Theorie der Steinschen Räume" (Springer, Grundlehren Nr. 227) schreiben die Autoren, Grauert und Remmert, Cohomologie ständig mit "C". Kapitel B, zum Beispiel, heißt "Cohomologietheorie". Obwohl "Kohomologie" auch sehr üblich is, schließe ich mich meinen Meistern an :-) –  Georges Elencwajg Jul 28 '11 at 18:20
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Background

The term for the class of verbs that are causing the OP problems are called prepositional verbs. These are verbs which take an object together with a preposition.

Example of a prepositional verb:
- Ich glaube an Gott. (Correct)
- Ich glaube Gott. (False, because the preposition is missing)

The motion verbs do not fall into this category because they do not need a preposition to specify its object.

Example of a non-prepositional verb:
- Ich binde das Pferd. (Correct, no preposition is needed)

There exist a rule for figuring out the case of non-prepositional verbs, but as the user Georges points out in his answer this rule is not so easy to apply as one might first think.

Answer

No, there are no such governing the case of prepositional verbs. According to Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Michigan you should learn the case by rote in each case.

But still, there are some tendencies which might help learners of German.

Quick'n'dirty suggestion for learners

The website www.deutsched.com notes in a grammar lesson that prepositional verbs with a two-way preposition usually take the accusative. This is true for all the two-way prepositions except vor which usually take the dative. Therefore I suggest:

When unsure about the case of a prepositional verb guess the accusative case except if the preposition is vor, then you should guess dative.

More elaborate info for more ambitious learners

The website vistawide.com go into the details of many prepositions. I simply copy-paste the parts relevant for this question. Visit the webpage for loads of good examples

An In verb + preposition idioms, the two-way preposition an is used more frequently with the dative case than with the accusative case. Most of the an + accusative phrases refer to mental processes. The preposition in an + dative idioms often means in connection with, with respect to.

Auf In verb + preposition idioms, the two-way preposition auf is almost always used with the accusative. In the few instances where auf occurs with the dative, it indicates an enduring position, a lack of movement. Auf is the most commonly used preposition in verb + preposition idioms.

In In most verb + preposition combinations, the two-way preposition in is used with the accusative.

Über In verb + preposition idioms, the two-way preposition über is always used with the accusative case. In a number of idioms, über means about.

Vor The two-way preposition vor is always used with the dative case in verb + preposition idioms. With verbs of fear and protection, it usually means of and from or against respectively.

With this one can decipher the correct case of - hopefully - almost every prepositional verb.

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