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Is there a rule for choosing between the prepositions zu, in, bei, nach, an for a special place or does one have to memorize all of them?

For example:

Beim Arzt
An den See
Nach Berlin
Zur Bäckerei
Ins Büro

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Some of your examples are interchangeable: Zum See / also beim Arzt defines where you are, while the others define where you are going to. –  Hinek Sep 19 '11 at 7:51
    
@Hinek: The problem comes from all prepositions have the meaning of "to". –  user508 Sep 19 '11 at 7:55
    
I'd translate Beim Arzt with At the doctor, not to the doctor ... well, unless you say "Ich schau dann mal beim Arzt vorbei" –  Hinek Sep 19 '11 at 8:49
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I've found that "an, auf, bis, in, nach, vor, zu, hin und her" are German prepositions that can mean "to" as well. –  user508 Sep 19 '11 at 9:57
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@Gigili What is the bounty good for, Eldros is telling you most rules in his answer. There is no strict rule in form of a law. –  feeela Sep 23 '11 at 9:57

3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted
+50

First, one should note that bei is in general not used with verbs such like gehen, kommen or other words which would express an idea of movement. One would say:

Ich bin beim Arzt.

but:

Ich gehe zum Arzt.

Now for a few guidelines about the other prepositions:

Nach is used when you go to a city, a country, or any other named inhabited settlement of region.

Wir haben uns entschieden, nach Frankreich zu fahren.

Zu is when your destination is a building.

Ich muss für dich zum Rathaus gehen, damit du dein Zertifikat endlich hast.

In is used when the idea to be in the place is important. A few examples, from the top of my head: "ins Meer", because you will swim in it, "ins Kino" because you want to watch a film in it, "ins Büro/ins Geschäft" because you go there to work. Note that the use of in and zu are very similar, and you nearly have to memorize which preposition to use in each case.

The use of an is quite difficult to define. I would say the most common use is when you want to go to some kind of border. 'See' and 'Küste' can be understood in this case as a border between land and water. This can be used naturally in the case you go there, but also when you are there.

An der Nordseeküste, am plattdeutschen Strand, ...

The other case I found is a figurative one:

An die Arbeit gehen : to get to work, to go down to business

To sum it up, those are guidelines, and unfortunately, in most of the cases, knowing which preposition to use gets only easier with how familiar you are with the language.

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I think that there is more to add, but I wanted to throw those few leads I had. –  Eldros Sep 19 '11 at 8:43
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"The use of an […] when you want to go to some kind of border." I try to explain a little differently: "an" can has the meaning of going to a point that's just nearby the referred place, not the place exactly. The different meaning of "An die Arbeit gehen." becomes explicit, if you change the word order: "die Arbeit angehen" – meaning "to go about doing sth."/"to approach". "Zu is when your goal is a building." …or a person (Ich gehe zu Laura). –  feeela Sep 19 '11 at 19:24
    
@feeela: feel free to propose an edit with this additional information. –  Eldros Sep 20 '11 at 4:21
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Would the person who downvoted me, tell me why? / Kann die Person, die mir ein "Minuspunkte" gegeben hat, mir sagen warum? –  Eldros Sep 22 '11 at 12:56

rough short rule...

location can be entered/has an entrance, masc. and fem. countries:

wohin - in + acc , wo - in + dat. , woher - aus

location cannot be entered, usually persons ALSO brand names like MC Donalds:

wohin - zu , wo - bei , woher - von

countries (neuter) , cities etc:

wohin - nach, wo - in, woher - aus

There are many examples that don't fit here like Markt (auf, zu) or Meer (an, zu). But chosing by the above stated rules your outcome will be at least second best.

Big exception:

nach Hause, zu Hause, von Zuhause

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I write the following without any formal knowledge of language, but German is my mother tongue.

I will try to give you some examples how they could be used.

Many terms like "in das" have abbreviations. These abbreviations are rather used than to spell it out. Especially in spoken language, but I would also say in written language.

in, im = in dem, ins = in das

You're currently inside of something:
  - Ich bin im Haus
  - Ich bin in der Universität.
  - Ich bin im Tunnel.
  - Ich gehe im Kreis. (Activity-related, not position-related)

But with some exceptions:
  - Ich bin auf dem Campus (der Universität).

Similar, you will say:

  - Ich gehe ins Haus.
  - Ich fahre in den Tunnel

bei, beim

When you're with a person
  - Ich bin bei meinem Freund.
  - Ich war beim Arzt.
When you're currently doing something (slang):
  - Ich bin beim lernen.

nach

You're currently in place A, but you want to get to B:
   - Ich fahre nach Paris (bin aber gerade in London).

an, am

I don't see a rule here:
- Ich bin an der Uni (eingeschrieben; momentan auf dem Campus)
- Meine Zunge klebt an der Laterne

zu, zum = zu dem

Similar to "nach", but "nach" is rather used for cities while "zu" is 
rather used for ... well, I think the rest

- Ich fahre zu meinem Freund.
- Ich fahre zum See.
- Ich gehe zum Reiten (or better: Ich gehe reiten.)
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