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Prepositions like an, auf, zwischen, vor and others can be used in a double sense: if you need to convey the idea of movement you need to use the accusative case along with them, while if the person/object stays still you use the dative.

But what happens if you have a composite complement (one which is built using more than a single piece)? For instance, let's say that you want to translate:

The children are walking in the street in front of the house

I'd like to know which case is correct for "in front of the house": the children move in the street, so for this part of the sentence you'd use the accusative case, but what about the second part, where no idea of movement is directly implied? I then have two proposals:

  1. Die Kinder gehen in die Straße vor das Haus (double accusative)

  2. Die Kinder gehen in die Straße vor dem Haus (accusative and dative)

EDIT: the comments below outline all the possible cases. In this particular case, since the children are (and move) in the street, and this street is in front of the house, then the sentence number 2 is correct, as in case (6) in Eugene Seidel's comments.

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Perhaps I'm not understanding your question correctly, but could you pick a different example? The problem I have is that the Enlish and German seems to clash somehow: In English it sounds as though you're just talking about a house in a particular street. In German the focus seems to be on the street in front of a particular house. The thing is that I can't get a clear picture on what is actually happening. Also, "street" is notoriously difficult in this context, since usage is rather different from the English. –  Mac Jul 16 '13 at 7:56
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That depends :) The problem is that the English complement seems to refer to a certain house in a particular street and the children are walking up and down in front of it - but from the rest of the question I get the impression that what you want to say is that they're walking in that particular street to get to this house. "In die Straße" in German means they're entering the street or are on their way to it. As I said, I think you'll be better served with a different example that does not have a street in it :) –  Mac Jul 16 '13 at 9:22
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A sentence like, "The kids are walking in front of the fast food place on Main Street" might make sense if, for example, you had been asked as to their momentary whereabouts and you had a GPS tracker or a roomful of surveillance video that enabled you to give a precise answer instantly. But not really, as we would say "walking up and down in front of" (h/t Mac) or "walking past", not "walking in front of". So I would join Mac's plea for a different English sentence to serve as the starting point. –  Eugene Seidel Jul 16 '13 at 9:55
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So, going out on a limb LOL: (1) "The kids are going out to play in the street in front of the house." Die Kinder gehen gerade raus, um auf der Straße vor dem Haus zu spielen (2x dative). (2) "The kids are going to the street in front of the house to play." Die Kinder gehen zum Spielen auf die Straße vor das Haus (2x acc.). (3) "The kids are walking up and down in front of the house." Die Kinder gehen vor dem Haus auf und ab (dat.) (4) "The kids are walking past the house." Die Kinder gehen am Haus vorbei (dat.) (5) "The kids are going into the house." Die K. gehen ins Haus (accus.) –  Eugene Seidel Jul 16 '13 at 10:19
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[cont'd] (6) "The kids are going into the house on Park Street." Die Kinder gehen ins Haus auf der Parkstraße (accusative then dative.) (7) "The kids are going into the street in front of the house." Die Kinder gehen auf die Straße vor dem Haus (acc. then dative) (8) "The kids are playing in the street in front of the house." Die Kinder spielen auf der Straße vor dem Haus (2x dative, see also example (1) above.) HTH –  Eugene Seidel Jul 16 '13 at 10:22
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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Okay, much clearer now :)

The children are walking in the street in front of the house.

In German you can only use "in" in connection with streets if you're actually referring to the row(s) of buildings in it - where you would use "on" in English. (He lives on Baker Street - Er wohnt in der Baker Street)

Literally, you'd probably translate your sentence to:

Die Kinder gehen auf der Straße vor dem Haus.

Note, however, that for many Germans this will sound as though you're trying to emphasise the fact that they're walking on the pavement/blacktop as opposed to the sidewalk or something.

The most common expression to say what you want to say is:

Die Kinder gehen die Straße vor dem Haus entlang. (The children are walking along the street in front of the House.)


One logical thing: The children are of course moving in a way when they're walking in the street, BUT grammatically they are stationary: no matter at which point of their walk you observe them, they're still walking in the same street. You could say that their situation is static. So in German you need the dative here. The accusative denotes movement in the sense that the situation of the subject is different before/after the action of the verb.

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Honestly, one thing is still not clear to me. Are the kids walking on the street in front of the house and not on the street behind the house or do the kids walking on the street directly in front of the house? In your both versions it's clearly the street in front of and not behind the house, but I'm assuming this is not what OP and you intend to say. –  Em1 Jul 16 '13 at 12:13
    
@Em1: Hmm, you're right - it could be both: depending on the emphasis while saying this sentence, the speaker could put the focus on the position of the street or of the children, both relative to the house... But this wouldn't have an effect on the German casus - the difference would be expressed with insertion of "direkt" and reversed word order, wouldn't it? –  Mac Jul 16 '13 at 12:31
    
@Em1 As for me, I meant the first one of your options. –  martina Jul 16 '13 at 12:36
    
@martina Then Mac's sentence is absolutely fine. –  Em1 Jul 16 '13 at 12:48
    
@Mac Yes, you need to recast the sentence to express the other idea. It's just what I understood from OP's question in the first place. –  Em1 Jul 16 '13 at 12:49
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The key thing to understand is that it doesn't matter whether there is movement involved or not. What matters is the question the particular prepositional phrase is answering. When you talk about location there are 3 possible options:

  • destination
  • current location
  • origin

So the part with the preposition can be the answer to one of the following three questions:

  • where to? (wohin)
  • where? (wo)
  • from where? (von wo/woher)

This is universally true and has nothing to do with German in particular. However, German is very,very precise when it comes to marking things. Roman languages always mark the three possibilities by using different prepositions. English sometimes marks and sometimes it doesn't. German always marks. But there are different kinds of marks. Sometimes the mark is a preposition (nach), sometimes it is the adverb (hin) and for the two way prepositions, the case is the mark. So if your prepositional phrase answers the question wo? then you use Dative. If it answers wohin? then you need accusative. You can walk at a place or to a place, so movement is not the point. Just think of what you are trying to express. It'll be:

"in die Strasse"

if the kids are somewhere else and Strasse is where they're headed. It'll be:

"in der Strasse"

if they're already there and they're just walking. So bottom line... forget the whole movement thing! And burn all books that say that! It doesn't matter. Just analyze what question you're answering (wo/wohin) and the journey is save.

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Fix your typos and I'll give you the +1 :) –  Eugene Seidel Jul 16 '13 at 15:18
    
You're right!!!... I should pay more attention. I am an awful awful fire and forget guy :). Got to go now but I'll fix this later –  Emanuel Jul 16 '13 at 15:20
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Prepostitions do matter here. See also this related question:

But not only the preposition but also the case determines the meaning, which can be nicely shown in variations to the example you gave:

Let us look at the first part:

Die Kinder gehen in die Straße (acc.) - The children enter the street
Die Kinder gehen auf der Straße (dat.) - The children walk in the street
Die Kinder gehen auf die Straße (acc) - The children go out (on the street)
Die Kinder gehen zu der Straße (dat.) - The children go to the street
Die Kinder gehen an die Straße (acc.) - The children approach the street
Die Kinder gehen an der Straße (dat.) - The children walk at the street
[...]

Now for the second part:

vor das Haus (acc.) - to the front of the house
vor dem Haus (dat.) - in front of the house
zu dem Haus (dat.) - to the house
an dem Haus (dat.) - at the house an das Haus (acc.) - to the house
neben dem Haus (dat.) - by the house
neben das Haus (acc.) - next to the house [...]

The case here also depends on the object we want it to relate to. Accusative relates to the children walking (resp. going) and dative is related to the location of the street.

As we do not have a gerund in German we may express this by adding e.g. "gerade":

Die Kinder gehen gerade die Straße vor dem Haus entlang.

"entlang gehen" (acc. - "to walk along") is just another alternative here

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Ich biete ein "in der Straße". –  user unknown Jul 16 '13 at 23:29
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I think your problem of double prepositions is very interesting, and it has bothered me for ages.

The grammar books I have consulted don't mention this subtle difficulty, but from my readings of German language literature I would tend to think that germanophones write

Ich setze mich auf den Stuhl neben der Couch

and

Er legte sich auf das Bett an der Wand.

The logic seems to be that I move in the direction of the bed, hence the accusative, but that the bed doesn't move toward the wall, hence the dative.

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Er legte sich auf das Bett an die Wand is also possible. It describes his position within the only bed present (namely, he is close to the wall). Your sentence, on the other hand, tells us which of several beds he chose (the one close to the wall). –  chirlu Jul 16 '13 at 17:30
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Dear chirlu, yes, I quite agree with you. It is a pleasant feature of German that it allows such very nuanced variations in meaning by the judicious choice of the case after a preposition. –  Georges Elencwajg Jul 16 '13 at 17:38
    
This is simply wonderful! I've never considered such linguistic variations obtained through the use of preposition+case. Thank you. I guess I'll have a hard time mastering the skill of using double prepositions to convey every particular meaning! –  martina Jul 16 '13 at 18:39
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