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I know that when a preposition can take both accusative and dative cases and there is movement, we will ask wo/wohin to determine the case. I also know that you will use accusative when you can ask worüber.

Sie diskutieren über den Film

But what about these other situations?

Niemand steht über dem Gesetz

Neujahr fällt diesmal auf einen Montag

Both über and auf are dual prepositions. Why is dative used in the first one and accusative in the second?

Do you know of any comprehensive list of questions you can use to find out the case?

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Neujahr fällt wohin, fällt auf wen? Es fällt auf einen Montag. ->Akkusativ –  alk Aug 24 '13 at 18:40
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The local reading of the preposition does its job for more verbs than one would think at first. Some of your examples illustrate that:

Weihnachten fällt auf....

It is falling and lands on one day, thus "movement" thus Accusative.

Niemand steht über dem Gesetz.

No one stands above the law. Standing is a pretty stationary action so there is semantically no movement involved in what dimension whatsoever, thus Dative.

Sure, there are examples where it is arguable. For those cases, Accusative is usually the more likely pick since the Dative is VERY strong it its local content.

Ich spreche über dem Weltfrieden.

Ich warte auf dem Bus.

Warten for the bus is super stationary as an activity but the location is but stop and not bus. The Dative on the other hand tells us that bus is the location in which we perform the action waiting. So, it is not wrong but it is literal. Same for sprechen. It is arguable whether or not Accusative or Dative makes more sense here, but the way German native speakers understand Dative is as a literal indication of location. So the sentence with Dative would mean

I am waiting atop world peace.

Not wrong, just weird. To also talk about one example from Toschos answer:

Wir fahren über den Rhein.

There is also a version with auf and that one takes Dative to convey the same meaning

Wir fahren auf dem Rhein.

So it is kind of random but über with fahren often implies traversal über die Brücke, über die Strasse... etc... auf on the contrary usually takes Dative in context of generic fahren. Hence, for über the Accusative is the more normal version and a Dative would add significant meaning (that you are STATIONARY above Rhein). Same for auf. The Dative is the default and Accusative adds extra meaning (from something onto that other thing). So... here's my 3-step-program to pick the right case:

1) Check if the movement-idea makes some sense on an abstract level

if inconclusive

2) Check, what would be the more natural thing with the specific verb-preposition-combination (destination vs. fixed location)

if inconclusive

3) use Accusative

if wrong

4) make note to self with exception

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You are using to simple models, if you determine the case just by questions. And you have now found two points, where this model fails.

Worüber? is just the question word associated to the preposition über. You can use it für Accusative or Dative cases:

Worüber spricht er? Er spricht über den Weltfrieden. → Accusative (demanded by verp+preposition-combination)

Worüber liegt die Decke? Sie liegt über dem Bett. → Dative

Worüber fahren wir gerade? Wir fahren gerade über den Rhein. → Accusative (generic)

You should also differentiate between generic prepositions and verb+preposition-combinations:

  • über and auf as generic prepositions are both dual. The demanded case depends on whether the current status or a movement/change of status is meant. For generic prepositions, the question words wo and wohin can help well in determining the case.
  • über and auf also build verb+preposition combinations: über etwas diskutieren and auf etwas fallen. These combinations all demand specific cases, so there is no duality. The question words wo and wohin maybe hint at the demanded case, but as these combinations have in general no actual locality/movement meaning, you can't generically know, which answer is correct.

So, the comprehensive list is very short: wo,wohin. All other question words just associate to the respective prepositions.

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