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I'm a little confused with the preposition contraction ins. As far as I know, it means in das, but I don't understand why it is used in this sentence:

Sie fahren ins Theater.

It feels like the literal translation of that sentence is "They're driving in the theater" or something...


Questions:

  • Please correct me if I'm wrong: The word Theater is neutral gender; and in the quoted sentence above is in dative case; therefore, its article should be dem.

  • Assuming I'm right, would it be incorrect to use zu dem/zum to say the following?

    Sie fahren zum Theater.

  • In what other situations should i use ins when I mean to in English? I know the difference between "ins Kino" and "zum Kino", but that makes sense. Are there any special cases that aren't as straight forward and need memorizing?

  • And finally, my main concern: if the following sentence has exactly the same structure as the one above, Why do we use zum in this sentence, but not the one with Theater?

    Sie fahren zum Hotel.

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1  
First, ins is no preposition: in is a preposition, and ins is the contraction, as you pointed out, of in das. Secondly, your second assumption is wrong: in goes with Akkusativ, since fahren is a verb implying movement. –  c.p. Sep 17 '13 at 0:09
    
@c.p. thanks for clarifying that. But in that case, why don't we say "Sie fahren in die Arbeit" or "Ich gehe in die Schule"? Why do we use use zur in some scenarios but not in others? –  Oleksiy Sep 17 '13 at 0:39
    
@c.p. Also, following your explanation, why don't we say "Ich gehe ins Hotel" instead of "Ich gehe zum Hotel"? Sorry I don't doubt that you're right, I just need more explanation –  Oleksiy Sep 17 '13 at 0:46
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@Oleskiy, I'd like to answer your question, but I'm not sure why. My guess is that both are ok, but honestly, if I really knew the answer, I'd have written it as an answer properly. So I just wrote as a comment what I was sure about. –  c.p. Sep 17 '13 at 1:24
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None is an exception and both are normal way. You say both "Ich fahre ins Hotel/Theater" and "Ich fahre zum Hotel/Theater". There's just a sublte difference in meaning. "Ich bin müde. Ich fahre jetzt ins Hotel." vs "Meine Freundin hat im Hotel übernachtet. Ich fahre jetzt zum Hotel und hole sie ab." –  Em1 Sep 17 '13 at 11:07
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2 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Sie fahren ins Theater.

Two issues:
Fahren: to drive, but also to go

Ins - in das - means that the destination is inside the theatre. Accusative is directional - going there.

The combination of fahren and in is a bit confusing, but completely understandable.

Sie fahren in dem Theater.

This one uses dative - stationary. They are driving in the theatre.

Sie fahren zum Theater.

In this case, they are driving/going to the theatre, but do not necessarily go in. The destination is not inside. Many time, it is the implied destination, but the sentence could go on with: Dann steigen sie um und fahren über die Brücke. Or: Dann biegen sie rechts ab und kommen zur Autobahnauffahrt.

The use is the same with Kino, Hotel etc.

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When you say "fahren == to go" and you mean this in sense of "to travel", then please say this so. Otherwise it could be misleading and I had to strongly disagree. –  Em1 Sep 17 '13 at 7:51
    
Und warum sagt man ich gehe zu Kaufland und nicht ins? –  c.p. Sep 17 '13 at 9:44
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@c.p. eigenname. siehe "ich gehe zu XY", even though I personally would use "zum" –  Vogel612 Sep 17 '13 at 10:17
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@Vogel612: Eigenname alone doesn't explain it. Take a café called "Sieben". If there is just one bar with that name people would use "ins" and not "zu" unless they wanne stress the "not inside" idea. Only if something has more than one venue, it becomes an Eigenname because if you said "in" the location wouldn't be specified anymore... "in which one". As soon as you specify the exact outlet "in" becomes preferable again "Ich bin im Aldi am Alex" because now the building is in focus as opposed to the abstract brand. –  Emanuel Sep 17 '13 at 11:53
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There are 2 questions one has to answer to determine the preposition or contraction in context of an information about place.

Of what kind is the location?

Is it an origin, a destination or a fixed location or in other words:

Are we talking about "to which location?" or about "at which location?"

A)

There are 3 main groups of locations.

  1. Countries/regions/cities/districts that DON'T have an article (e.g. that are neuter
  2. locations that we enter (and countries that are female or masculine)... this is the biggest group
  3. "locations" that we don't enter... that are first and foremost persons but also brand-names like Burger King. But also places that we can enter can be used this way.

Then, there are some side groups like locations adverbs (4. rechts, links, etc), a fair number of exceptions (zuhause/Hause, Arbeit) and a fair number of locations that have their own system or work with various prepositions depending on what exactly you want to say (Markt, Meer, Strasse, Platz,...)

Each of the groups comes with it's own set of prepositions, one for each type of location. Sometimes 2 types of location share the same preposition. Then (and ONLY THEN) the case will tell us whether the location is an answer to "at what place?" or "to what place"

  1. aus Berlin, in Berlin, nach Berlin
  2. aus dem Kino , in dem Kino (Dat.), in das Kino (Acc.)... those are then often contracted
  3. von dir, bei dir, zu dir
  4. von links, links, nach links

With this we can now analyze the sentence in question. It is in because we usually can enter a theater and it is s because we are talking about "to what location?". We could also say

Wir fahren zum Theater.

But now the result will be that we're at the theater, not inside of it. Maybe to pick someone up. With hotel it is a little less literal. It just happened to be that way that people use "zum Hotel fahren" and "ins Theater".

Schule is even more extreme. It iss used with in and with zu and there is no real logic when to use which. It is just language in use... same as in English by the way

Sie geht noch zur Schule. (she is still in school) Sie nicht gern in die Schule (she doesn't like going to school)

So... there are roughly 4 groups and there is a semantical difference between 2 of them (2 and 3). But you will always see exceptions, other combinations and situation where either one works.

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