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  1. Wir gingen bis an den Rand des Abgrunds. Can I delete an in this sentence? In German usually two prepositions stay together, which makes it a bit hard for me to understand.

  2. Bis auf den Kapitän wurden alle gerettet. Can I delete auf?

  • "In German usually two prepositions stay together" - that isn't true. The phenomenon is specific to "bis", which isn't originally a true preposition; it is comparable to "all the way to the station". It's possible to delete the following preposition in some cases: "bis nach Frankfurt" -> "bis Frankfurt", and this gives the impression that "bis" was itself a preposition, but it's really more of an adverb in use. – Kilian Foth Dec 13 '14 at 9:44
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(1) You cannot remove the an in sentence number 1, because it implies that you went up to the edge of the abyss. You can also say :

Wir gingen bis zum Rand Abgrunds.

(2) Again, it is a "no" because if you remove the auf, the sentence will not make sense. The sentence is correct the way it is. There is another way to say it and it is :

Außer dem Kapitän wurden alle gerettet.

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1

You can not delete "an" but you can delete "bis":

Wir gingen bis an den Rand des Abgrunds.
Wir gingen an den Rand des Abgrunds.

Both sentences have the same meaning.

The term "an den Rand des Abgrunds" expresses a movement towards a target, which means, that it is the answer to the question "wohin?" ("where to?"). Many languages (among them Hungarian) have a special case for this, which is named "allativ", but germanic languages (like English or German) don't have an allativ. Those languages use a modification of akkusativ to express a movement towards a target.

In English the correct answer to the question "where to" is not "the edge of the abyss". The correct answer ist "to the edge of the abyss".

Same in German: The answer to the question "wohin" is neither "der Rand des Abgrunds" nor "den Rand des Abgrunds". It is: "an den Rand des Abgrunds".

the word "bis" forces the allativ-like construction. If you omit "bis" this type of construction is one of many possible ways to continue the sentence:

Wir gingen bis (wohin) zum grünen Haus

Wir gingen (wie) sehr schnell
Wir gingen (warum) weil wir nicht fahren wollten
Wir gingen (wie lange) schon 7 Stunden lang
Wir gingen (wohin) zum grünen Haus

2

No, you can't omit "auf" because "bis auf" has a different meaning that has not much to do with the meaning of "bis" without "auf":

bis = to, until, up to, till, by
bis auf = except for

So, "bis auf" + Akkusativ has the same meaning as "außer" + Dativ

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  • "Wir gingen an den Rand" and "wir gingen bis an den Rand" don't have the same meaning. "Bis" makes the brink of the abyss the focus of attention: "Wir gingen bis an den Rand des Abgrunds, obwohl uns alle Einheimischen davor gewarnt hatten". Without "bis", the "Rand des Abgrunds" is one destination among others: "Wir gingen an den Rand des Abgrunds, dann besuchten wir das Wildschweingehege, bevor wir im Gasthaus einkehrten". – Martin Schwehla Feb 16 '15 at 22:10

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