The German dictionary I usually use has a pretty long list of words that are all translated into English as »towards«:

  • zu, which, if so, seems to be indistinguishable from »to«
  • auf jmdn. / etw. zu
  • gegen
  • nach
  • in Richtung
  • gen

My question to you is, are all these words for »towards« interchangeable, or has each of them developed a specialized meaning that can only be used in certain fixed contexts? No dictionary or grammar, for that matter, makes this clear.

  • I think it's important at some point to stop looking at translations on a word-to-word basis. Look at the whole expression: There's a lot of expressions using "towards", and in the corresponding expression(s) in German one would use different translations. For example, you can translate German "Verstand" as "mind, brain, wit". Are these words interchangeable in English? Or you can translate "nach" as "by, after, according to, to, upon" in English. Are these words interchangeable? It always depends on the meaning and context.
    – dirkt
    May 5 '17 at 9:55

(I cannot add comments as I am one of the new kids on the block.)
They are not interchangeable. There seem to be two big categories, (1) a physical movement, and a (2) "tendency" (for lack of a better word) eg

(1) "I'm heading home. (or: towards the house)" - Ich fahre nach Hause.
(2) "I'm heading towards a distinction." (at uni - not easy to translate!)

I find some of the examples given by @Devon a bit iffy. When somebody has already crashed into a tree, then they have ceased to move towards it (in German, however, you can say: "gegen" einen Baum). As for "gen" - in English, you can say " t'ward' ", but you'd never write it like that (except I just did ...). When it comes to "gen", the reverse seems to be true: in the spoken language, it is not used very often.


Not all of these translations are interchangeable. Look at these examples:

»zu« (which ist the most used in oral language):

Ich laufe zum Bahnhof.

»auf etw. zu« or »zu jmdn. hin«:

Das Schiff fährt auf das Gewitter zu.

Das Kind läuft zu seiner Mutter hin.

»gegen« (which often means to crash into something):

Während ich abgelenkt war, fuhr ich mit dem Auto gegen einen Baum.

Der Handwerker lehnt die Leiter gegen die Mauer.


Ich fahre nach Hause.

Ich fahre nach London.

Ich schreibe von rechts nach links.

»in Richtung« and »gen«:

Das Schiff fährt in Richtung Westen.

Das Schiff fährt gen Westen.

  • Note that informally people often use 'nach' where they should use 'zu', like 'ich fahre nach Ikea'.
    – Philipp
    May 4 '17 at 19:35
  • @PhilippFlenker Same is true for "bei" - "Isch geh' noch bei Aldi." - "Zu Aldi" - "Watt, schon nach acht?"
    – tofro
    May 5 '17 at 7:00

Upon further study and meditation, I have come to the following "rules of usage," according to which these clearly not interchangeable little words can be used as correctly and infallibly as humanly possible:

  1. Gegen is to be used mainly, if not only, temporally, in the sense of nicht später als. Gegen can also be used metaphorically, as in Towards a Better Understanding of Globalization (Gegen einem besseren Verständnis der Globalisierung).

  2. Nach is to be used mainly, if not only, spatially, in the sense of finally reaching or arriving at a destination.

  3. Auf + noun / pronoun [in the Accusative case] + zu is also to be used mainly, if not only, spatially.

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