I learn German and I don't get it. As I know, 'an' is usually used when we say that something is near a vertical surface (das Bild hängt an die Wand). And in english, polish, russian and ukrainian we have take part in. So I wonder what's the origin of the word that caused it to go with 'an', not 'in'.

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    When you learn languages, you soon will find, that neither comparing with other language, nor logic thinking might help to understand. Sometimes you just have to accept how it is, and learn it. Oct 25, 2017 at 8:15
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    What is your question - why you should use "an" with "teilnehmen" or what is the origin of "teilnehmen"?
    – Eller
    Oct 25, 2017 at 8:18
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    I fully support Hubert's answer ("Don't ask, just use it!") because asking "why" with regard to language usage is often leading to nowhere. However, actually thinking about it, I start wondering myself: why is it teilnehmen an etwas and not teilnehmen von etwas - as nehmen would imply that you take something, and this should be von, in that case... Oct 25, 2017 at 10:04
  • @ChristianGeiselmann Interesting that "teilhaben", "patizipieren" and "beteiligt sein" also need the "an".
    – Eller
    Oct 25, 2017 at 12:09
  • Grimms only say that it is with genitive in Old High German, but not when the use with an arose.
    – Carsten S
    Oct 25, 2017 at 15:59

3 Answers 3


"An" is in no way limited to the meaning of the English "at" (or similar relation-to-surface prepositions in other languages). See the following examples:

an etwas denken - to think of / about something

an etwas arbeiten - to work on something

sich an etwas erinnern - to remember _ something

sich an etwas gewöhnen - to get used to something

an etwas leiden - to suffer from something

And of course: an etwas teilnehmen - to participate in something

Technically, yes, "an" has the general meaning of "being close or attached to something". But it requires some serious mental gymnastics to fit all these examples to this pattern, doesn't it?

This is why all these prepositions are part of their dictionary entries in the first place. They are mere conventions of how to use these verbs - they don't necessarily have a logical connection that could be inferred on the fly. Many do, of course, but I advise to always assume that any particular verb goes with a particular preposition by pure chance and you save yourself a lot of headaches.

-> Assume that "an etwas teilnehmen" had the same chance to exist like "in etwas teilnehmen", and the German language community simply flipped their coin differently than the English language community, without any specific reason. You have to learn the correct German preposition(s) for each verb from scratch.


If you see it figuratively, and this is what I visualize in my mind's eye, you sit AT a table with your participators. This means "Anteil haben" or "teilhaben an". See also here.

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    BTW: I even wonder why other languages use in because the thing to participate usually isn't in a box or something ;)
    – äüö
    Oct 25, 2017 at 15:38
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    you should move that addendum to your answer :) Oct 26, 2017 at 7:14

Prepositions have no logic.

Sie nimmt über Weihnachten unter Protest an einer Konferenz über Wohlstandsmüll in Bitterfeld teil.

We can only guess an is used for the meeting you attend because there may still be a place in the sentence where that meeting is held – that one gets the in. Not that it would stop us:

Im Einkaufszentrum in der Stadt gab es im September in der Feinkostabteilung schon Glühwein zu kaufen.

→ There is no logic.

  • "Im Einkaufszentrum der Stadt gab es September schon Glühwein von der Feinkostabteilung zu kaufen"--besser? Das erste Beispiel ist komplizierter. Die Wendungen sind historisch gewachsen. Da die Frage unter Etymologie läuft, hilft es wohl niemandem zu sagen, darin läge keine Logik, nur weil diese nicht offensichtlich ist.
    – vectory
    Nov 11, 2019 at 14:39

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