How should I learn German prepositions? A single preposition can have a lot of meanings, then how do I apply rules?

For example

Ich bin zu Hause.

warum nicht

Ich bin an Hause.


There is a lot of confusion like this, this was just a simple one.

What I mean is: even though I read all those cases' rules in prepositions and I read that some prepositions come together with a verb, I am afraid there may be situations like this above example. How do I get to know them? Prepositions have different meanings, but where do that different meanings apply?

Please, can you just clarify how I should go when learning German prepositions stepwise? Bitte helfen Sir mir.

  • 1
    I think all non-native speakers had gone through this stage before they acquired fluency. Don't worry, that's completely normal. Two things: 1. Read extensively about prepositions 2. Practice practice practice! Everything will be much easier and clearer as time goes by.
    – Abdullah
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 5:48
  • German prepositions are no more ideosyncratic and confusing than English ones are, and you seem to have mastered those fine. The real trouble is with those fixed expressions that differ from what you expect such as "sitting in a tree" vs. "auf einem Baum". As 'User' writes, the answer is simply practice, not any particular technique. Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 8:07

2 Answers 2


Many people believe that learning languages is first of all about learning rules. This, however, is a mistake, probably caused by the way languages are traditionally tought at school. Mind only little children: they learn a language perfectly, but they do not care (actively, consciously) for any rules. They just listen, repeat, communicate.

Rules are models made by scholars as an attempt to establish certain structures of a language. Those rules can be very helpful in certain circumstances, especially when the language is "simple" in a way that its practice indeed sticks to those rules. Grammar scholars can describe these languages effectively using a rule system. Turkish is a good example for this. (It is not a "simple" language, but its rules system is crystal clear; for learners coming from indo-european language background, Turkish is a logical beauty.) Other languages do not stick that well to rules, causing grammar scholars to add exceptions to the first level rules, and second level exceptions to those exceptions, and so on; eventually the rules system gets more complicated than the actual language. German is a good example for such languages. Latin, in a sense, too.

Nobody speaking fluently German thinks about rules when speaking. The trick is simply knowing what is the correct (or usual) way of expressing things. This comes with practice. Practice may be

  • reading books and newspapers

  • listen to radio and TV programmes

  • write letters to friends

  • read and write poems

  • speak, speak, speak, speak, and listen to those who are fluent in that language

Of course, looking up how grammar scholars describe things can sometimes be useful, especially for certain learners with a more analytical mindset. But still, as soon as you are ein a live conversation, you will not think about those rules, you will form your expressions based on what you have repeatedly heared, read, spoken or written.

Fluently speaking a language is like having cut paths through a djungle with a machete. You then follow these paths, knowing that they are good paths. Cutting the first paths is admittedly a lot of hard and slow work. But the more paths you have cut and gone, the more familiar you are with the djungle and the quicker and the more efficiently you will move through it.

  • Did you mean jungle?
    – Janka
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 15:35
  • Oh, is it written without a d? You djust got me on a djolly misconception I obviously have been having for decades... I should probably recut my paths through the djungle of English... Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 15:41
  • I am against the idea of just immerse yourself into the new language and learn as native children do. In my country, people pass Goethe B2 level German language exam after only 6 months of intensive studying or maybe 9 months at maximum. After how many years will the German native children be able to pass the same exam?! I can't stress the importance of language practice enough, but I believe grammar is just as equally important. In my field of study, if you are not practicing the right stuff that are taught at the university and in books, then you are probably practicing the wrong stuff.
    – Abdullah
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 20:00
  • @User I am absolutey not against learning languages from grammar books etc. Understanding regularities of course is of great help, and being able to actively understand them is a big advantage adult learners have over children. However, my impression was that the questionner was all too focused on getting presented with rules. There are many things in natural languages that simply cannot be satisfyingly explained by rules, or the rules would be more complex than the reality they describe. Sometimes simply learning an expression (in context) and using it is the best way. Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 20:09

You stumbled over a fixed phrase.

Ich bin zu Hause.

Ich bin zuhause.

I am at home.

These are the same. There even is a special adverb for it.

Ich bin am Haus.

I am at the house.

This is completely straightforward. It's a house, not my home. (It might be my home but that's not important in this sentence.)

About prepositions and their meanings: do you know this page?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.