1

Die Touristen gehen an den Strand.

Die Touristen gehen auf den Strand.

Is the general meanning the same in both of the questions? If not, what is the difference between them ?

3

Going auf den Strand focuses on (and neccessarily implies) stepping onto the actual beach.
In general, auf + accusative expresses a change of position ending up on top of "it".

In an den Strand, the main focus is getting close to the beach. They might step onto the sand/pebbles/..., but they just as well might only go from their hotel or some other more "inland" location to the seafront esplanade.
In general, an + accusative expresses a change of position ending up very close to "it", often touching or almost touching.

3

"auf" and "an" are both used as prepositions after "gehen". Which of the two you use only depends on the object.

Ich gehe auf die Party.

Used instead of "an" which would be the wrong preposition for the object. More examples:

Ich gehe auf die Jagd. Ich gehe auf die Reise. Ich gehe auf den Berg. Ich gehe auf das Dach.

There is no rule when to use "auf" and when to use "an" that I am aware off.

Ich gehe auf den Strand.

This sounds very strange and would only be used if you want to highlight that there is a special way to walk "up" to the beach or to go "onto" the beach.

Ich gehe an den Strand. Ich gehe ans Meer.

This is the common form for those objects.

1

You are not talking about a location but about a direction. That is because both an and auf are dual-way prepositions and may take the accusative (a direction) or the dative (a location).

Die Touristen gehen an den Strand.

The tourists walk to the beach.

Die Touristen gehen auf den Strand.

The tourists walk onto the beach. (they step on it)

Die Touristen gehen am Strand.

The tourists walk at the beach. (the beach as a backdrop)

Die Touristen gehen auf dem Strand.

The tourists walk on (top of) the beach. (the beach as an object to walk on)

  • For me the last two examples seem strange because gehen needs a directional local or another kind of "Ergänzung", not a "Ortsangabe". You could say "Die Touristen gehen am Strand spazieren" or "Die Touristen gehen auf dem Strand barfuß". A correct "Ortsergänzung" could be "Die Touristen gehen zum Strand". Apart form that and as far as I can see, "die Touristen" walking "an / auf den Strand" are in vacuo constructions with slight survival chances in real life contexts. – Ralf Joerres Dec 2 at 9:15
1

There is no such thing as a general rule for the use of prepositions. You have to learn the meanings of the prepositions in combinations with the verbs or sometimes the nouns they accompany. This seems to hold true in many languages (at least in german, english and italian I can confirm it).

For example, you can both say Ich gehe in's Konzert. and Ich gehe auf's Konzert. The two sentences just have a different meaning: The first is referring more to a classical concert (so called "ernste Musik") in a building like a concert hall, while the latter is referring morge to a pop or rock concert. Even native speakers will have hard times to tell you why this is, maybe etymologists might find reasons for the use of the different prepositions, but there is no way you could derive the correct use from any rule, which would not include the example in the first place.

  • 1
    Most of what you wrote is fine, but etymology deals with the origins, history, and changing meaning of words, not with their distribution, i.e. the environment in which they occur or can occur. The latter is studied by structuralists and/or grammarians. ;-) And they never even try to answer the why-question, but describe what can be observed "as is" or "as was". – multiplex et liber Jan 19 at 10:37
  • @multiplexetliber I am fine with that. I think it is a fair argument and a fair point of view, that questions asking why are underdetermined and science can never answer them satisfactorily. In that rather strict sense, there is just no answer to "Why is this preposition used here but not there?". But the history of the language can sometimes give an idea of when and where differences ocurred and illuminate that "this made somehow sense" at a certain stage of the language, in a certain historical and semantic context. That was just what I meant to refer to. – jonathan.scholbach Jan 19 at 22:43
  • "But the history of [...] language can sometimes give an idea of when and where differences ocurred and illuminate that ..." That's perfectly true, and I do agree. I also agree with your pointing out that etymology is about the when's and the where's, but not about the why's. - By the way: When there's going to be a (rock) concert next Saturday, for instance, I usually ask a mate: "Gehst du [am] Samstag auch zum Konzi?" ins, auf's AND zum - das is' hart für Lernende! – multiplex et liber Jan 21 at 17:47

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