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I have got pretty good at recognising movement/motion (wohin?) as opposed to static locations (wo?) and therefore can usually (often) recognize when to use the accusative (wohin?) and when to use the dative (wo?). But this sentence throws me:

Das Auto verschwand in der Nacht.

I would translate that as "The car disappeared into the night", which indicates movement to me, and I would therefore have used the accusative, so why is the dative used?

I suppose you could say that it was already nighttime and therefore there was no change of circumstance for the car, but that doesn't seem right and and anyway the translation "into" indicates movement.

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    About the "already nighttime" argument: It's possible to substitute "Nacht" for other words where it's more obvious that this argument doesn't fit, for example "Das Auto verschwand in der Ferne" or "Das Auto verschwand in der Garage". – Annatar Jun 5 '19 at 12:02
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First things first: it's often claimed the German dual-way prepositions an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen take the accusative for movement/motion.

This is a wrong claim.

  • They take the accusative for directions.
  • They take the dative for places.

Which of the options is required depends on the verb. Often both are possible.

Sie ging an den Strand.

She walked to the beach.

Sie ging am Strand.

She walked on the beach.

Both times she's walking. Clearly a movement. But the beach is a direction in the first example while it's a backdrop for the action in the latter one.


Let's get back to your example. Again, both options are possible. The difference is subtle this time. A good author will use one or the other for effect.

Das Auto verschwand in der Nacht.

The night is a place and the car got lost in it.

Das Auto verschwand in die Nacht.

The night is a direction and the car went into that direction, getting lost slowly.

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In context, both statements can be correct and boil down to the same location-based meaning.

Das Auto verschwand in die Nacht.

This emphasizes that the car seemingly disappears (by becoming invisible in the darkness) as it moves further away from the observer. Possibly, the area around the observer was (artificially) lit to some extent, or the car simply moves far enough away so even its rear lights are not visible anymore. Thus, the "night" (darkness) at the place where the car becomes invisible is considered a different place than the (possibly also dark) location of the observer and thus, accusative is used.

Das Auto verschwand in der Nacht.

This expresses the car seems to become invisible due to darkness, as well. This variant, however, acknowledges that the observer is, of course, located in the very same "night" (darkness) as the car. Hence, actually, no change of place is assumed and thus, dative is used.

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Well, you are almost on the right track. Still, you are mixing up when and where something happened.

When did the car disappear? (Dative)
Das Auto verschwand in der Nacht.
⇆ The car disappeard at night.

Where did the car go? (Accusative):
Das Auto verschwand in die Nacht (hinein).
⇆ The car disappeard into the night.

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    While when is valid question, the mentioned phrase could also be used intending to specify a (metaphorical) location. – guidot Jun 5 '19 at 12:03
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    Doesn't fit "Das Auto verschwand in der Ferne" or "Das Auto verschwand in der Garage" either. – Annatar Jun 5 '19 at 12:09
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    @user unknown-. In which case they disappear INTO the night or INTO the distance which would seem to require the accusative and not the dative. – Steve Jun 5 '19 at 12:52
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    @Steve: Ich würde auch sagen, es sei wohl "in die Nacht verschwinden" gemeint, im Sinne von "ins Dunkel", nicht "in der Nacht" im Sinne von zwischen 22:00 und 5:00 Uhr. Aber als der, der den Text gelesen hat, hast Du ja verneint, dass der Zeitraum gemeint sein könnte. – user unknown Jun 5 '19 at 13:06
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    @BjörnFriedrich: Ich habe nicht abgewertet, aber wie ich in meiner Antwort dargelegt habe, bin ich nicht der Meinung, dass sich die Aussage bei Verwendung des Dativs nur auf die Zeit beziehen kann. – O. R. Mapper Jun 6 '19 at 3:15

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