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I have these two sentences and although I understand the basic translation, I am struggling to understand the nuances in these two similar sentences.

Das Pferd war an einen Baum gebunden

Das Pferd war an einem Baum angebunden

Both sentences translate roughly to 'the horse was tied to a tree'. But what difference does 'binden > anbinden' and the use of accusative versus dative make?

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The nuance is that

Das Pferd war an einen Baum gebunden.

can be used literally and figurativly.

While

Das Pferd war an einem Baum angebunden.

means only that it was tied to it.

So I can say:

Ich bin an das Auto gebunden.

That can - should not ;-) - mean that I'm tied with a rope to the car.

It would be much more used to say

  • I cannot sell that car otherwise I don't get anywhere
  • I cannot join your train journey because later at the destination I need to drive along with that car - which would be left behind if I join the train.

That reason lies in the "Wechselpräposition" 'an':

  • dative: without any explicit direction
  • accusative: an explicit direction

On linked page you'll find a very similiar example:

Ich fahre auf der Autobahn. - vs. - Ich fahre auf die Autobahn.

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    Thank you for the response, but I am struggling to understand how the figurative use of binden shows the 'explicit direction' that you mention. And also is that to say that both of those sentences can have the same meaning (if I wanted to literally say a horse was tied with rope to a tree)? Would Germans use them interchangeably? – Jacob Lee-Hart Dec 6 '19 at 16:56
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"Das Pferd war an einen Baum gebunden." does not determine how. It might be completely wrapped with ropes or somthing to the tree or it might be, like the examples of Shegit Brahm, emotional connected to the tree. The sentence itself does not determine it. It would not be the first association, but it even could hang on the tree. 'angebunden' is much more specific and says, that is was beside, but not able to walk away from the tree.

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