I noticed that it's common to use Fleck with auf rather than an. For example Es gibt einen Fleck auf Ihrem Hemd. ("There is a stain on your shirt.") My understanding is ''auf'' means "on top of" while ''an'' means "attached to", "leaning on", "hanging on/from". So it seems odd that auf rather than an would be the preferred preposition here. Is this just a random exception or is this part of a more general pattern? Apparently with Farbe the preferred preposition is an, as in Es gibt Farbe an der Wand. ("There is paint on the wall.") But there are exceptions with this: Es gibt Farbe auf der Palette. (There is paint on the palette.") I suppose it's because a palette can be held horizontally.

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    Note, that like in English "auf"/"on" can very well mean "on the surface of" instead of "on top of" - which is the case here.
    – tofro
    Jun 14 at 18:32

This follows straight from the progressive aspect, sich etwas über das Hemd schütten. Consequently, the stain is upon the chemise, so to speak, not onto. (PS: this should be logical, that fluids come from above, because they generally flow down wards).

The preposition is occasionally allowable, per chance, if the stain is superficial, so you might have Ketchup an der Backe, but this has never been applicable with cotton wool to my knowledge. Further, we'd more likely say im Gesicht, not an, showing that it depends on the location and how it combines.

Imaginably, English has generalized this to on under inuence of French en, which I understand combines both n-prepositions, in turn under the influence of Frankish, though the severely reduced á might also have played a role.

  • 1
    So, since the stain was theoretically some fluid that dropped onto the surface, it would be auf. That makes some sense and seems to apply to Spritzer. I might expect Grasfleck to work differently in that case; apparently it doesn't but I don't expect 100% logical consistency. I don't think I use "upon" and I feel it's rather dated, so to me auf and an are both either on or onto.
    – RDBury
    Jun 15 at 5:16
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    Stains may very well be caused by non-fluids. I'd say that interpreting the shirt as carrier substance, as by guidot's answer, offers a much more natural explanation.
    – Lykanion
    Jun 15 at 7:46
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    @Lykanion,I'm not super convinced by own answer, lol, but I did say it depends on the location and I won't overthinkthis beyond that
    – vectory
    Jun 15 at 11:52

I'm somehwat surprised, that DWDS does not offer a dedicated meaning for an as well as auf.

No, I don't think is has to do with the orientation of the stained surface. Neither would I translate auf with on top of but rather prefer upon.

Numerous other examples exists:

  • Auf dem Bildschirm...
  • Auf dem Gemälde...
  • Auf dem Plakat...
  • Auf dem Foto...

I would mostly use auf, when the "carrier" is used as a reference and offers the surface exhibiting something.

Counter-examples using am exist, however, but I don't see a clear and easy rule here:

  • Ich habe einen blauen Fleck am Schienbein.
  • Am Kotflügel ist ein Kratzer.
  • Aam Kotflügel in sein Lack da is en Kratzer
    – vectory
    Jun 14 at 17:31
  • Schienbein ist technisch ein Knochen, den kann man ja nicht sehen. Also am wie in der Nähe. Auch am Fuß,. . . na gut, ja, ist ein wichtiger Punkt. Vielleicht verkürzt aus op'm?
    – vectory
    Jun 14 at 17:33
  • As I mentioned in another comment, I don't use "upon" and had to look up the difference between it and "on" in the dictionary. Maybe it's one of things that only people who learn English as a second language are taught. There does seem to be a general rule about using auf with images/carriers that's worth remembering. I'm not convinced it applies to Palette but it's certainly possible.
    – RDBury
    Jun 15 at 5:40
  • PS. I think it's interesting that German uses blau for bruises (blauer Fleck, blaues Auge) instead of "black" as in English. English has "black and blue", but neither can be taken literally.
    – RDBury
    Jun 15 at 6:17
  • @RDBury: "... not a trace to mark his fall, nor a stain upon the wall" is original English speech, well song ;-)
    – user41853
    Jun 15 at 9:14

It is as it is :-)

Just like a stain is upon but a writing on the wall.

Ein Fleck ist auf, ein Knopf an der Bluse, eine Nudel ist im Gesicht.

But I would translate "auf" not only with "on top of", that'll be more like "über". I don't think there are general equivalents either way in both languages for these prepositions/adverbs/prefixes.

  • Yes, prepositions are certainly tricky for learners; just when you think you've learned a specific meaning which can be translated a certain way, you discover mysterious and apparently random exceptions. I think I would usually translate über as either "over" or "above"; only "on" if it's a topic: Dies ist ein Buch über Deutsch. -- "This is a book on German."
    – RDBury
    Jun 15 at 5:55
  • @RDBury yeah, but "Das ist ein Buch über deutsch" as awkward German, it is an incomplete sentence. "Das ist ein Deutschbuch", "... über deutsche Grammatik/Redensarten" would make it better. And a language is not a stain, so different idioms apply.
    – user41853
    Jun 15 at 9:26

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