Some prepositions like "auf" or "in" can use either accusative or dative case depending on usage.

What I'm wondering is: Are there minimal pairs of sentences, that differ only in the case after the preposition, such that the case alone changes the meaning of the sentence? Or is the selection of case always tied to the verb.

I'm thinking along the lines of "Ich fahre in die/der Stadt" but I'm not sure if that works as such an example.

1 Answer 1


If I understand your question correctly, then any German sentence with a verb of movement and a Wechelpräposition will qualify.

Ich fahre in der Stadt. = I drive inside the city.
Ich fahre in die Stadt. = I drive into the city.

Du führst mich auf dem Weg. = You guide me on the way.
Du führst mich auf den Weg. = You guide me onto the way.

Hans hüpft hinter dem Haus. = Hans is behind the house and there he jumps.
Hand hüpft hinter das Haus. = Hans moves jumping behind the house.


The meaning is always:

  • Dative case = a location
  • Accusative case = a direction
  • 1
    There are some combinations where using the dative, while being grammatically correct, would be so unlikely that you'd have to assume there was a grammatical error. For example: Ich werfe Steine über der Mauer. Ich hänge Bilder an der Wand. When translating from English, which often doesn't make such a distinction, to German, it's almost always possible to tell from context or common sense which case to use.
    – RDBury
    Jun 23, 2021 at 16:30
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    It should also be noted that the location=dative, direction=accusative rule only works for a Wechselpräposition. For example zu always uses dative even though it's often used for direction.
    – RDBury
    Jun 23, 2021 at 16:41
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    Yet another thing that might be worth mentioning is that prepositional verbs using Wechselpräpositionen require a specific case regardless of whether there is movement; it's usually accusative. For example it would always be Wir reden über dich, even though there would not normally be movement. Occasionally the dative is required: Der Ritter rettet die Jungfrau vor dem Drachen. I'm not sure what it would mean with den Drachen, multiple dragons maybe?
    – RDBury
    Jun 23, 2021 at 17:11
  • @RDBury: Please can you give an example of a sentence using a verb of movement, the preposition »zu« and a dative object that is not the target of the movement (i.e. a location) but a direction? I tried to find examples for such sentences, but I failed. What ever came in my mind after »zu« was a target, i.e. a location. So, please give an example for a direction. - About »Wir reden über dich« and »Der Ritter rettet die Jungfrau vor dem Drachen.«: I can't find any verb of movement in these sentences. To talk and to rescue don't describe movements. Jun 23, 2021 at 20:44
  • Perhaps I'm using "direction" somewhat loosely. I was thinking of a pair like Wir fahren in die Schule -- accusative because of the Wechselpräposition rule, and Wir fahren zur Schule -- dative because zu always takes dative. Both are translations of "We're driving to school." On the second point, I was trying to say that certain expressions use accusative despite not involving movement; reden über being one. But retten vor is an exception to these exceptions, having a meaning different than its literal one, but taking the dative anyway.
    – RDBury
    Jun 24, 2021 at 6:17

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