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According to my notes, you'd use zu when you're going to an event. For example:

Wir gehen zu einer Party. – "We're going to a party."
Ich gehe zu einer Hochzeit. – "I'm going to a wedding."

But the DWDS has many examples where auf is used instead:

Wir gehen auf eine Party. – "We're going to a party."
Ich gehe auf eine Hochzeit. – "I'm going to a wedding."

In fact there is one case where both versions are given for the same line:

Ich gehe heute zu/auf eine(r) Hochzeit. (From "Shameless" Three Boys, 2011)

  1. What is the difference, if any, in meaning between the two versions? I gather it depends on the verb, for example with ''fahren'' you'd always use ''zu''. But that makes sense since you might be driving to the party without actually taking part; maybe you're giving someone a ride. But ''kommen'' seems to favor ''auf''.
  2. I'm not familiar with this meaning of auf, so is this part of a larger pattern or is it just random? I'm thinking it's covered under DWDS definition I.2.d): "bezeichnet die Teilnahme an etw." This would imply that using auf implies a degree of participation and engagement which is missing from zu. Is that correct?

Related: What is the difference between "Zu" and "Auf" in these sentences?

2 Answers 2

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We have some overlapping issue here:

For locations there is a difference between zum and in: Ich gehe zum Bahnhof does not imply you enter the building, similarly ich gehe zur Schule may just indicate a pupil and does not imply, that the the speaker is there or on her/his way towards school.

All of your examples seem to fall under the DWDS: auf meaning I/1/c, participation at some event, since you probably want to interact with other guests.

While this is also covered by DWDS: zu meaning I/1/b specifies direction with the intent to participate, I notice a certain emphasis on the location aspect in the definition.

I have to mention the counter-example: Ich gehe zum Frühschoppen. It is pretty obvious, that one wants to enter the pub and drink as well as talk to others in whatever ratio.

I observe, that in classical music one would more likely use ich gehe in ein/zu einem Konzert (or in eine/zu einer Opernaufführung) and there is not much interaction typically, you take your seat, listen and hopefully enjoy and applaud afterwards. For pop and rock bands auf ein Konzert gehen is more frequently used, and I wonder, if that is due to the event character, as dancing, singing along, clapping the rhythm and waving your lighter?

My summary: zu / auf may not be entirely exchangeable, but the difference is difficult to decide and dependent on context.

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  • I'm starting to suspect that it's not only context, but regional differences or even personal preference. I see Frühschoppen (which I'm hearing about for the first time) as more of an activity than an event, the difference being that one is routine or habit and one a deviation from routine. I understand that there is a lot of grey area in preposition choice, but there are lighter greys and darker grays and it's nice to know where those are.
    – RDBury
    Jan 7 at 16:00
  • PS. I wonder if people didn't clap, dance, etc. when Mozart was performing a concert, back when "classical music" was just "music".
    – RDBury
    Jan 7 at 16:10
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If one says Ich gehe auf eine Party this means that s/he will not only go to a party but also attend it. One would usually not say this if s/he goes to a party to e.g. pick someone up or just glance at it and go home.

On the other hand, Ich gehe zur Party can be used if someone goes to a party, but without staying there for a while.

In most cases, the sentences will have the same meaning. But there are cases when the meaning can differ, as explained above.

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  • I thought this is also a regional thing? Like "Auf Schalke"? Or going "zur Arbeit" vs. "auf Arbeit" (more in the south?) ? Not that sure about it. Jan 6 at 22:40
  • This more or less confirms what I was thinking. It seems to be more a matter of emphasis than meaning; use zu to emphasize that you're appearing at the location and auf to emphasize that you're participating
    – RDBury
    Jan 7 at 16:23
  • @Shegit Brahm: I can't find Auf Schalke in the references I normally use. It doesn't help that Schalke is the name of a sports club and Schalk is the name of some people. Is it regional dialect?
    – RDBury
    Jan 7 at 16:40
  • Auf Schalke is strictly regional (Ruhrdeutsch). Auf eine Party gehen is Standard German.
    – RHa
    Jan 7 at 17:22
  • @RDBury: I'm talking about this discussion: forum.wordreference.com/threads/… or korrekturen.de/forum.pl/md/read/id/10661/sbj/… So, yes, "Auf Schalke" might be too specific, yet it has a regional language root. Maybe "Arbeit" is the very special and only event that is known with different prepositions and still the same meaning. Jan 7 at 18:01

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