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Consider the following two sentences, I have shown them to a native German speaker and both make sense to them:

Ich gebe dem Hund den Ball.
Ich gebe den Ball dem Hund.

The cases make it clear that the ball is being given to the dog, regardless of word order ("dem Hund den Ball" or "den Ball dem Hund").

I could write the first sentence in English, just as it is written in German:

I give the dog the ball

The second sentence though, needs the preposition "to" in English, because the direct and indirect object are not clear (the definitive article is the same for the direct and indirect object in English "the"):

I give the ball to the dog

I thought "can/should I add a preposition to my German sentence"? The following doesn't work in German (according to my native speaking test subject):

Ich gebe den Ball zum Hund.
Ich gebe den Ball nach dem Hund.

I tried "zu" and "nach" because they can mean some form of "to", and they are dative prepositions preceding the dative article + noun, but my test subject said this is wrong.

Why isn't a preposition allowed for this second German sentence? The cases in German indicate the subject, object (Akkusativobjekt), and indirect object (Dativobjekt), so I can understand how no preposition is needed in either of my two sentences in German. But this leaves me with the question: when would/should I add a preposition in German?

Searching the Internet for "German prepositions" (and variations thereof) just provides page after page of "these are the prepositions and which case they're in" but no indication of when to use them. My gut feeling is that it's related to the verb, but when I look on the Duden website or PONS, it's not clear if geben (from my example sentences) requires an object in the Akkusativ or Dativ or both:

https://de.pons.com/%C3%BCbersetzung/deutsch-englisch/geben
https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/geben

PONS sugests jdm etw geben which I interpret as "this verb needs a Dativ and Akkusativ object". But Duden gives an example with only Akkusativ die Kuh gibt Milch.

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  • 1
    "Die Kuh gibt Milch." is a specific meaning of "geben" (number 5 in the DWDS listing), where "geben" doesn't have a dative object. If a verb requires a preposition for the object depends on the verb. I don't think there is a general rule.
    – Roland
    Aug 15 at 7:48
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    "Die Kuh gibt Milch" has "Milch" in Akkusativ, thus it's the object being given (and additionally it's a slightly different meaning / usage of 'geben' as Roland correctly points out, correctly translated to English as 'provides' instead of 'give'). And sure enough you can use 'geben' without Dativ, if (and only if) the subject being given to is clear ("Gib (mir) den Ball!") Aug 15 at 8:55
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    The first word of a German sentence is always written with an uppercase first letter, and at the of a German sentence is always a period or full stop (if its a statement, otherwise it's an exclamation mark or a question mark). These rules are equal in German and English. I corrected this for you. Aug 15 at 10:29
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    @tofro "geben" und "zugeben" sind nicht dasselbe Verb.
    – Roland
    Aug 17 at 4:48
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    etwas zu etwas ((hin)zu)geben. Eines ist Präposition, das andere Teil des trennbaren Verbs Aug 17 at 8:48

3 Answers 3

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Just to make it clear: German has no direct objects and German has no indirect objects. Forget these terms when you talk about German grammar. Never think in these terms when you think about German grammar! German has genitive object, dative objects, accusative objects, prepositional objects, subordinate clauses as objects and some other stuff that looks like objects but isn't (Gleichsetzungsnominativ looks like a nominative object and adverbiale Bestimmung looks like a prepositional object). Open any textbook about German grammar written in German and look for »direktes Objekt« or »indirektes Objekt«. You will not find these terms in any German textbook. And the simple reason for this is: They do not exist in German grammar.

And this is the reason why prepositions don't work in German sentences like you expect it. We do not distinguish between direct and indirect object, so wo don't use prepositions for this purpose.

  • There are German verbs that need a mandatory genitive object:

    Helga bedarf unserer Hilfe.

  • Some verbs need a mandatory dative object:

    Das Buch gehört mir.

  • Some verbs need a mandatory accusative object:

    Ich besuche meine Tante.

  • Some verbs need a mandatory prepositional object:

    Sonja achtet auf ihren Sohn.

  • There are also verbs that need a mandatory companion that looks like a nominative object, but isn't:

    Der Pilot ist ein Grieche.

  • Some verbs even need two mandatory objects:
    • double accusative

      Simon nennt den Taxifahrer einen Idioten.

    • dative + accusative

      Der Wirt bringt der Dame ein Glas Wasser.

    • accusative + prepositional

      Der Arzt klärt den Patienten über die Behandlung auf.

    • accusative + genitive

      Die Staatsanwältin klagt den Beschuldigten des Mordes an.

Besides that there are also free objects that can be added to almost any sentence, so they are optional:

  • free dative

    Sandra kocht eine Suppe.
    Sandra kocht ihrer Mutter eine Suppe.

And there are adverbial clauses which look quite like prepositional objects, but aren't objects because they are part of the predicate. (In German grammar objects are not part of the predicate, but they are in English grammar.) Adverbial clause are always optional:

Er kommt.
Er kommt um acht Uhr.
Er kommt mit dem Bus.


So, what are German prepositions good for?

  • They introduce prepositional objects and they introduce adverbial clauses.

How are German prepositions connected to direct and indirect object?

  • Not at all, because direct and indirect object do not exist in German grammar.

About "geben"

This part was not directly asked in the question, but it might help to better understand how semantic roles are bound to different types on objects in German grammar.

The German verb "geben" comes in different flavors that behave similar but it can be argued, that in fact they are different verbs:

  1. Jemand gibt jemandem etwas
    Someone gives something to someone

    Ich gebe der Frau das Wasser.

    Here we have (and these parts are all mandatory and can't appear in other grammatical functions!):

    • The donator (the giver): subject (in nominative case)
    • The given thing: accusative object
    • The receiver: dative object
      You can't use the coat of a prepositional object to dress the receiver. The receiver MUST wear the dress of a dative object in a German sentence.
  2. Es gibt etwas
    There is something

    Es gibt frisches Brot.

    • Instead of a proper subject: The expletive pronoun »es« (in nominative case)
    • The thing that exists: accusative object.
  3. Jemand gibt etwas
    Someone gives/has something

    Die Kuh gibt Milch.

    • The donator: subject (in nominative case)
    • The given thing: accusative object
  4. Jemand gibt etwas zu/an/in etwas (dazu); Jemand gibt etwas zu/an/in einen Ort
    Someone adds something to something; Someone gives something at/in/on a place

    Der Koch gibt Pfeffer in die Sauce.
    Der Bibliothekar gibt das neue Buch in das Regal.

    • The donator: subject (in nominative case)
    • The given thing: accusative object
    • The target: prepositional object. Note, that a target and a receiver are similar, but not the same. The receiver is a person, the target is a place. While it is impossible to use a prepositional object for a receiver, it is impossible to use any other construction for a target. (Note also, that you use this construction mainly in cooking recipes and mainly in imperative mode: »Geben Sie etwas Pfeffer in die Sauce.« In other situation you better use a more specific verb of movement: »Der Bibliothekar stellt das neue Buch in das Regal.«)
  5. Etwas gibt sich
    Something passes by; something fades out

    Q: "Bleibt das so?" A: "Nein, das gibt sich."

    • The thing that passes by or fades out: subject (in nominative case)
    • (without semantic role, for grammatical reasons only): reflexive pronoun as accusative object (»sich«)

In all these cases you also can add as many adverbial clauses as you want to describe place, time, manner, etc.:

Ich gebe um 14:30 Uhr der Frau das Wasser.
In der Bäckerei gibt es frisches Brot.
Die Kuh gibt auf der Alm Milch.
Der Koch gibt mit viel Liebe Pfeffer in die Sauce.
Der Bibliothekar gibt am frühen Morgen das neue Buch in das Regal.
Q: "Bleibt das so?" A: "Nein, das gibt sich bis zum Wochenende."

And you can add as many of them as you like:

Am Donnerstag um 14:30 Uhr gebe ich in der großen Halle mit großer Freude der Frau das Wasser.

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  • You have rambled extensively about how different verbs require combinations of objects from different cases, but you haven't answered the question of when one should use prepositions. In your entire answer you gave one sentence of relevance They introduce prepositional objects and they introduce adverbial clauses. - are these the only times I use prepositions, or are there other times? Can you give any examples?
    – jwbensley
    Aug 15 at 19:45
  • Your question was, "When to use prepositions in German?" and I wrote, "They introduce prepositional objects and they introduce adverbial clauses." That's it. Nothing more. I gave examples for both of them. You thought that prepositions were to distinguish between direct and indirect object, and showed: 1. There is nothing like direct and indirect objects. 2. We have lots of other objects and object-like things in German grammar, and they all depend on the verb or are optional and depend on nothing. And I gave ... Aug 16 at 7:14
  • ...examples for them. I'm sorry if my answer does not meet your expectations, but i didn't write it to satisfy your expectations, but to explain how the situation really is. Aug 16 at 7:14
  • I also added a section about the verb »geben« to my answer. I hope that helps to better understand. Aug 16 at 8:07
  • For "Akkusativ + prepositional" you give the example "Der Arzt klärt den Patienten über die Behandlung auf.", but the Akkusativobjekt is optional: "Der Arzt klärt über die Behandlung auf." is possible and (grammatically) correct.
    – bakunin
    Aug 16 at 11:11
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It might be helpful to expand on Hubert Schölnast's answer a bit. In the Duden example, geben has multiple meanings, some of which require two objects and some which require only one. The English "give" is similar, it has two different meanings between "I give the dog the ball" and "the cow gives milk". You only looked at the first definition in the PONS entry, and there are 19 listed, some with two objects and some with one. I believe the Duden example is definition 16, but you're quoting from definition 1. You can't use the grammar of a one meaning to generalize to all meanings of the same word, and that's true in both German and English.

German word order is more flexible than English in general. The "to" is required in English to change word order, but there is no such requirement in German. In fact, there are many possible word orders in German for the same sentence:

  • Ich gebe dem Hund den Ball.
  • Ich gebe den Ball dem Hund.
  • Dem Hund gebe ich den Ball.
  • Den Ball gebe ich dem Hund.

This is possible because German uses declension to determine role of a word in a sentence. This usually can't be done in English so English relies on word order, and English has to have strict word order to avoid confustion. To make variations similar to the last two examples in English sentence, you'd have to rephrase entirely, making them much more complicated:

  • "It was the dog I gave the ball to."
  • "It was the ball I gave to the dog."

In general, German grammatical concepts are different than English, so different terminology is needed. Sometimes German is more complicated, for example it has four cases which English has three. Sometimes English is more complicated, for example German has no progressive tenses. So using English terminology such as "direct object" to describe German will only lead to confusion. Not only that, though English and German cases can overlap, German cases are all used differently than any English case. I use the names "subject", "object" and "possessive" case for English, and "nominative", "accusative", "dative" and "genitive" for German, just to keep the differences clear.

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  • You haven't answered my question and instead explained that cases allow for mixed word order in German, which I have already mentioned in my question The cases make it clear that the ball is being given to the dog, regardless of word order ("dem Hund den Ball" or "den Ball dem Hund"). Look at all these prepostons, i.pinimg.com/originals/c1/6c/6f/… - when would I use them? Can you provide any examples?
    – jwbensley
    Aug 15 at 19:36
  • @jwbensley I don't think "when are prepositions used" be answered in this generality. You need to discuss this for every single one separately. And in essence the answer is "when needed" or "when appropriate" Aug 16 at 12:38
  • @jwbensley - In "I give the ball to the dog, the function of "to" the "to" tells who received the ball. In "Ich gebe dem Hund den Ball," the Dative case tells you that, so no preposition is needed. So I guess I'm confused about what the question is; there were several examples mentioned so I tried to explain them in detail. Perhaps you're generalizing from English to German here; a rule requiring a preposition in English does not mean there will be a similar rule in German.
    – RDBury
    Aug 16 at 15:35
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In both English and German, prepositions can be used to head adjuncts or modifiers.

The cat was sleeping on the chair, under the bed, behind the sofa…

The sentence the cat was sleeping is complete in itself and the adjuncts headed by different prepositions merely provide additional information as to where the cat is sleeping, with each preposition contributing its meaning (in the given example, specifying the spatial relationship between cat and a piece of furniture).

However, prepositions can also be used to head complements.

I believe in you. Ich glaube an dich.

Could you look after her? Könntest du dich um sie kümmern, auf sie aufpassen?

We have to dispose of the body. Wir müssen die Leiche loswerden.

The preposition is fixed by the verb: in English, I can believe in you, but not to you or by you; in German, only an jemanden glauben is possible, but not zu jemandem glauben etc. Furthermore, the preposition is devoid of its primary meaning; for instance, in or after in the above examples do not indicate spatial or temporal relationships as they would in the cat sleeps in the kitchen or we had a walk after dinner.

Being fixed by the verb, you have to learn which preposition goes with which verb, and as the examples show, corresponding verbs (such as believe and glauben) use different prepositions (believe in, but glauben an) or even different types of complements (dispose has a prepositional complement headed by of while loswerden has an accusative object).

One complication: English has a pretty productive alternation for ditransitive verbs where the indirect object can appear as a prepositional phrase headed by to.

I handed him the book. I handed the book to him.

However, this alternation isn't available for every verb (the asterisk * indicating ungrammaticality):

I explained the problem to him. but: *I explained him the problem.

Spare me the details. but: *Spare the details to me.

German, on the other hand, doesn't have this alternation.

Ich reichte ihm das Buch. but: *Ich reichte das Buch zu ihm/an ihn.

One final complication: Geben allows the recipient to be realised by a prepositional phrase headed by an, but that's a property of geben, and not something that can be generalised to other ditransitive vebs. (Even for geben, the variant with an is rarer that the one with a dative object and more restricted in the way it can be used; if a learner was to used it, native speakers might correct them to use a dative object instead.)

Die Gebühren, die nach einem Monat bei Nichtausgeben fällig werden, sollen nicht dem Förderverein zugehen. "Wir wollen die Einnahmen an gemeinnützige Vereine und Einrichtungen geben." (Rhein-Zeitung, 08.11.2003; Eine Chance für den Sieg-Taler?) geben3

This example is from Elektronisches Valenzwörterbuch deutscher Verben, which you can browse for some further examples of verb valency, i.e. which complements a given verb has (usually, there are multiple patterns for each verb).

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