zum/zur/am/ans/im – German Contractions Decoded

You’ve probably seen these little contractions floating around in German. They can be pretty confusing. It feels like there is a secret club with elaborate rules determining when to use which one, and you’re not in it!

But they’re really quite simple: They are nothing more than prepositions and articles crunched together.

Because of the way cases and prepositions interact, you often get the same ones occurring together. For example, zu always triggers dative, so whenever zu is used in front of something that is masculine or neuter, you get zu dem. This happens so often, that people started smushing them together to save time – zum.

Note: You should have some knowledge of the accusative and dative cases before reading this post or it probably won’t make much sense.

If you read the post and still want me to explain it to you, why not book a call with me? It’s quick, simple and very fairly priced compared to German courses.

Let’s have a look at the most common ones and then look at them in more detail for each preposition.

Preposition and ArticleResulting Contraction
zu + derzur
zu + demzum
in + demim
in + dasins
an + demam
an + dasans
von + demvom
bei + dembeim
durch + dasdurchs
um + dasums
auf + dasaufs
über + dasübers

The Tricky Part

The reason contractions seem difficult is because a lot factors into them. You need to know:

  1. The gender of the noun
  2. Which case the preposition uses
  3. In the event it’s a two-way preposition, whether there is movement

Only if you take all of those into account can you decide which article to use and then contract it if necessary.

Reminder of Prepositions

DativeAccusativeTwo-Way
(movement: acc,
no movement: dat)
aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, gegenüber, außerfür, um, durch, gegen, entlang, bis, ohne, wideran, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen

The Good News

The good news is that the only contractions where you have to consider whether there is movement or not are:

im, am (no movement)
ins, ans (no movement)

It is possible to use these ones in full (e.g. in das, an das, in dem, an dem). It’s not wrong, but it sounds a bit weird.

There are some other contractions that factor in movement (aufs, übers, unters, hinters, vors, vorm) but they’re not very common and people very often just say auf das, über das, unter das, vor dem etc.

zum / zur etc.

zu is a dative preposition. This means that it always triggers the dative case. This makes it easy!

Masculine and neuter are very similar, and both turn into dem in the dative case.

If zu comes before a masculine or neuter noun, you get zu dem, which contracts to zum.

Note that the same pattern applies to von and bei, i.e. zum could also be vom or beim. Likewise zu den would be bei den or von den. The only difference is that there is no contraction equivalent to zur. Instead it’s like zu der, i.e. bei der and von der.

zum Bahnhof (m)to the station
zum Abendessen (n)for dinner
zum Geburtstag (m)for one’s birthday
zum Auto (n)to the car
zum Haus (n)to the house
zum Wald (n)to the forest

For feminine nouns, the dative article is der. If you get zu before a feminine noun, it becomes zu der, which contracts to zur.

zur Post (f)to the post office
zur Apotheke (f)to the pharmacy
zur Sicherheit (f)to be sure
zur Abwechslung (f)for a change
zur Auswahl (f)to choose between
zur Freude (f)to the delight of

For plural it’s just zu den plus an –n on the end of the noun.

der Hundthe dog
die Hundethe dogs
zu den Hundento the dogs

Don’t forget to add the –n onto the end of the noun, even if its plural form doesn’t normally end in an –n. Lots of people get this wrong!! Don’t confuse a dative plural –n with a plural –n! I call this the fool’s plural.

zu den Häusern (pl)to the houses
zu den Wäldern (pl)to the forests
zu den Zügen (pl)to the trains
zu den Blumen (pl)to the flowers

Easy mode:

zu + masculine or neuter = zu dem = zum
zu + feminine = zu der = zur
zu + plural = zu den

Delete these from your brain:

zu das
zu die

These do not exist, so delete them from your brain.

im / ins etc.

The preposition in is a bit trickier because it’s a two-way preposition. (This means that which case is used (accusative or dative) depends on whether there is movement that affects or “impacts” the noun.)

A general rule for in is that the meaning “into” is accusative (movement) and the meaning “in” (no movement) is dative.

accusative
in den Wald (m)into the forest
in die Stadt (f)into the city
ins Zentrum (n)into the centre
in die Häuser (pl)into the houses
dative
im Wald (m)in the forest
in der Stadt (f)in the city
im Zentrum (n)in the centre
in den Häusern (pl)
(don’t forget to add an -n!)
in the houses

Easy mode:

in + movement + masculine = in den
in + movement + feminine = in die
in + movement + neuter = in das = ins
in + movement + plural = in die

in + stationary + masculine/neuter = in dem = im
in + stationary + feminine = in der
in + stationary + plural = in den

am / ans etc.

an is very similar to in – both of them are two-way prepositions, so you need to pay attention to whether there is movement or not.

an + dative means at / beside / next to
an + accusative means onto/towards.

Ich stehe am Baum.
I’m standing beside the tree.

Wir sind am See.
We’re at the lake.

I wrote a detailed guide to the word an here.

accusative
an den See (der)towards / “onto” the lake
an die Wand (die)towards / “onto” the wall
ans Meer (das)towards / “onto” the sea
an die Häuser (pl.)towards / “onto” the houses
dative
am See (der)at/beside the lake
an der Wand (die)at/beside the wall
am Meer (das)at/beside the sea
an den Häusern (pl.)
(don’t forget to add an -n!)
at/beside the houses

Easy mode:

an + movement + masculine = an den
an + movement + feminine = an die
an + movement + neuter = ans
an + movement + plural = an die

an + no movement + masculine = am
an + no movement + feminine = an der
an + no movement + neuter = am
an + no movement + plural = an den

How to Learn German Contractions

Now let’s talk about how to actually learn them so you can use them automatically and effortlessly.

If you want to be able to use them in conversation, you’ll need to train your brain to access the correct form in 0.1 seconds.

It’s kind of like how you learn multiplication at school. “Seven sevens are forty-nine!” You don’t actually do the calculation in your head – you just remember it.

Say I wanted to remember the recipe for ins, which is movement + neuter.

All I have to do is visualise that happening. You visualise the “das-ness” of the noun and the movement into it, and then the result of the recipe.

Visualise entering a car (das Auto) and think ins.
Visualise going into the centre of town (das Zentrum) and think ins.
Visualise entering a house (das Haus) and think ins.

Repeat this for each one. Do this every day and every time you encounter them. Every time you read ins, just think – ahah, movement into das-ness!

Another example for an:

Visualise walking towards a lake (der See) = Ich gehe an den See.
Visualise walking towards a car (das Auto) = Ich gehe ans Auto.
Visualise standing next to a car (das Auto) = Ich stehe am Auto.
Visualise throwing something towards a wall (die Wand) = Ich werfe etwas an die Wand.

The Secret to Learning All Grammar

In fact, this method will help you learn all grammar – visualising what the grammar means, and thinking about the form of the word. This is such an important concept that I’ve just decided I’m gonna make a whole post on it. I’ll link it here when I’m done.

Phew, I have a headache!

This was a slightly confusing topic today, so well done if you made it this far. Still confused? Why not book a call with me?