The Ultimate Guide to the German Preposition “an”

This is the second in a series of posts in which I look at prepositions and other small confusing words. The first post was about the word auf.

These tiny but important words often cause problems for learners. This is because they rarely correspond one-to-one between languages.

In each post, I will choose a preposition or small word and look at all of its common meanings and uses in detail.

If you don’t understand anything on this page, feel free to ask in the Facebook group and I will be happy to answer your questions. ūüôā

General Tip for Prepositions
Never learn a single translation for a preposition. Don’t assume it is used the same way as in your own language. Instead, learn the preposition in contexts and understand the actual meaning it conveys in that specific context. Over time you will develop an intuitive feeling for what the preposition means more generally.

Schalt dein Gehirn an!

Today I want to look at the word an in detail. This is another little word, similar to auf, which caused me problems for a long time. How can both auf and an mean on!? What is the difference?

an is usually translated to English as “on” or “at”, but this is a very approximate translation, and you shouldn’t use it to guide you.

There are many meanings, but as you will see, they all have something in common… a general feeling of an-ness.

Dative or Accusative?

an can be used with both the dative and accusative case. The case used depends on whether there is movement that breaks the boundaries of the object or whether action directly affects it. I think of it as “impact”. This is a complex topic and one I will cover in another post. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense yet.

an + accusativemovement or action affecting the object, “impact”
an + dativeno movement breaking the boundaries of the object
*don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense yet!
genderaccusativedative den Baumam Baum die Spreean der Spree
n.ans Wasseram Wasser die Häuseran den Häusern

The Meanings of An

1. On a vertical surface or object, or very close to it (+dat)

an is often used to describe objects on a vertical surface, or very close to it. This includes some English contexts that we would describe using “at”, “beside” or “against”. In this context it is used with the dative case.

an contrasts with auf. While auf refers to proximity to horizontal surfaces, an refers to proximity to vertical surfaces. Think of auf dem Tisch vs. an der Wand. In English we simply use “on” for both of these contexts.

Das Bild hängt an der Wand.The picture is hanging on the wall.
(Vertical proximity)
Wir sind am See.We are at the lake.
(No actual vertical surface, but the proximity is along a vertical plane.)
Jemand steht an der T√ľr.Someone is at the door.
(Vertical proximity)
Sie sitzt an der Bar.She’s sitting at the bar.
Ich wohne an der Hauptstraße.I live near the main street.

2. Onto or towards a vertical surface or object (+acc)

an can also refer to an object moving or being placed onto or towards a vertical surface, such as a wall, or towards an object such as a window or the edge of a lake. In this context it is used with the accusative case, because there is movement that affects the target object or its boundaries.

Ich hänge das Bild an die Wand.I hang the picture on the wall.
Ich lehne den Besen an die Mauer.I lean the broom against the wall.
Wir gehen ans Fenster.We go to the window.
Sie ist an die Decke gegangen.She flipped out.
(Literally: She went on the ceiling.)
Sie geht ans Telefon.She answers the phone.
(Literally: She goes onto the phone.)
Ich werfe dein Bild an die Wand.I throw your picture against the wall.

3. Used with specific verbs to specify an object (+acc / dat)

an can be used with the accusative or dative case to specify the object of certain verbs.

This is probably the most common use and the most unpredictable. If you learn these verbs along with the preposition and case, you will solve most of your problems with an.

Tip: Make sure to learn the case that goes along with the particular verb and context.

sich an etw. (acc) gewöhnen
Du wirst dich daran gewöhnen.
to get used to sth.
You’ll get used to it.
an etw. (dat) arbeiten
Ich arbeite an einem sehr wichtigen Projekt.
to work on sth.
I’m working on a very important project.
an jn./etw. (acc) denken
Ich werde an dich denken.
to think of sb./sth. (to have it in your mind briefly)
I’ll think of you.
sich an etw. (acc) erinnern
Ich kann mich nicht daran erinnern.
to remember sth.
I can’t remember it.
jn. an etw. (acc) erinnern
Kannst du mich morgen daran erinnern?
to remind sb. of sth.
Can you remind me of it tomorrow?
jn./etw. an etw. (dat) erkennen
Ich habe sie an ihrer Stimme erkannt.
to recognise sb./sth. by sth.
I recognised her by her voice.
an jn. glauben
Ich glaube an dich!
to believe in sb.
I believe in you!
an etw. (dat) Interesse haben
Es tut mir leid, aber ich habe einfach kein Interesse an Ihrem Angebot.
to be interested in sth.
I’m sorry but I’m just not interested in what you’re offering.

4. As part of a separable verb (not technically a preposition, but included for completeness)

an is often used as part of separable verbs. It modifies the verb and often adds the meaning of starting to do something, or only doing something slightly. This is just a general rule, however. There are many verbs that start with an– and their meanings are often unpredictable.

ankommento arrive
(etw.) anfangento begin
(jn.) anrufento call (sb.)
(jm.) etw. anbietento offer sth. (to sb.)
(jn./etw) angreifento attack (sb./sth.)
etw. anhabento have sth. on (clothing)

Tip: Make sure not to confuse prepositions (ich denke an dich) with the separating part of separable verbs (ich rufe dich an), as they often look the same!

Ich rufe dich sp√§ter an.I’ll call you later.
Das Mädchen hat den Jungen angelächelt.The girl smiled at the boy.
Das Konzert fängt um 20 Uhr an.The concert begins at 8 pm.
Was kann ich dir anbieten?What can I offer you?

5. At a specific place (+dat)

an can be used to describe being at a certain place. This is a similar meaning to 1.

Wir stehen direkt am Bahnsteig.We’re standing right on the platform.
Er wartet am Bahnhof.He’s waiting at the train station.
Das ist der Ort, an dem er starb.This is the place where he died.

6. Specifying a point in time (+dat)

an is used to specify the point in time when something happened. It is used with the dative case.

an meinem Geburtstagon my birthday
an einem Sonntagmorgenon a Sunday morning
am 2. Juni
(am zweiten Juni)
on the 2nd of June
an diesem Abendon this evening
an der Wende des Jahrhundertsat the turn of the century

7. Working or studying at an institution (+dat)

an can be used if somebody works or studies at a specific institution. In this context the dative case is used.

Ich studiere an der Universität.I study at the university.
Er arbeitet als Lehrer an einem Gymnasium.He works as a teacher at a high school.
Sie ist Schauspielerin an einem Theater.She is an actress at a theatre.

8. A specific quantity of something (+dat)

an can be used to refer to a specific quantity of something that is available.

Was besitzt er noch an Immobilien?What other properties does he own?
Was haben Sie an Kameras da?What cameras do you have in stock?
Was brauchen wir noch an Getränken?What other drinks do we need?
Einen kleinen Ausschnitt an Möglichkeiten zeigen wir Ihnen hier.A small selection of possibilities can be seen here.

9. Referring to a specific characteristic of something (+dat)

an can be used to refer to a specific characteristic of something. It’s usually translated as “about” in English.

Das ist das Wichtigste an der ganzen Sache.This is the most important thing about the matter.
Das ist das Beste daran!That’s the best part!
Was gefällt dir am besten an Hamburg?What do you like most about Hamburg?

10. Showing the extent of something in the phrase bis an (+acc)

When used in the construction bis an etw. (acc), it can refer to the extent of something through space.

In this context, it is used with the accusative case.

Das Wasser ging mir bis an die Knie.The water went up to my knee.
Der Lärm drang bis an mein Fenster.I could hear the noise right up to my window.
Wir fuhren bis an die Grenze.We drove right up to the border.

11. Emphasising the spatial proximity of two things, or the large number of similar things (+n/a)

an can be used between nouns without articles to emphasise the proximity of two things that are the same, or the large number of things.

Wir wohnen T√ľr an T√ľr.We live right next door to one another.
Es reihten sich Häuser an Häuser.There were row after row of houses.
Die Soldaten standen Kopf an Kopf.The soldiers were packed together in a line.

12. Specifying the start point of something in the phrase von … an (+dat)

an can be used in the phrase von … an to specify the time or place that something begins. Compare this to “from now on” or “from here on” in English.

Von Montag an bin ich im Urlaub.I’m on holiday from Monday onwards.
Von heute an sprechen wir nur Deutsch!From today on we’re only speaking German!
Von hier an wird das Gelände sumpfig. From here on the terrain becomes swampy.

13. On (switched on)

an can mean “on” (referring to an electrical device).

In this case it isn’t strictly a preposition but part of a separable verb (e.g. anschalten, see 4) or could be considered an adverb.

The opposite of an is aus.

Das Licht ist an.The light is on.
Ich habe das Radio angemacht.I turned the radio on.
Wer hat das Licht angelassen?Who left the light on?
Mach mal Musik an!Let’s get some music around here!

14. Specifying the arrival time of a scheduled departure

When talking about the schedule of a vehicle, ab specifies the departure time and an specifies the arrival time.

These are short for the verbs abfahren (to depart) and ankommen (to arrive).

ICE von Berlin nach M√ľnchen.
Ab: 13:46. An: 19:03.
ICE train from Berlin to Munich.
Departure: 13:46. Arrival: 19:03.
Flug von London Heathrow nach Hamburg.
Ab: 19:25. An: 22:05.
Flight from London Heathrow to Hamburg.
Take-off: 19:25. Landing: 22:05.

15. Approximately (+acc)

an can be used colloquially to mean approximately.

Es waren an die 200 Leute da.There were around 200 people there.
Bis Hamburg sind es noch an die 200 Kilometer.It’s still another 200 kilometres or so until Hamburg.

16. In the phrase an sich to mean “in and of itself” or “by itself”

an can be used in the phrase an sich to emphasise that you are referring to something on its own. This is comparable to “in and of itself” in English.

Geld an sich macht mich nicht gl√ľcklich, aber es hilft doch.Money per se does not make me happy, but it does help.
Erfahrung an sich macht noch keinen gro√üartigen K√ľnstler.Experience by itself does not make a great artist.
Der Film an sich ist ganz gut.The film itself is quite good.

17. Served with a side dish or sauce

an can refer to a sauce or side dish that is served with a main dish.

Rinderfilet mit Rosmarinkartoffeln und Zuckerschoten an einer Tr√ľffelso√üeFillet of beef with rosemary potatoes and sugar snap peas in a truffle sauce
Paniertes Schnitzel an einer Sahneso√üe mit ged√ľnsteten Zwiebeln und gr√ľnem PfefferBreaded schnitzel in a cream sauce with saut√©ed onions and green pepper

These are all of the meanings of an that I have come across so far after thinking carefully and combing several dictionaries. If you can think of any others then please let me know!

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