Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The difference between zu, nach and in - all you need "to" know

Ever wanted to go to another city or to one of your friends?
Ever thought it makes a linguistic difference? While in English it doesn't, German is a little different... again. There are two words in German and they're actually pretty different. The heroes of this article are nach and zu (well... "in" is sth. like a sidekick I guess).

nach and zu both mean "to" but they're not interchangeable.

You use nach when going to a specific city, country or continent. (except for Antarctica... in case this is a continent to you) Still you should be careful here, because you only use "nach" when using the name of that place. So you go "nach London" but "zu" a city. Same counts for continents and countries. Always when not mentioning the specific name but just saying "this country" or so... you'll have to use zu.

Using "zu" is pretty easy because you can always use it when not using "nach". Well... always except when emphasizing that you enter a building. Then you will use "in". When going downtown, you'll also have to use "in". In German this would be: "Ich gehe in die Stadt." or "Ich gehe in die Innenstadt." (Stadt = city; Innenstadt = city center or "inner city")

I used "zu der" for the sake of simplicity. Actually "zu der" becomes "zur", so people would normally say: "Ich gehe zur Bibliothek."

So when going to the library, in and zu are basically interchangeable, since you're usually going to enter the library when going to it. In case you're going there to meet a friend of yours in front of the library, then "zu" is the right choice.
"Ich gehe zu der Bibliothek um dort einen Freund zu treffen."
"I'm going to the library to meet a friend (there)."

Some Germans even don't get the difference between "zu" and "nach". They'll say stuff like "Ich gehe nach Aldi." (Aldi is a popular supermarket in Germany... since supermarkets are no countries, no matter how popular they are... "zu" is actually the right word) If you ever hear a German saying something like that to you, you have only one choice. Start screaming and run for it - don't let him ruin your grammar! ;)

Expert Tip:
Some word-combinations merge into one single word. This is the case with the following words.

zu der = zur (Ich gehe zur Bilbiothek. / "I go to the library.")
zu dem = zum (Ich gehe zum Supermarkt. / "I go to the supermarket.")
in das = ins (Ich gehe ins Haus. / "I go into/enter the house.")

While zu der and zur (etc.) have the exact same meaning, it's actually best to use those compound words (zur/zum/ins) whenever possible. People are far more likely to say "Ich gehe zum Supermarkt." instead of "Ich gehe zu dem Supermarkt.".



  1. Hi! My german teacher told me that zu is a dative preposition and can only be used with no movement - the dative. In this article, however, you have used gehen and zu? Gehen always takes the accusative, so how is this possible? Also, dosen't zu der become zur? Great website btw, clear and informative.

    1. Hi Rick!
      I'm happy that you like this site.
      I’ll give you some examples first:

      "Ich gehe zu dir." (I'm going to your place.)
      “Ich gehe zu Bob.” (I’m going to Bobs place.)
      "Du kommst zu mir." (You're coming to my place.)
      "Wir fahren zum Flughafen." (We're going to the airport.) (by car/train/some other vehicle)

      All those sentences contain movement and they're all fine and frequently used.
      When going to a person, you use “zu”. (like “zu dir”, “zu mir”, “zu Bob”). So you either use his/her/their name or a personal pronoun like “him, her, them, …”, then the use of “zu” is fine.
      This does not exactly apply to places or people of a profession though. If you’re going to the dentist, then you say “Ich gehe zum Zahnarzt.”.

      You’re absolutely right. "zu der" becomes "zur". You should usually use “zur” instead of “zu der” since “zur” is what’s commonly used. I didn’t use it in this example because I didn’t want to overcomplicate the post and keep the focus on the differences of “zu” und “nach”. I just treated “zur”, like “zu der” “zum” like “zu dem” since this is what they originate from.

      Your teacher is probably right with her statement. Exceptions prove the rule though. The example I gave earlier is probably one of those exception from the rule. If your teacher says that this rule applies to “zu” only and not to “zum” and “zur” (and also considers that the example here is an exception from the rule) then the two of us agree.

      I hope I didn’t lose you on the way :) if so, just let me know. It would be great if you also asked your teacher about this so we have some clarification here.
      I’m terrible at keeping things short. Sorry for that! Anyhow, I hope I was able to be of help. If there’s anything else then just let me know, I’ll try to reduce my response time. If you have any requests for new posts then share them with me so I can work on something new. If there’s something you struggle with then there’s probably a couple of thousand people that struggle with the same thing ;) Also feel free to share this site with your fellow students. The more the merrier.

      Have a great weekend


    2. Ah, and just by the way - I edited the article to point out the "zu der" = "zur" thing.

    3. Hey Rick. Your teacher is right. "zu" is a preposition that requires a dative.

      Your misconception is that "gehen" needs the accusative. The only thing mandatory with the verb "gehen" is the subject i.e. nominative. You can say "Ich gehe." And it is a meaningful sentence. Now you can add more information by using prepositions or different cases.

      I go my way = Ich gehe meinen Weg (accusative)
      (I can think of sentences using other cases esp. genitive but all of them sound kinda dated)

      With prepositions, the preposition takes the rule over the case and you have to use the one the preposition demands as showed in the article.

  2. Boss i will say zu has nothing to do with movement or non movement rather it is a pure dative preposition that follws dative case so plz dont get confused.

    1. Don't get me wrong. This is not a complete description on how to use "zu". The post is only about the relation between "zu", "nach" and "in" and for situations in which they might be confused.
      There is a variety of other uses for all these words - but if I explained all of them, this would be a whole different article.

  3. thank you very much you are absolutely amazing :D

  4. Replies
    1. This would imply that you're already inside.

      "Ich gehe im Supermarkt." would mean that you're inside the supermarket - and you're walking. People are likely to understand what you mean by it but it would be incorrect.

      "Ich gehe in den Supermarkt." Is possible and complerelty correct though :)

  5. Hi! Thanks for the examples. But I'm still confusing this one: If I want to go and buy things I need, should I say "Ich gehe zum Supermarkt" or "Ich gehe in den Supermarkt"? Which one is correct?

    1. Both is fine and can be used but "Ich gehe zum Supermarkt" is what will usually be said.
      "Ich gehe in den Supermarkt" puts an emphasis on entering. This is not required because entering and buying stuff is what people usually do if they go there.

      If you're already standing in front of the supermarket you won't say that you go "to the supermarket", because you're already at the supermarket. So you would be more likely to say "Ich gehe in den Supermarkt."

  6. Great Explanation in Article as well as in comments... Danke Alex.

  7. What's the difference between zum and zur??

    1. Sorry for the late reply!
      Check the end of the post and the comments, there you'll already find an explanation. :)
      I'll give you a quick one here anyways... or rather some examples that might help you to understand the difference better.

      zum = zu dem
      zur = zu der

      der Arzt (masculine) - Ich gehe zu dem Arzt. --> Ich gehe zum Arzt.
      das Auto (neutral) - Ich gehe zu dem Auto. --> Ich gehe zum Auto.
      die Schule (feminine) - Ich gehe zu der Schule. --> Ich gehe zur Schule.

      So whether you use "zum" or "zur" depends on the gender of the noun.
      The meaning is the exact same, so the difference is only in grammar, not in meaning.
      So saying: "Ich gehe zum Schule" would simply be incorrect - and every native would notice - but people would still understand you perfectly fine.

  8. Thanks a lot for this! I was confused as to what zum and zur actually meant and now I have a decent understanding of times to use nach and in. I appreciate it!