Cases and Prepositions

Case is one of the big hurdles facing Icelandic learners. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns can seem to randomly change at arbitrary times with no rhyme or reason, particularly to a speaker who comes from a language with as little inflection as English. However, the Icelandic case is largely systematic and absolutely learnable. In this article we will take a look at case as it relates to prepositions.

Case Assigners

A preposition expresses a relation in time or space. They are, like verbs, case assigners in Icelandic. That is, the case of a noun depends on the preposition preceding it. This does mean that it is necessary (at least eventually) to memorise which case every single preposition assigns, but this is a lot more doable than it may seem at first glance. No preposition ever assigns the nominative, and only a very few assign the genitive, so in the vast majority of cases the options are only two: accusative or dative.

We will go through the cases, one by one, and list the most common prepositions which assign each case. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will cover the vast majority of prepositions a speaker is likely to need in daily life.

Translations given in parentheses will not be exact for every circumstance, but meaning will be quite consistent. When it comes to prepositions the exact translation is rarely important for understanding; context is everything. Just remember that a preposition expresses a relation in time or space and context will do the heavy lifting. 

There are a select few prepositions which may take either accusative or dative and change the meaning of the sentence depending on which it is. We we will save these for last.

Nominative

No preposition assigns the nominative case.

Accusative

Um (about), við (by), and kringum (around) always take the accusative case. In addition, prepositional phrases which indicate relative position and start with fyrir take the accusative: fyrir sunnan (south of), fyrir norðan (north of), fyrir austan (east of), fyrir vestan (west of), fyrir ofan (above), fyrir neðan (underneath), fyrir innan (inside of), fyrir utan (outside of), fyrir framan (in front of) and fyrir aftan (behind).

  • Jón er að tala um yfirmann(acc) sinn(acc) > Jón is talking about his boss.
  • Guðrún situr við borðið(acc) > Guðrún sits at the table.
  • Börnin hópuðust kringum Sigurð(acc) > The children grouped around Sigurður.
  • Reykjavík er fyrir sunnan Akranes(acc) > Reykjavík is south of Akranes.
  • Mótmælin voru fyrir utan Alþingi(acc) > The protest was outside of parliament. 

Dative

Frá (from), hjá (by, with), af (off), að (up to), handa (for), móti (opposite), and úr (out of) always take the dative case. 

  • Kærastan hans Guðmunds fór frá honum(dat) > Guðmundur’s girlfriend left him.
  • Ég er heima hjá Sigríði(dat) > I’m at Sigríður’s place.
  • Viltu taka dótið af borðinu(dat)? > Could you take the stuff off the table?
  • Kristín færði skápinn upp veggnum(dat) > Kristín moved the cabinet up against the wall.
  • Ég keypti gjöf handa Gunnari(dat) > I bought a present for Gunnar.
  • Bíllinn kom á móti mér(dat) >The car came towards me from the opposite direction.
  • Eigum við að fara upp úr lauginni(dat)? > Shall we get out of the pool? 

Genitive

Til (to), milli (between), and án (without) always take the genitive case. 

  • Ég þarf að fara til tannlæknis(gen) um helgina > I need to go to a dentist this weekend.
  • Er eitthvað í gangi milli ykkar(gen)? > Is there something going on between you guys?
  • Ég ætla að fá eina pylsu án sinneps(gen) > I’m gonna have a hot dog without mustard.

Variable Prepositions

Some prepositions can take either the accusative or dative cases, and change the meaning of the phrase depending on which they take. These are í, á, yfir, undir; and fyrir, eftir, með.

Motion: í, á, yfir, undir

As we explore in depth in Cases and Motion, these four prepositions take the accusative when they indicate motion towards a location, and the dative when they indicate non-motion at a location. Note that non-motion does not mean complete stillness: motion can take place within the location.

  • Helga hljóp í vinnuna(acc) > Helga ran to work.
  • Helga hljóp í vinnunni(dat) > Helga ran around at work.
  • Ólafur fór á kaffihús(acc) í gær > Ólafur went to a café yesterday.
  • Kötturinn skreið undir rúmið(acc) > The cat crawled under the bed.
  • Ljósakrónan hangir yfir borðinu(dat) > The chandelier hangs above the table.

In addition, when referring to time, í indicates duration of an event or state, and takes the accusative. Á indicates the time taken to complete an action, and takes the dative. These prepositions are explored in depth in our article on Duration.

  • Hann var að leysa rubik’s kubba í tíu mínútur(acc) > He was solving rubik’s cubes for ten minutes.
  • Hann leysti rubik’s kubb á tveimur mínútum(dat) > He solved a rubik’s cube in two minutes.

Fyrir 

Fyrir with the accusative case is equivalent to for while fyrir with the dative case can mean either to in the sense of opinion (what does this mean to you?), or being in somebody’s way.

  • Þetta er kennslubók fyrir byrjendur(acc) > This is a textbook for beginners.
  • Hvað þýðir „þau voru í pásu” fyrir þér(dat)? > What does “they were on a break” mean to you?
  • Viltu færa þig? Þú ert fyrir mér(dat) > Can you move? You’re in my way.

Eftir

Eftir with the accusative is used to mean by (an author) or after (a cause), and with the dative to mean after (in space).

  • Hann las Ég man þig, eftir Yrsu(acc) > He read I Remember You, by Yrsa.
  • Herbergið er í rúst eftir þig(acc)! > The room is a mess after you!
  • Ég skal fara inn eftir þér(dat) > I’ll go inside after you.

Fyrir and Eftir as Timing Expressions 

Fyrir and eftir are prolific prepositions as timing expressions. We explore them in-depth in our article on Point-Relative Timing, but here is a very short recap. With time, fyrir translates as ago and takes the dative; eftir translates as in and takes the accusative. With events, fyrir translates as before and eftir as after; they both take the accusative in this use.

  • Ég vaknaði fyrir korteri(dat) > I woke up fifteen minutes ago.
  • Hann vaknar eftir korter(acc) > He’ll wake up in fifteen minutes.
  • Ég vakna aldrei fyrir hádegi(acc) > I never wake up before noon.
  • Hann vaknar alltaf eftir hádegi(acc) > He always wakes up after noon.

Með

It is often said that með is used for things in the accusative and people in the dative. This is a fine simplification. To add nuance, the dative is used for accompaniment between equals, whether human or not, while the accusative indicates possession of something or someone. If the idea of possession of people feels counter-intuitive, consider most activities done with children where they do not materially contribute.

  • Ég fór með Jón(acc) í skólann > I went to school with John (I brought John to school).
  • Ég fór með Jóni(dat) í skólann > I went to school with John (John and I went to school together).
  • Ég ætla að fá hamborgara með osti (dat) > I’m going to have a hamburger with cheese (a hamburger accompanied by cheese).
  • Ég ætla að fá hamborgara með ost (acc) > I’m going to have a hamburger with cheese (a hamburger which, against all reason or logic, has developed the sentience for tool-use and now wields a slice of cheese, perhaps as a blunt instrument).

One other meaning of með with the dative is to indicate something used as a tool.

  • Ég fór í skólann með strætó(dat) > I took the bus to school.
  • Hún skrifaði með blýanti(dat) > She wrote with a pencil.

Summary

What case each preposition takes needs to be memorised. No prepositions take the nominative and only a very few take the genitive. Some prepositions change their meaning depending on what case they take. Among them are í and á which can indicate motion or non-motion with the accusative and the dative, respectively. Með indicates possession with the accusative and accompaniment with the dative.

Unfortunately, the matter of case assignment is too big a topic to cover in its entirety in this article. In addition to prepositions, verbs are prolific case assigners. This phenomenon is detailed in other articles. 

Following is a table summarising everything discussed in this article. It also incorporates verbs as case assigners as discussed in Cases and Verbs.

Cases and Verbs

Cases are hard. We make them easier with this instalment in our series on cases.

Cases and Impersonal Verbs

Verbs that don't change, dative sickness, and the language police: Impersonal verbs are an interesting topic.

Comparisons

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Learn about Icelandic comparisons!