Prepositions are the small words that indicate relationship between things, such as “from”, “about”, “below”, “through” and so on.
Prepositions in Icelandic cause words to have a particular case. A preposition will never cause the nominative case (first case), it will always cause one of the other three (accusative, dative, or genitive).
Prepositions that always result in the same case
Certain prepositions always result in the same case.
The following prepositions always cause words to be in the accusative case (second case):
- um (about)
- gegnum (through)
- kringum (around)
The following prepositions always cause words to be in the dative case (third case):
- frá (from)
- hjá (by)
- úr (out of)
- handa (for)
- á móti (against)
The following prepositions always cause words to be in the genitive case (fourth case):
- til (to)
- vegna (because of)
- án (without)
Prepositions that can either cause the second or the third case
Several prepositions can cause either the accusative case (the second case) or the dative case (the third case) depending on context. In most of the following examples, the general rule is:
- The accusative case (the second case) indicates that the subject is moving relative to the object.
- The dative case (the third case) indicates that the subject is not moving relative to the object.
The words are:
á (onto; on)
- á in the accusative case (the second case) means “onto”. The object is moving onto something.
- á in the dative case (the third case) means “on”. The object is not moving.
- Ég setti ost á hamborgarann = I put cheese onto the hamburger. There is movement towards the hamburger.
- Það er ostur á hamborgaranum = There is cheese on the hamburger. There is no movement.
- Ég fer á bílinn = I go onto the (roof of the) car. I am moving relative to the car.
- Ég fer á bílnum = I will travel there using the car. (This is an idiomatic phrase.) Although the car is moving, we are both moving together and so I am not moving relative to the car.
eftir (by, after)
- If the subject is in the accusative case (the second case) , then:
- The subject comes after the object in time.
- The subject was created (authored) by the object.
- If the subject is in the dative case (the third case) , the object is usually behind the subject in space.
- Þessi bók er eftir hann. = This book is authored by him.
- Myndin kemur út eftir mánuð = The movie will be released in a month. Here we use the dative since the subject is behind the object in time.
- Eftir það er ég búinn = After that I’m done. Here we use the dative since the subject is behind the object in time.
- Ég er á eftir þér = I am behind you in the queue. Here we use the dative since the subject is behind the object in space.
However, eftir also exists in many idiomatic phrases that need to be studied separately.
- Það fer eftir því hvort ... = It depends on whether ...
- Ég sé eftir því = I regret it.
- Ég tók ekki eftir því = I didn’t notice.
fyrir (for, before; standing in the way of)
- If the subject is in the accusative case (the second case) , the object is going to be given to the subject (and so there is an imagined “movement” towards the subject). This can also indicate a relationship in time.
- If the subject is in the dative case (the third case) , the subject is standing still and is standing in the way of the object.
There are also a few idiomatic phrases you need to recognize:
- fyrir mig = for me
- fyrir mér = in my opinion
- að velta einhverju fyrir sér = to be wondering about something
- að hafa rétt fyrir sér = to be correct
- Þessi bíll er fyrir mig = This car is for me. This car has already been allocated to me and is going to be my property soon.
- Þessi bíll er fyrir mér = This car is standing in my way. I can’t move because the car is there. There is no movement.
- Ég myndi gera hvað sem er fyrir þig = I would do anything for you.
- Ég kem heim fyrir jólin = I’ll be home before Christmas. A relationship in time.
- Geturðu farið út í búð fyrir mig ? = Can you go to the store for me?
- Verðurðu kominn fyrir kvöldið ? = Will you be home before the evening? A relationship in time.
- Ég var að velta því fyrir mér hvort þig langaði að koma í sund.
- Þú hefur rétt fyrir þér. = You are correct.
- Skiptir engu máli fyrir mig = Makes no difference to me. / That doesn’t affect me.
- Skiptir engu máli fyrir mér = In my opinion, this doesn’t make any difference.
í (in, into; inside of)
- If the subject is in the accusative case (the second case) , there is movement into it. Can also discuss time spans.
- If the subject is in the dative case (the third case) , the object is already inside of it.
- Farðu í íbúðina þína = Go to your apartment. There is movement.
- Vertu í íbúðinni þinni. = Stay in your apartment. There is no movement.
- Ég fer í úlpuna = I put the jacket on. I go into the jacket, there is movement.
- Ég fer í úlpunni = I go there wearing my jacket. I go there while I am already inside of the jacket, there is no movement relative to the subject.
Með is very difficult for students:
- The accusative implies that you are holding something or carrying something as if it were an object. It can be used to say that you are with a person only if that person does not have agency (cannot make their own decisions, for example if they are young children, if they are inconscious, or if you’re taking someone on a surprise trip).
- The dative implies either:
- That you are hanging out with some person who has agency (they can make their own decisions).
- That you are using some object as a tool for some purpose.
- ég er með hann = I am holding him
- ég er með honum = I am with him / I am hanging out with him
- Ég ætla að fara til útlanda með börnin mín. = I am taking my children on vacation abroad. This sentence implies that you are taking your children on vacation, they are either not old enough to make their own decisions or you are fully in charge of all planning.
- Ég ætla að fara til útlanda með börnunum mínum. = I am going abroad with my children / I am going abroad accompanied by my children. Here, the dative case implies that the children are your equals – you are hanging out with them. This implies that the children are old enough to make their own decisions – it wasn’t just you who made all the plans.
- Ég er með bókina. = I have the book.
- Ég er með bókinni. = I am hanging out with the book. Here you are treating the book as if it were a person. This sentence does not make any sense and would never be used.
- Hann sló mig með bókina. = He hit me, and at the same time I am also carrying the book. This sentence makes little sense and would never be used.
- Hann sló mig með bókinni. = He hit me with the book. This sentence is correct, the book is being used as a tool.
- Ég fór með hana upp á spítala. = I took her to the hospital. Here, the accusative implies that she didn’t have agency – you took her to the hospital. This would for example be if the person is badly hurt and could therefore not refuse the offer, or if the person is a child or is unconscious.
- Ég fór með henni upp á spítala. = I went with her to the hospital. Here, it implies that she is your equal – she has agency. You would use this when accompanying someone to their doctor’s appointment.
Undir causes a different case depending on whether there is movement or not:
við (by, to)
Við normally usese the accusative case:
- Ég sit við vatnið. = I sit by the lake.
- Ég tala við þig á eftir = I’ll talk to you later.
- Hann er góður við mig = He is good to me
However, you will see the dative case (the third case) in many idiomatic phrases:
- Verður einhver heima til að taka við mér? = Will someone be home to receive me?
- Ég þarf að vara þig við honum. = I have to warn you about him.
- Það er ekki til lækning við sjúkdómnum. = No cure exists for the disease.
yfir (over; above)
Yfir causes a different case depending on whether there is movement or not:
- Flugvélin flaug yfir húsið = The airplane flew over the house. There is movement.
- Flugvélin er yfir húsinu = The airplane is above the house. There is no movement.