Prepositions are functional words used to clarify the relationship between other words in the sentence. In English, these are mostly short words like about, on or with.
In Polish, just as in English, it is often nearly impossible to express even a simple thought without the help of a couple of prepositions. That’s why you should learn them quite early – without them, you will find it rather difficult to form coherent sentences.
If your goal is to understand spoken and written Polish, you’ll be fine if you just learn the translation(s) of each preposition. You will probably find some parallels in the use of individual prepositions in the two languages – try to take advantage of them, but don’t expect them to work in each and every context.
On the other hand, if you want to be able to formulate correct Polish sentences, you should definitely pay attention to one more thing: the grammatical case that should go with each specific sense of the given preposition.
Case study no. 1: the Polish preposition “o”
Let’s say you want to say “Let’s talk about this problem” in Polish.
Knowing that about usually translates to o won’t be enough to produce a well-formed sentence. You need to learn what grammatical case should be applied to the phrase following the preposition.
Sure, if you’re blanking out, you can take the easy way out and just use the basic dictionary form – the nominative case:
Porozmawiajmy o ten problem.
You’ll be understood, but don’t expect to score any extra points with the natives. If you want to form a fully grammatical sentence, you should put the phrase that is modified by the preposition in the locative case.
Why the locative? There’s really no simple explanation and most Poles would just shrug their shoulders at that question, so let’s not dwell on that. Here’s how a well-formed translation of “Let’s talk about this problem” should look like:
Porozmawiajmy o tym problemie.
You can change the first half of the sentence to something completely different – as long as the type of the relationship between the verb and the object connected by the preposition is more or less the same, you can count on the preposition o to “trigger” the locative case. To illustrate that, here’s another similar sentence requiring the locative:
Nie wiedziałem o tym problemie. (“I didn’t know about this problem.”)
You’ll be right to point out that the “relationship between the verb and the object” is a very fuzzy criterion to apply when deciding on which case to use. Of course, it’s not like Poles contemplate the nature of reality each time they use a preposition – it’s just something you have to internalize by exposing yourself to the language.
Let’s take a look at one more sentence:
Mary pisze książkę o ekonomii. (“Mary is writing a book about economics.”)
Even though the subject of the sentence is completely different, the preposition o is still followed by the locative. Looking at the three sentences we’ve discussed so far, you might be tempted to conclude that all English prepositional phrases with about translate into o + locative.
And, of course, there’s a catch.
Some verbs combined with o – a primary example being pytać o (“to ask about”) – require the object to take the accusative case, rather than the locative case. Here’s an example sentence:
Tom pytał o twoją siostrę. (“Tom asked about your sister.”)
Needless to say, most prepositions can be used in various contexts. This means that in some expressions, o might correspond to an entirely different English prepositio. So instead of always being tied to about, it can also be translated as at or for. Take a look at the two sentences below:
Jem śniadanie o dziewiątej. (“I eat breakfast at nine.”)
Julia prosi mamę o nowy komputer. (“Julia asks her mom for a new computer.”)
All this might seem a little confusing at first, and no wonder – if your mother tongue is English, you’re not used to thinking about prepositions as something that might affect the form of the following word.
While it is theoretically possible to learn all the use cases by heart, a much more practical way to approach this challenge would be to expose yourself to as many Polish sentences as possible. Sooner or later, you’ll get the hang of it. And even if you make the occasional mistake, you’ll still very likely to be understood. Now, let’s move on to another preposition.
Case study no. 2: the Polish preposition “za”
Depending on the context, za can correspond to several distinctive English prepositions.
In its simplest, most physical sense, za is used where English would use behind. In this case, the following phrase must take the instrumental case:
Co jest za tymi drzwiami? (“What is behind this door?”)
In more abstract contexts, za can be combined with phrases in the accusative to mean for something. Here are three example sentences with three different verbs:
Adam płaci za obiad. (“Adam is paying for the lunch.”)
Dziękuję za pomoc. (“Thank you for your help.”)
Kupiłem ten rower za 300 dolarów. (“I’ve bought this bicycle for 300 dollars.”)
But yet again, you cannot expect English translations like for to be useful at all times. Sometimes the best English translation is… no preposition at all. This will always be true for the verb tęsknić, which requires the instrumental case:
Tęskniłeś za mną? (“Did you miss me?”)
Finally, za can be used to express temporal relations. When speaking about the future, za followed by a unit of time (or any expression related to time) in the accusative will mean in:
Anna wróci za dziesięć minut. (“Anna will be back in ten minutes.”)
Oddzwonię za chwilę. (“I will call you back in a moment.”)
Case study no. 3: the Polish preposition “w(e)”
You’ve probably gotten used to the idea of choosing the right grammatical case to match the proposition by now. Let’s discuss something else: the reason why there’s an e in parentheses in the above heading.
The preposition w (“in” / “at” / “on”) has an alternative form we, which, although spelled differently, always means exactly the same. The extra letter’s only purpose is to make it easier to pronounce certain consonant combinations.
If you were to say w wtorek (“on Tuesday”), you would probably find it difficult to pronounce the w_wt sound combination without some extra effort (and extra embarrassment).
This is where we comes to the rescue. Saying we wtorek is not that hard – the extra vowel acts as a “buffer” between the consonants.
Because of this, we wtorek is the only grammatical way to say “on Tuesday” (this is one of the rare cases where Polish goes out of its way to make your life easier, not harder).
However, two w sounds standing next to each other do not automatically cause the e vowel to be attached to the preposition. It takes more than that – the second w sound needs to be followed by one more consonant. Compare:
w wannie (“in a bathtub”) – the second w is followed by a vowel
we Włoszech (“in Italy”) – the second w is followed by a consonant
But it’s not all about the consonant w. Here are three other typical phrases with we:
we Francji (“in France”)
we śnie (“in a dream”)
we mgle (“in fog”)
As you can see, there is more to we than just keeping w sounds away from each other. The extra e can also break up some other consonant-heavy sound clusters, such as w_fr, w_śn and w_mgl (ouch!) in the examples above.
But of course, there’s one more catch (did you really believe this rule would make things easier?)
W only changes into we in some clusters of three consonants or more. In others, it remains w. We would need to get really technical to lay down the exact rule, so let’s leave it at that – just try to remember that the w → we change doesn’t apply everywhere. Below are two common phrases in which no such change occurs:
w czwartek (“on Thursday”)
w pracy (“at work”)
One last thing: there are several more prepositions with a mechanism similar to the w → we change. First, there’s z → ze (“with” / “from”), which works in a very similar way:
ze strony (“from a page” / “from the side”)
ze źródła (“from a source”)
Then, there is a group of five more prepositions in which the change occurs much less often:
- bez → beze
- nad → nade
- od → ode
- pod → pode
- przez → przeze
All these prepositions get the extra e in a single, very specific context: when followed by the forms of the personal pronoun ja (“I”). Because of this, it quite easy to figure out when to use the alternative forms. Below are all the possible combinations:
beze mnie (“without me”)
nade mną (“above me”)
ode mnie (“from me”)
pode mną (“under me”)
przeze mnie (“because of me”)
Most common Polish prepositions with translations and examples of use
All right, now that you’ve learned the most important rules governing Polish prepositions, you should have no problems understanding the table below, listing the twenty most used Polish prepositions.
Next to each preposition are its closest English equivalent, the grammatical case taken by the object and example sentences using the given sense of the preposition (taken straight from Clozemaster).
Tips for using Polish prepositions
As a bonus, here are three rules of thumb that should help you tame Polish prepositions:
- Prepositions are never followed by the nominative and vocative cases, and only rarely followed by the dative. That leaves four plausible options: the genitive (most common), locative, instrumental and accusative (least common).
- In general, short prepositions are more common than longer ones. You can expect to see z, w, or o in practically every second sentence, but podczas or zamiast – not so often.
- There aren’t that many prepositions that can be accompanied by all of the four possible grammatical cases. Most prepositions only occur with one or two cases.
The Polish Prepositions Grammar Challenge
There’s no better way to master Polish prepositions than to practice with actual Polish sentences. The Polish Prepositions Grammar Challenge is designed with such practice in mind.
Your task is to fill in the clozes with the correct prepositions by looking at the context of the sentence and the grammatical case of the phrase following the cloze. This way you’ll quickly start associating Polish prepositions with specific grammatical cases, sentence contexts, and fixed phrases.