Written by: Olivera Tolimir
While the prepositions na and u are among the first to encounter during Serbian learning, they often cause some trouble.
They’re short, they’re easy, and they’re easily mixed up. There are some logical reasons why it happens. Stay with us to learn why Serbian students often use one instead of another and how to avoid confusion!
1. In/On & Inside/Outside
First, let’s translate these prepositions:
- na (on/at)
- u (in).
These prepositions’ main role is to show us where something is happening.
So, the simplest rule is this:
- if it’s in something, we use the preposition u
- if it’s on something, we use the preposition na.
- Mačka je u kutiji. (The cat is in the box.)
- Mačka je na kutiji. (The cat is on the box.)
- Ptica je u kavezu. (A bird is in the birdcage.)
- Ptica je na krovu. (A bird is on the roof.)
This part is easy to grasp. There’s something similar in every language since we have to be able to talk about spatial relations.
When we talk about visiting a place that represents a closed area, we use the preposition u. When we talk about open space, we use the preposition na.
- U stanu sam. (I’m in the apartment.)
- U školi sam. (I’m at the school.)
- Na stadionu sam. (I’m at the stadium.)
- Na pijaci sam. (I’m at the market.)
The general rule for geographical terms is this:
- continents, countries, cities: U
- islands and city parts: NA.
It means we will say:
- Živim u Evropi. (I live in Europe.)
- Živim u Srbiji. (I live in Serbia.)
- Živim u Beogradu. (I live in Belgrade.)
- Živim na Antarktiku. (I live in Antarctica.)
- Živim na Zvezdari. (I live in Zvezdara.) *Zvezdara is a part of Belgrade.*
However, there are some exceptions to this rule, and they apply to islands. In front of some island countries, we use the preposition u, because they’re more notable for their country part than the island one.
- Živim u Japanu. (I live in Japan.)
- Živim u Velikoj Britaniji. (I live in the UK.)
- Živim u Australiji. (I live in Australia.) *But: Živim na Novom Zelandu. (I live in New Zealand.)*
It’s not that New Zealand or any other island country isn’t known as a country in Serbia – far from that. The current language situation is the product of older times.
Another exception refers to the city parts. We usually use the preposition na with these locations. However, sometimes the city part name consists of words that mean something else, so the preposition matches those particular words.
For example, a part of Belgrade (and some other places in Serbia) is called Stari grad. Stari grad means Old Town. Since the word grad (town/city) asks for a preposition u, we use that same preposition even when it represents something else.
- Živim u Starom gradu. (I live in the Old Town.)
We don’t use the prepositions u and na for literal locations only. We use the preposition na when talking about events we’re attending.
- Na žurki sam. (I’m at the party.)
- Na izložbi sam. (I’m at the exhibition.)
- Na utakmici sam. (I’m at the sports game.)
- Na koncertu sam. (I’m at the concert.)
But pay attention:
- U noćnom klubu sam. (I’m at the nightclub.)
- U galeriji sam. (I’m at the gallery.)
- U bioskopu sam. (I’m at the cinema.)
Can you spot the difference? When talking about an event (an abstract thing), we use na. When speaking about a literal room or closed space where the event happens, we use the preposition u.
The prepositions rule for vehicles is much easier to remember while learning Serbian than in English. In Serbian, we always use the preposition u. Look at the examples below.
- U autu sam. (I’m in the car.)
- U taksiju sam. (I’m in the taxi.)
- U avionu sam. (I’m on the plane.)
- U autobusu sam. (I’m on the bus.)
Serbian Learning without Grammatical Cases? No Way!
You already know that Serbian learning can get a bit complicated because of our grammatical cases. When speaking of the prepositions u and na, it’s important to remember a few things.
First, we use them both with two grammatical cases: accusative and locative. This fact can be the first source of uncertainty.
We can’t choose accusative and locative interchangeably. There are clear rules, and the easiest way to remember them is this:
- locative shows location;
- accusative shows direction.
What does this mean?
It means if we talk about a location, we’ll use locative.
- Živim u Nišu. (I live in Nis.)
- Radim u kompaniji Jaffa. (I work at the Jaffa company.)
- Trenutno sam na predstavi. (I’m at the show currently.)
- Bili smo na Maldivima. (We were in the Maldives.)
Why are these locations? When we describe the location, it doesn’t mean we’re sitting in one place without making a move. It means we don’t cross the real or imaginary borders of the object/event. Living in Nis, you live in Nis – not outside the city. Being at a show, you’re attending the show, not wandering around the theater.
When we talk about direction, we use accusative. A direction means we’re on the move. For example: if you’re not at the cinema yet, but are headed there. Here are some more examples to help you with Serbian learning:
- Selim se u Niš. (I’m moving to Nis.)
- Idem u kompaniju Jaffa. (I’m going to the Jaffa company.)
- Ići ću na predstavu. (I’ll go to the show.)
- We’re traveling to the Maldives. (Putujemo na Maldive.)
Can you see the difference?
We also always use accusative when we don’t talk about place, but time. For example, when we want to say what month or day something happened.
When explaining time, there are a few rules:
- days, months, centuries: U
- holidays: NA
Look at the examples below:
- U četvrtak putujemo na more. (On Thursday, we’ll travel to the seaside.)
- U junu počinje leto. (The Summer begins in June.)
- Kako je to moguće u 21. veku?! (How is it possible in the 21st century?!)
- Posetićemo vas na Uskrs. (We’ll visit you on Easter.)
- Doći ćemo na Božić. (We’ll come on Christmas.)
For years, we usually use the Genitive without a preposition, but we’ll leave that for another time!
Did this little cheat sheet help you in Serbian learning?
The difference between the prepositions u and na are covered in our A1.1 self-study course and revised in the A1.2 course.
If you are more of a “live lesson” type of student, then book a lesson with one of our teachers!