Time 4.2 – gerade, eben, vorhin and more important words

Hallo everyone,

and welcome to the German is Easy – Online Course. As the times before, we will continue talking about time today so this will be the second part of the fourth part and this sounds like a party to me… get it? Part-y? Not funny? Hmmm… tough crowd… uhm… so… uhm  ehhh… Part 4.2 of the time mini series ladies and gentlemen, give it a round of applause…
Part  4 is all about those vague words that indicate a point in time without being too specific. Last time in 4.1 we focused on the near and far future. Here to recap the list of the words we learned so far in random order:

  • bald – gleich – demnächst – später – jetzt – sofort – nachher – dann

If you don’t know the correct order then you should (re)read the part 4.1.
So … last time we went to the future… this time we’ll go to the past and just as last time we will start in the present with jetzt.

The immediate past

There are 2 words that refer to the very very close past in German – gerade and eben. Both these words have like a bazillion meanings and each will be a Word of the Day hopefully soon… it’s just… especially eben is really hard to grasp. Anyways. These words as an answer to when? mean the very close past…. I’d say the range is from a second to no more than an hour ago. So suitable translations could be just or just now or maybe also earlier.

  • Marie hat gerade/eben angerufen.
  • Marie just called.
  • Ich war bis eben in der Bücherei und konnte deshalb nicht ans Telefon gehen.
  • I was at the library until just now / some minutes ago, thereforwasn’t able to answer the phone.

Now, is there a differnce between eben and gerade? Well, maybe a little… I think I use gerade more often since eben has many other meanings so it might cause a little more confusion. However, in some sentences, like in the second example, eben sounds better to me for… reasons… I really can’t explain.
Another interesting feature of the 2 words is that they often come in combination.

  • Hey John, was für ein Zufall, ich wollte dich gerade eben anrufen.
  • Hey John, what a coincidence, I was just about to call you.
  • Ich hatte eben gerade das Bad gewischt, als die Waschmaschine kaputt ging.
  • I was just done sweeping the bathroom when the washing mashine broke down.

On a side note… gerade is very often contracted to grade and gerade eben to grad’ ebm so you’re likely to hear that in spoken German.
You can say either example just with eben or gerade but I think using both in combination just puts a little emphasis on the fact that it really JUST happened. So maybe eben gerade / gerade eben only work for things within a 10 minute range from now.
And to be extra super thorough … is there a difference between gerade eben and eben gerade? Yes, I think there … although it is tiny . While gerade eben is used to refer to the immediate past of the speaker and listener in that very conversation, eben gerade sounds a bit better if referring to a close past of a random point in time. Take the example with the washing machine… that whole event maybe happened 2 weeks ago. But this is really based on my personal feeling, so maybe someone else says it is pure nonsense or even that for him it is vice versa. Bottom line… if you want to refer to the close past you can use gerade or eben or both.

  • “Hast du Hunger?”
    “Nee, ich hab’ gerade eben erst gegessen.”
  • “Are you hungry?”
    “Nah… I just ate.”

The range the next word covers is roughly from about an hour till maybe 3 or 4 hours ago and so I’d say it is the prime translation for the English earlier... as a name for a time that is so I am talking about the following earlier:

  • I was very tired earlier, but now it’s ok.

Note that this earlier is NOT früher. I said, note it!! I will wait till you have noted it… … … … ok good.
So… the German word for a past between 1 and 4 hours is vorhin.

  • Vorhin war ich sehr müde, aber jetzt ist es ok.

Vorhin is used A LOT and you should definitely try to use it too.

  • “Hast du was gegessen?”
    “Ja vorhin, aber ich habe trotzdem Hunger:”
  • “Have you eaten something?”
    “Yes earlier, I feel hungry though.”

One thing is really important about vorhin: it ALWAYS uses the moment you speak as an anchor. So it can not be used for accounts of past events like…

  • Maria was still very happy when she met Thomas because earlier she had bought that phone she had had an … “i” on. (hahaha so funny )

Here, earlier refers to the moment she meets with Thomas which is in past from the perspective of the speaker. This makes NO SENSE with vorhin. And this is something that is missing in many dictionaries. Vorhins reference to now is in fact so strong that it overrules context. People would understand that Maria met Marc earlier in sense of earlier than right now. Saying that this is the reason for her being happy by the time she met Thomas, which maybe happened weeks ago, is a contradiction or to stay in the field a… time paradox. It is not possible. So … actually the appropriate English translation for vorhin is earlier today and not just earlier.
So … this was ..oh…. What’s that? What would be the appropriate word for earlier in the Marie sentence in German then, you’re asking? … well definitely NOT früher :). You would either use a pointer like voher, davor or zuvor or people would simply not say anything like earlier and just let the context and verb time clarify the order of things. To save you some scrolling here is the English sentence again.

  • Maria was still happy when she met Thomas because earlier she had bought that phone she had had an … “i” on. (hahaha so funny )
  • Maria war immer noch gut gelaunt, als sie sich mit Thomas traf, denn sie hatte sich das Telefon gekauft, auf das sie ein Auge gehabt hatte.

Wow… so many colors.

Now here is a little side-note for nerds (warning: may contain info you really didn’t want to know… you may skip a few lines)

This is a very good example for denn being better than weil. Translating this sentence using weil would lead to a rather ugly double hatte-ending… behold:

  • Maria war immer noch gut gelaunt, als sie sich mit Thomas traf, weil sie sich das Telefon gekauft hatte, auf das sie ein Auge geworfen hatte.

This sounds just clunky and when people start a phrasing with weil and realize what this leads up when they are at Telefon, they will shiver and only reluctantly say the by then inevitable. Denn allows to avoid the double hatte.

Side – note end.

The recent past

Ok, so this was vorhin which is useful for times between on a a few hours ago relative to now… the next group of words all refer to a past which is between 4 days and a couple of weeks ago: kürzlich, letztens and neulich. English equivalents to this are not so long ago, recently or the other day…  without any particular order.
Kürzlich is clearly based on kurz which means short but mind you… kürzlich does NOT mean shortly. Not at all. Now this would be the perfect time for an example, but whatever sentence I am trying with kürzlich… all sound really weird to me. It’s not like kürzlich is incredibly rare or something, but I don’t use it very much so let’s just do the examples with the other 2 words … all 3 really mean the same after all.
The second word neulich comes from neu which means new. Oh and naturally neulich does NOT mean newly ;).
Now, neulich feel much more familiar to me than kürzlich so I can give you examples for this one.

  • Ich war neulich im Theater.
  • I was in the theatre recently.
  • Neulich Nacht konnte ich nicht schlafen.
  • I wasn’t able to sleep the other night.

The third word letztens comes from the letzte/n/m/r/s – family which basically means last… it is of paramount pictu… uh importance that you pronounce letztens properly. Fortunately it is easy because it is bascially Let’s dance. If you forget the final s or the n before that it will sound like a form of letzte/n/m/r/s and people will NOT perceive it as an indication of time. They will wait for you to specify… last WHAT?? So remember to say let’s dance!

  • Letztens habe ich im Park eine alte Freundin getroffen.
  • I met an old friend in the park the other day.

Neulich would work just as fine here and I guess kürzlich would too… it would sound a little technocratic maybe.
Now I feel like there is a small difference between letztens and neulich in that letztens kind of implies that you have more to say . I don’t know…. maybe that is just me but taking the last example I would expect the story to continue…. like… so I met her in the park and we had a coffee and chatted for a bit. The example with the theater (“Ich war neulich im Theater”) sounds less as if the speaker is going to continue. I think the next step there would be to ask “And how was it?”. But anyway…this is nothing you’d need to worry about too much.
There is a difference between recently and all 3 German words though , that matters a great deal. Recently can refer to a period of time.

  • There haven’t been any good movies recently.

Neither of the German words can do that. They all mean one point in time. They are not very precise which one exactly but it is one nonetheless. So saying

  • Neulich gab es keine guten Filme.

sounds really strange and it doesn’t mean the same as the English sentence. If you want to make reference to a period of time you need to use a preposition in German. This will be the topic of the next part, so I won’t say anything here.
There are a bunch of other ways to refer to the close but not immediate past… all those are using prepositions, too so I’ll just list them without comment. You can use all of them to replace letztens or neulich.

  • vor Kurzem – recently, not so long ago

  • vor ein paar Tagen – a few days ago

  • vor einer Weile – a while ago

I think vor einer Weile has the largest range and can also mean a few months ago…. but the other are within the range of a month I’d say.

The remote past

So… we have words for the immediate past (eben, gerade, vorhin) and we have some for the recent past (kürzlich, neulich, letztens). All that’s left is the remote past and now, eventually we get to use früher. Yep, früher is that time when everything was better, the public transportation was cheaper, people were more polite, politicians were still men with ideals, hell… politicians were still men as in… exclusively.. , the beer tasted better and was more nutritious, the air was cleaner and more nutritious, apples were still picked by hand from trees alongside the road … and the were way more nutritious… oh and the internet was better, too.
This is früher… the ol’ days.

  • Früher war alles besser.

Now my dictionary suggests formerly as a translation but I don’t think the 2 have much in common…. in my opinion früher is really more of a in times past, in the olden days or just in the past really share much.
Now, früher kind of means a period of time… so it is not so useful for single events.

  • Früher habe ich einen Bär gesehen.
  • In days past I saw a bear.

One way to use früher for single events is to add one of the most loved German words… mal.

  • Früher habe ich mal einen Bär gesehen.
  • In times past I saw a bear once.

This works fine and I think it is how people would phrase something like that in spoken but there is actually another word for the remote past which would do the job: einst.

  • Ich habe einst einen Bär gesehen.

This expresses that the event has been years ago as well as the fact that it happened once. But einst has collected a little dust becaus eit s not being used much. It would sound like you’re stage acting… like this character from that famous British author… that boy who’s dad was murdered… Hamlet Potter I think… not sure though… oh and also, einst can refer to the future as well but it is not used in spoken… so stick with früher or  früher mal respectively.

So… this concludes the fourth part of our time mini series. Here the words we have learned today in random order again.

  • einst – eben – vorhin – letztens – kürzlich – gerade – früher – neulich 

And just to give a little outlook on what’s left on the agenda… next time we will talk about the prepositions of time. That would be things like seit, bis, von etc . All those are incredibly important so make sure to either catch it live or tape it so you can listen to it later. The final chapter will finally be about pointers and relations and we will shed light on things like before vs vorher, danach vs nachdem, während vs derweil and others and then you know how to express anything time-related in German… in theory :).
So … if you have any questions or suggestion, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

15 responses to “Time 4.2 – gerade, eben, vorhin and more important words

  1. Wow Emanuel… My head seriously hurts after that one. But what a fantastic series this one is. Your posts on all the time concepts have cleared up SO MANY questions I’ve had about how to use all those words. Dictionaries are just not (enough of) a help in that regard! Thanks for tackling these and being so very thorough! Great stuff!

    I’ve put all the series into a special folder and will be reviewing those over an over… until it really starts to sink in!

    BTW… constructive criticism… but the colours, while helpful in part, were a bit overwhelming at times. Maybe you could consider the sentences with and without the colours, so we can go back and refer to the colours if we are unsure about the direct translation elements.


  2. German is way too specific even when we intend not to be ;)
    Anyway, it’s been a good serie. I’m looking forward to learning it all about the time expressions.

    The place expressions will certainly be LONGER AND TOUGHER than time expressions, but I’m looking forward to learning it too!

    Auf Wiedersehen


  3. The typos:
    sounds like (a) party to me

    fact which (both) many dictionaries miss (take it out)

    So(n) in the example people (out I think)

    based (of of)(on) kurz which

    The (theater) sentence sounds less as … (not quite sure what you anted to say)

    One way to (u)se früher for single events

    catch it li(f)(v)e or tape it s


  4. Thanks a lot for your posts. They have helped me a great deal in understanding the nuances of German grammar and word origins :) I have a question regarding word order related to adverb of time.

    I read that if the adverb comes in the beginning of the sentence to emphasize it, then the word order is adverb -> verb -> noun -> etc. However I could never see an example where we can have two adverbs of time. For example in my case one is specific time and another is generic; and as per Hammer’s the general precedes the particular in word order. Like: “Jeden Tag am 4 Uhr “. However I am not sure how to place them in the beginning of a sentence which means Ich stehe jeden Tag am 4 Uhr auf.

    Thanks a lot !


    • That is an interesting question and the answer is.. you have a lot of freedom. You can definitely treat it as one block and say:

      – Jeden Tag um 4 stehe ich auf.

      But you can also say this:

      – Jeden Tag stehe ich um 4 auf.

      Or in a longer sentence:

      – Jeden Tag [um 4] geht Maria [um 4] mit ihrem Hund [um 4] in den Park spazieren.

      The more you move it to the rear the more defining it becomes for the verb… that is to say, the more emphasis will be put on “um 4”. But all in all the versions are all pretty similar and the differences are but nuances so don’t worry… not much to do wrong. One thing though… I know it is written all over the web and in books but putting things in position 1 does NOT automatically emphasize them. Forget that. It is not how it works. If there is any emphasis at all depends on what has been said before, what you put there, what the verb is and what other pieces of information you’re giving. People who say “it emphasizes” are just too lazy to really check out what is going on :)


  5. Thank you so much :)


  6. Hi thanks for the post! I have been a fan of this site for sometime! I just have a question on einst. Since it refers to a point in time in the distance past, would it be equivalent to the English phrase of ‘once upon a time’?



    • Let’s say it can be equivalent:

      • Einst lebte ein Fischer in einer kleinen Hütte.
      • Once upon a time there was a fisherman, living in a small hut.

      But “einst” is more flexible when it comes to its usage… mainly because it is so short.

      • Das gute Brot von einst gibt es nicht mehr.
      • The good bread of from once upon a … nah :)
      • The good bread that was there once is no more to be found.

      Also, once upon a time has a somewhat fairytaly flavor to it… at least to me. “Einst” is somewhat high German so you’re more likely to find it in books than in daily conversation but it is pretty neutral in its color. “Once upon a time” at least implies some story coming up, einst is more like in the old days.


  7. Thanks for the awesome article, I have a question, how to talk about a specific time in the past? For example 2 days ago ?


  8. Ich habe auch “gerade” gesehen, wenn der Satz nicht in der Vergangenheit ist…
    Bedeutet das denn in diesem Fall, dass es ja in der Vergangenheit ist?
    zum Beispiel auf Facebook: “Was machst du gerade?”


    • Ja, richtig, das sagt man auch oft.

      – ich verbe gerade

      heißt soviel wie

      – I’m verbing right now

      Also, “gerade” reicht quasi von “jetzt” bis ein bisschen in die Vergangenheit. Je nach Kontext.

      – Ich esse gerade.
      – I’m eating right now.

      – Ich habe gerade gegessen.
      – I just ate.

      – Ich aß gerade, als du anriefst (real past)
      – I was eating when you called.

      Gerade ist ja scon ewig auf meiner To-Do-Liste, aber ich trau’ mich nicht… so viele Aspekte.


      • Keine Sorge,
        Ich verstehe (und sicherlich verstehen wir alle), dass es ein wirklich schwieriges Wort zu erklären ist (und eben auch), trotzdem hilft das mir sehr!


  9. Ich habe Deutsch seit zwei Jahre gelernt, und ich finde dass, deine Website die interessanteste und aufschlussreichste Website ist, die ich gelesen habe. Vielen dank!


    • Danke für das liebe Feedback :)
      Eine kleine Korrektur… oder Frage:

      Lernst du immer noch Deutsch? Wenn ja, dann musst du sagen:

      – Ich lerne seit 2 Jahren Deutsch.

      Wenn du die “spoken past” verwendest, dann sagst du, dass du nicht mehr lernst. Das ist ein klassischer Fehler von Englischmuttersprachlern. Die beiden Zeiten “have learned” und “habe gelernt” sehen zwar gleich aus, sind aber nicht wirklich gleich :)


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