German da-words Explained

Hello everyone,

and welcome to another part of the “German-is-easy learn German online course “… a course just as great as its title is stupid and long.
So … very very great!

But today we will have a look at something that has bothered generations of learners. No one has ever put it into words more beautifully than an unknown young person who was learning German as a second language two centuries ago:

Darum, davor, damit
what’s with all that stuff

We don’t know who was it. But some evidence as well as the style, wording and grace of the line points to the fact that this person may have been called William Shakespeare.
Not certain though.

Anyway, so the da-words, or da-compounds as nerds call them.

daran, darauf, damit, dadurch, danach, dazu, etc

Those da-words seem to be in every other German sentence, and they also seem really hard to translate sometimes.  But they actually are a very essential part of German. Like… You cannot talk fluently without them, and you do need to fully master them to pass any higher German language test.

Today we will talk about what they are, what they mean and why and when you need them.
And we’ll also see why they actually SAVE you some work. Yes, really. The da-words make German EASIER.

But first, let’s start with a quick look at the bigger picture because that’ll help us understand what’s going on.
So … zoom out, zoom out, zoom out, zoom out.


Okay, that was too much.
But now we got it.

Some foundational thoughts (for da-compounds)

If we take a basic sentence, we can identify basically three types of elements. One is the action which represented by a verb or a group of verbs.  The second big group is stuff. What do I mean by that? Well, I mean persons, things, thoughts, ideas, places, times – stuff probably isn’t the best word for it, but let’s roll with it for today.
So yeah, we have an action, we have stuff, and the third type of element we’ll see are function words that link parts to one another just like … joints, but that is it.
Here is a rather random sentence with the parts in their respective colors.

  • Marc didn’t get a pony for Christmas because he wanted it too much.

Poor Marc. Should have taken it easy.
So, if we look at the stuff in that sentence we see that stuff can be represented in different ways.
One is by name. That can be an actual name like Marc or Thomas. Or it can be the “item name”, which is the “name” we have given to a “thing”. Like “chair”, for example.

  • [Marc] drinks [coffee] [at that coffee shop].

Here, we have three “names” – Marc, coffee and  coffee shop.

And if you find yourself thinking “Man, this is so basic. What does that have to do with da-words.” please please bear with me. I really want to build this from the ground up.

So, the other way to represent “stuff” in our sentence is by using what I call a stand-in – which can be either a pronoun or an adverb.
Here’s the same sentence again, but everything piece of “stuff” is replaced by its stand-in

  • He drinks it there.

This only makes sense if you know what the stand-ins stand for, but generally, stand-ins are great because otherwise we’d have to repeat everything all the time and that would get VERY repetitive and very boring.

  • “Has your friend Maria seen the new movie?”
    “Yeah, my friend Maria has seen the new movie.”
    “And how did your friend Maria like the new movie?
    “My friend Maria didn’t like the new movie at all.”

So yeah… stand-ins are really useful and do, thus exist in most languages world wide.

Cool, now let’s circle back to “stuff” again.
Because the question is not only how we represent it in the sentence (by name or by stand-in). The question is also how we “integrate it” into the sentence.
And there are two ways to do that.
The first one is to just kind of “drop it in” directly.

  • [Maria] brings [her daughter] [upstairs].

The elements we have (beside the verb) are Maria, her daughter and upstairs. And they’re all just dumped into the sentence pretty much.
And the other way is to “connect” the element through a connection word, aka a preposition.

  • [Maria] drives [with her car] [ to the mall].

The elements we have here are Maria, her car and the mall. But here we are using connectors – the prepositions with and to.
And it wouldn’t really work without them.

  • Maria drives her car the mall.

Whether or not we need an extra connecting word depends on what element and what role it has in a sentence.
And if we need these connectors, we need them, regardless whether the element is represented by name or by stand-in.

  • Maria has a crush on Thomas
  • Maria has a crush on him.

Everything clear so far?
Again, please bear with me, we do get to da-words eventually.
So yeah, this is the general concept of stand-ins and now lets zoom back in a bit and look at German specifically.

Stuff and stand-ins in German

The explanations up to this point do hold for pretty much any language… so in German it is not any different. Let’s return to the last example we had.

  • Maria has a crush on Thomas. She is dreaming of him every night.
  • Maria hat sich in Thomas verguckt. Sie träumt jede Nacht von ihm.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The German stand-in for Thomas here is the pronoun ihm. Why is it ihm and not ihn or er? Because the connector is von and von wants everything after itself to dress up as dative case.

Now, the last example was dealing with a person. Now let’s do the same with a thing and see what happens.

  • I have a new bike and I like to ride around with it.

Here, a thing is being replaced by a stand-in: the bike – it. Now let’s translate that to German. With means mit and it means es… that is how many people in German 101 see it at least. So with it should be mit es. Unfortunately German has cases and the preposition mit just so happens to be ALWAYS followed by case 3 (dative). The dative dress for es is ihm. So it should be mit ihm right?

  • Ich habe ein neues Fahrrad und ich fahre gern mit ihm rum.

Logically it should be mit ihm, yes… but logic, shmogic. We are talking German here and German does it differently… instead of saying mit ihm it says:


Damn it.

The meaning of the German da-compounds

So that is it. That is the mystery about the da-words. It is just the twisted illogical way of German to say “with it”, “from it”, “for it” and so on.
When you want to replace things that are connected by a preposition you say da-and then the preposition.
The first column of the following examples is how it would be from an English native perspective, the second one uses the correct German cases based on the preposition but the third column is the actual correct German form.

  • mit “es”   – (mit ihm, ihr)  – damit
  • für “es”  – (für es, ihn, sie) – dafür

If this your preposition starts with a vowel, you have to add an r, too as a joint.

  • über “es” – (über es,ihn, sie) – darüber (instead of daüber)
  • auf “es” – (auf es, ihn, sie) – darauf (instead of daauf)

I want to point out again that this whole da-thing is only done when you talk about things… like a table, a dream or a place. If you talk about a living being like a dog or a cat you wouldn’t use it. Those are treated like persons.
But let’s do some examples and compare sentences with persons and things.

  • I have a book from Maria. (name)
    I have a book from her (stand-in).
  • Ich habe ein Buch von Maria
    Ich habe ein Buch von ihr.
  • I’m dreaming of the party (name).
    I am dreaming of it (stand-in).
  • Ich träume von der Party.
    Ich träume von ihr (stand-in) — WRONG
    Ich träume davon. (stand-in, da-word)

Let’s do another one.

  • I am thinking of my grandpa.
    I am thinking of him (stand-in).
  • Ich denke an meinen Opa.
    Ich denke an ihn (meinen Opa).
  • I’m thinking of my appointment. (name)
    I am thinking of it (stand-in).
  • Ich denke an ihn. — WRONG
    Ich denke daran. (stand-in, da-word)

I think you can see the difference. If we have a person, we use the stand-in and the preposition, normally.
But if we have a thing, we use a da-word instead.

And just for completion one with an animal – die Katze.

  • I play with it (the cat).
  • Ich spiele mit ihr (der Katze). — correct.
  • Ich spiele damit. —- WRONG

So here, although we are not talking about a person, we still use the “logical” version because a cat is not a thing… not because cat is female in German… it is solely because a cat is really not a thing in the German language. And what about a tree? Well, that depends on how you see the tree… both ways are possible, they just differ in attitude and philosophy.

Why da-compounds are awesome (yes, I said it)

There is one dream, most students of German share, and that is a German in which case and Gender don’t matter… a dream never to be true, or is it????

  • Freust du dich auf die Party?
    Ja, ich freue mich darauf.
  • Are you looking forward to the party?
    Yes, I am looking forward to it.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Tanzt Maria auf dem Tisch?
    Ja, sie tanzt darauf.
  • Does Maria dance on the table?
    Yes, she dances on it. (sounds contrived but all it must do is show one thing so please ignore the content :)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Bereitest du dich auf das Interview vor?
    Nein, ich bereite mich nicht darauf vor.
  • Are you preparing for the interview?
    No, I am not preparing myself for it.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

In the examples we have das Interview, die Party and der Tisch and we have both cases, dative (dem Tisch) and accusative (das Interview, die Party)… but the stand-in in all sentences, the word that we have to use to replace the object we are talking about is always the same… darauf. All those words, damit danach, dadurch, darum, make the dream of a German without gender and case come to life… Neither case nor gender do matter for the da-words… they are always the same. So when you talk and you come to a point where you have to say something like “on it”, “to it”, “from it”, “with it” etc. you do not need to know the German gender of it… just say darum, daran, damit, davon or whatever the preposition may be, and you will be correct… 100% top notch, native speaker correct.
Now, who would have thought that something so cool can come from something that is seemingly sooo confusing. But where does the bad reputation of the da-words come from?

What’s not so great about da-compounds

One reason, why da-words give learners of German a hard time is the simple fact that you have to change the order of things… instead of saying “with it” you have to think and say “it-with” if you will. If you are not used to it, you will talk and then maybe say “with” still wondering what case needs to follow, but it is already too late… you just can’t get it right anymore and you would have had to have used a da-word.
But there is another issue about the da-words, which I think is the main reason why so many find these words impossible to comprehend, and this reason is the rather stiff German grammar.
Let’s take the verb to dream. To dream can be used as a standalone word.

  • I am dreaming.

But it can also have an object.

  • I am dreaming of a care-bear.

As you can see the object, the cute cuddly little care-bear is connected by a preposition here. It would not be correct to say

  • I am dreaming care-bear.

So… if your action of dreaming has an object, you will use a preposition in English (of or about).
The German verb for dream, träumen, has the very same characteristics. You can just dream, or dream of something.
Now, dreaming of something can literally mean dream of a thing… like a care-bear. You can also dream of something, that cannot be expressed as one noun. You dream of something happening.

  • I am dreaming, that I never have to brush my teeth again, because they have become self-cleaning.

So if you dream of an action, you will express that using a that-sentence. And here is the point where German is a bit stiff. If you dream of something, you have to have an object in your sentence…. and a sentence, a that-sentence is no such object… a table can be an object, a vacation can be an object, but a sentence like “that the bus comes.” cannot. And this is where the da-words step in. They are used as a sort of empty box, that is put into the main sentence just for the sake of having something solid there.

  • Mark träumt von einem sprechenden Delphin.
    Mark is dreaming of a speaking dolphin.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Mark träumt davon, Präsident zu werden.
  • Mark is dreaming of becoming president.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Maria wartet auf den Bus.
    Maria is waiting for the bus.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Maria wartet darauf, dass der Bus kommt.
  • Maria is waiting for the bus to come.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The green part is a dream that involves an action… a new verb. The bus comes, and Mark becomes. A new verb in German will be a new sentence…maybe a minor sentence that can’t stand for itself, but a sentence still. It will be separated by a comma and it is not really part of the main sentence… at least it is not an object therein … therein… hmmm… that does look an awful lot like darin, now does it :).
Anyway… we need an object there because Maria is not just waiting but waiting for something. German is stiff and wants an object then in the main sentence… so we put an empty sign there, that just says “of that”, pointing toward what we will say right after that.
These things are called Präpositionalobjekt, because they serve as an object and they are built using a preposition. You may want to remember the term if you intend to make one of the higher German language certificates… then you will have to have understood the da-words :).
This use of the da-words is kind of hard to get used to if your language doesn’t have those, because they don’t carry ANY meaning. They really mean nothing. They are just a sign pointing to what comes after, and it is just there, because German grammar wants it there. If you forget it, it won’t change any meaning… but you will sound very foreign, because Germans are just so used to their stand in object.
If you translate them to English, French, Italian or Spanish you will most likely just leave them away. The only information they do carry is the preposition, so if a verb works with different ones, the da-word tells you which it is.

  • Ich freue mich darauf, von dir zu hören.
  • I am looking forward to hearing from you.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich freue mich darüber, von dir zu hören.
  • I am happy to hear from you.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Here are some more examples.

  • Ich denke über meinen Bruder nach.
    I am thinking about my brother.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich denke darüber nach, meinen Job zu wechseln.
  • I am thinking about changing jobs.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich bin sauer auf meinen Mitbewohner.
    I am angry at my flatmate.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich bin sauer darauf, dass mein Mitbewohner nie saubermacht.
  • I am angry that my flatmate never cleans.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

I hope you can see that the da-words really do not translate to anything. They just hang around there and represent. And I see we have a call here, Lionel from Argentina, welcome to the show.
          “Hey Emanuel wie geht es dich.”
Dir, it is … wie geht es dir, but thanks a lot :)… so Lionel… how was it so far. Did you understand everything.
          “I think I did… I might have to listen to it again online though, to fully absorb everything… it was really a lot of information today.”
Oh, I know… sorry, if it was to overwhelming… anyway… what can I do for you.
“Yeah, see, so we have  So… we have learned that the da-words are the equivalent of “to it”,”from it”, “with it” etc. We have also learned that they save you the trouble of worrying about gender or case and finally we have learned that they are sometimes just put into a sentence because the German grammar wants a solid object in the main sentence (before the comma).”
That was a pretty concise summary…
“Thank you, but my question is now, what about that da… I mean… what does it actually mean? Does it mean like er, ihm, ihn, es, ihr, sie, ihr, dem, den, das, der and all those? That seems pretty crazy to me….”

What does “da” actually mean

Well… thank you Lionel for bringing that up: I am sure, a lot of you guys out there were wondering the same.
Technically da seems to replace all those pronouns. But that is not the essence of that word… da replaces all those but it doesn’t technically mean ’em. And now think… what can you do in daily life if you want to refer to stuff without saying it? You simply …. point your finger.
Da is a very very very simple word to pronounce and it is one of the first utterances of babies… they point their finger at their mom and say “da, da, da…”.  And this best captures what this word is… it is just a verbal pointer … like there or that. And even adult German still use this infant way of referring to things in the world :). When it comes to speaking, Germans are all babies after all.
We can answer the question “Where is my key” by pointing to the table and saying “Da”. Da is a verbal pointing finger and it can point to pretty much anything in speech except living beings. So damit does not so much mean “with it” but “therewith”.

  • Das Portrait ist zwar nicht perfekt, aber ich bin zufrieden damit.
  • The portrait is not all perfect, but I am satisfied therewith. (lit.) (with it).
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Im Kino kommen erst Trailer. Der Film kommt danach.
  • In the cinema, first come the trailers. The movie comes thereafter (lit.)(after that/those).
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Meine Freundin will Sushi essen, aber ich bin dagegen.
  • My girlfriends wants to eat Sushi but I am there-against (lit.)(against that/it)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Da points to the painting, the trailers or the Sushi-eating but it carries no indication of gender, number or case… if you are interested in those, you’d have to look at where da points. Da just points. That’s all.
It can point backward as in the example above, but it can also point forward… as it does when it is used for those pointless filler objects we have been talking about.

  • Ich bestehe darauf, dass du dich entschuldigst.
  • I am insisting (thereon), that you apologize.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Here the da points forward. There is nothing to point at before, after all. The thing it is pointing to has to come ASAP. You cannot point with your finger without having everyone looking there right away. So if you say da, and people do not know anything this could point to, yet they expect it to come right away in your speech. You said there, and now you have to give them something to look at or they will be very disappointed :).
So… did that answer your question Lionel?
“It actually did… that makes a lot of sense to me now. Kind of funny to think of a baby saying da da da all the time (laughs)… thanks a lot for clearing that up.”

You are welcome man. So … I think we are done for today… at least I hope so.
If you have ANY questions or find the explanations too long or too difficult please leave me a comment… I really will see to it and try to improve the parts that are unclear.
I also have to say sorry for the random use of colors. I did not write this post all at once (as I usually try to do) so I have no concise system for which colors to use. And I honestly have to say, that I hate proofreading… I will do it some day, but for now, I want to post this tinker so I am sorry for all the typos in here… anyway… I hope you liked it and
bis nächstes Mal.

Oh… by the way… German’s actually have another little trick to confuse you with da-words: they split them up.
Luckily, I have an article about that, too.
Find it here, it’s really good:

Da-words undone – how and why Germans split up their da-words

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