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 a certain young guy who was learning German as a second language 2 centuries ago.

Darum, davor, damit

what’s with all that sh… uhm… stuff

It may be surprising to hear that this very young man who scratched those words into his wooden desk in despair grew up to be one of the most famous poets in the galaxy… Johann Wolfgang Goethe.
What?… What do you mean ‘he was a native’? … Was he? … oh really … oh … well… uh… well uh… (god this is sooo embarrassing)…
So… uh,… well… today we will talk about one of the most fierce gangsta crews in German language, chillin, hangin’ out on da corner in every other sentence hustling info… it’s “da wordz” maaaan.

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

Those da-words seem to be in every other German sentence, and they fesalso seem really hard to translate sometimes.  They actually are a very essential part of German. You cannot talk fluently without them, and you do need to fully master them to pass any higher German language test. So today we will talk about what they are, what they mean and why and when you need them and why they actually SAVE work… yes they do.

And as usual, if a seemingly complicated issue has to be explained, it is best to lay out some context first. So let’s look at the bigger picture… language itself.  So zoom out zoom out zoom out zoom out… … … …

Of stuff and stand-ins or… a little background won’t hurt

When we say a sentence, what is essentially in there is an action represented by a verb or a group of verbs and a bunch of stuff… persons, things, thoughts, ideas, places… basically stuff… (I’ll just call it stuff but persons/people are included, too). Other than that, there are some 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.
So… now if we look at the stuff in that sentence we see that stuff can be spoken of in different ways. One is to “say” the stuff… as in say the word that stands for the stuff in speech. I will use the same colors, but there is no consistent meaning to ’em… just take ’em for each example individually… same color stands for same part now.

  • Marc drinks a hot coffee at that coffee shop.

The other way is to replace it by a stand-in. I’ll use the same sentence here and just replace everything with the respective pronoun/ adverb.

  • He drinks it there.

Stand-ins (pronouns and adverbs) replace stuff that has been said before or will be said soon after. You can talk without stand-ins but your language will sound very very very very… very very repetitive and boring.

  • Jane sees a trailer for a new romantic comedy with George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston and decides to go see it.

Already boring enough but now check it out without stand-ins.

  • Jane sees a trailer for a new romantic comedy with George Clooney and  Jeniffer Aniston and decides to go see the new romantic comedy with George Cloo… bluh bluh bluh… you get the idea.

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

Now, stuff, be it directly or as a stand-in, can be put into a sentence in different ways… some stuff is just sort of in there, while other stuff has to be connected to the sentence in some way to make sense. Again, the step by step examples. First just plain stuff:

  • Jane brings her daughter upstairs.

Except for the verb brings we have just one stuff after another here: Jane, her daughter, upstairs. Now an example, where stuff is connected.

  • Jane drives with her car to the mall.

The stuff here is Jane, her car and the mall. But here we have connectors… in this case the prepositions with and to. Does it make sense without ’em?

  • Jane drives her car the mall.

Not really… so sometimes the structure requires you to put a preposition in front of your … stuff.
If stuff is represented by a stand-in, there isn’t really a difference as far as the connection is concerned. Here is an example.

  • Maria has a crush on Thomas. She is dreaming of him every night.

There you go… everything clear so far? Cool.
So that was the very big picture – language in general. Now lets zoom back in and look at a part… the German language.

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.

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.

Meaning of the da-words

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. First, female – die Party.

  • I have my book from her (Maria).
  • Ich habe mein Buch von ihr (Maria).
  • I am dreaming of it (the party).
  • Ich träume von ihr (der Party ) — WRONG
  • Ich träume davon.

And the next one is masculine – der Termin.

  • I am thinking of him (my grandpa).
  • Ich denke an ihn (meinen Opa).
  • I am thinking of it (my appointment).
  • Ich denke an ihn (meinen Termin). — WRONG
  • Ich denke daran.

And… you guessed it… one with a German neuter – das Festival.

  • I am looking forward to it (the  festival).
  • Ich freue mich auf das/es (das Festival). — WRONG.… actually superwrong
  • Ich freue mich darauf.

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.

What’s great about da-words

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.
  • 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 :)
  • 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.

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 … well …not so great about da-words

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 of a dolphin.
  • Mark träumt davon, Präsident zu werden.
  • Mark is dreaming of becoming president.
  • Maria wartet auf den Bus.
    Maria is waiting for the bus.
  • Maria wartet darauf, dass der Bus kommt.
  • Maria is waiting for the bus to come.

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.
  • Ich freue mich darüber, von dir zu hören.
  • I am happy to hear from you.

Here are some more examples.

  • Ich denke über meinen Bruder nach.
    I am thinking about my brother.
  • Ich denke darüber nach, meinen Job zu wechseln.
  • I am thinking about changing jobs.
  • Ich bin sauer auf meinen Mitbewohner.
    I am angry at my flatmate.
  • Ich bin sauer darauf, dass mein Mitbewohner nie saubermacht.
  • I am angry that my flatmate never cleans.

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).
  • Im Kino kommen erst Trailer. Der Film kommt danach.
  • In the cinema, first come the trailers. The movie comes thereafter (lit.)(after that/those).
  • Meine Freundin will Sushi essen, aber ich bin dagegen.
  • My girlfriends wants to eat Sushi but I am there-against (lit.)(against that/it)

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.

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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