The meaning of “dabei”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: October 6, 2022

Hello everyone,

and welcome to your German Word of the Day, this time with a look at the meaning of one of those infamous da-words.


We’ve already talked about the da-words in general but some of them merit a closer look because they’ve taken on functions and meanings that don’t seem to fit the general explanation and because they’re part of a bazillion super-common phrasings. Dabei is one of those so we’re in for loads of idiomatic examples. If you want to sound like a native speaker dabei will definitely help you with that ;).
So let’s dive right in….

Oh, one thing before we start…  you’ll get much more out of it if you already know your da-words. So if you need to brush up on that, here’s the link:

How do da-words work

All right. And now let’s start.

the meaning of “bei”

Bei is a preposition. Preposition?! More like Crapositions. Boom.
They really are a pain in the butt because they’re essentially like Thomas on Tinder – they just never match. Each language uses different prepositions for different contexts and you can’t really say preposition A in one language translates to preposition B in the other. Sometimes it does, but more often it doesn’t. Let’s take forfor example… yes, it can mean für. But also a bunch of other things:

  • for example         – zum Beispiel
  • asking for             – fragen nach
  • for this reason     – aus diesem Grund
  • waiting for           – warten auf

Ugh, learning prepositions really sucks!
And it’s kind of similar with bei, though not as bad.
It is clearly the other brother of the English by, but the two have a somewhat different core.
So what’s the core of bei? We could call it “proximity”; or in normal terms, bei expresses the idea of

“being with or at something or someone”

In practice, bei is THE word you need to express that you’re with a person.

  • Thomas ist bei Maria.
  • Thomas is at Maria’s place.
  • Ich habe gestern bei einer Freundin geschlafen.
  • I slept at a friend’s place yesterday.
  • Ich bleibe bei dir.
  • I’ll stay with you.

And it’s also used in context of being “at” some sort of event or activity.

  • Ich höre gerne Musik bei der Arbeit.
  • I like listening to music while working/at work.

  • Ich hab’ mir gestern beim Computerspielen den Finger gebrochen.
  • I broke my finger (while) playing computer yesterday.
  • Thomas hat seinen Chef beim Rummachen mit der Sekretärin gefilmt.
  • Thomas filmed his boss (as he was/while) making out with the secretary.

Here, the activities were packed as a noun, but we can also express them using a sentence with a verb. And then we’d use dabei to refer back to that sentence.

  • Ich habe ein Spiegelei gemacht und dabei telefoniert.
  • I made an egg “sunny side up”.(lit.: “mirror egg”) and while doing that, I made a phone call.


  • “Was ist denn mit Maria? Die läuft so komisch.”
    Die hat gestern im Yoga den “Zerstörer des Universums” versucht und dabei hat sie sich verletzt.”
  • “What’s up with Maria? She’s walking so strangely.”
    “She tried the “destroyer of the universe” in yoga class yesterday, and she injured herself doing it (lit.: thereby).”

So here we’ve essentially combined the “at something” of bei with the standard “normal” function of da-words as we’ve learned in the general post.
And with this in mind we shouldn’t have a problem understanding the super common phrasings with dabei.

dabei sein

Do you have an idea what it could mean?
Exactly, dabei sein means to be with something, at something, part of something. It can be used in the sense of an item being among a set of other items.

  • Ich habe circa ein Dutzend Hosen anprobiert, aber es war keine passende dabei.
  • I tried on about a dozen pairs of pants but there was not a fitting one among them. (lit.)
  • In der Bar gibt es 100 verschiedene Biere. Da ist auf jeden Fall ‘was für dich dabei.
  • The bar has one hundred different beers. There is definitely something for you among them.

But the more important use is in the context of people being present at or part of some activity –  be it as … uhm, a bystander, or an active part of the uhm, action.

  • Sei live dabei wenn die besten Köche um den Sieg singen!
  • Be there live when the best chefs sing for the crown!
  • “Wir fahren an den See grillen. Hast du Lust.”
    “Auf jeden Fall. Bin dabei.”
  • “We’re going to the lake for a BBQ. Wanna come?”
    “Definitely. I’m in.

  • “Und Thomas hat echt auf die Bar uriniert?”
    “Keine Ahnung, ich war nicht dabei. Ich hab’ das aber von Leuten gehört.”
  • “And Thomas really urinated on the bar?”
    “I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But I heard that from people.”

Here, the focus was on some sort of event. But it’s also used in contexts of you doing something right that moment.

  • “Wolltest du mir nicht ein paar Fotos schicken?”
    Bin grad’ dabei.”
  • “Didn’t you want to send me some pics?”
    “I’m at it/doing it right now.

  • Die Firma ist dabei zu expandieren.
  • The company is currently expanding.
  • Ich war gerade dabei, die Wäsche aufzuhängen, als plötzlich Aliens auf dem Balkon landeten.
  • I was just hanging up the laundry when suddenly Aliens landed on the balcony.

So looks like dabei sein is actually an option to express the English progressive tense in German.
Anyway, dabei sein is super-mega-common and definitely something to have with you when you venture out to where there are native speakers of German.
Hey, speaking of having with you… that brings us right to the next super common phrasing.

dabei haben

I don’t think this needs much explanation. Dabei haben means that someone has something with them. What’s the da doing here exactly? Well, I guess we could see it as pointing to whatever we’re doing, but don’t think about it too hard. You know, sometimes German doesn’t actually make much sense… what? Oh, you found that out already? Oh, uhm… how’d you find out this well kept secret ;)?
Anyway, examples.

  • Die Aliens hatten nicht genug Treibstoff dabei und wollten deshalb etwas von meinen Pflanzen.
  • The aliens didn’t take/have enough fuel with them/on their journey and that’s why they wanted some of my plants.
  • Hast du Bargeld dabei?
  • Do you have cash with you?

In spoken German people tend to actually skip the da- so essentially we end up with the verb beihaben. I don’t know how widespread that is, though. Maybe it’s limited to the Berlin area of the North so if there are any native speakers reading this, let me know.

  • Hamm‘se ‘n Ausweis bei? (Berlin dialect for “Haben Sie einen Ausweis dabei?”)
  • Do you have an ID card with you?
  • “Ich habe tausend mal versucht, dich anzurufen.”
    “Ja sorry. Ich war unterwegs und hatte mein Handy nicht (da)bei.”
  • “I tried to call you like 1.000 times.”
    “Yeah, sorry. I was out and about and I didn’t have my phone with me.

Cool. Now there are a few additional common phrasings that use dabei but with what we’ve learned so far you can understand those from context when you see them.
Let’s instead now turn to the dabei that has some extra-meaning baggage.

The weird “dabei”

Let’s start with an example.

  • Maria hat meine Suppe nicht geschmeckt. Dabei hatte ich extra keine Zwiebeln und kein Salz rangemacht, so wie sie es wollte.
  • Maria didn’t like my soup. Which is weird, considering I did not put any onions or salt in it, as she requested.

Hmmm… yeah, right.
So what is this? This dabei expresses some form of a contradiction, here. But dabei is not as straight forward as obwohl. With obwohl we have a clear connection between the parts. With dabei it’s more like we’re saying something and then we’re throwing out the contradictory part as an aside while not making the statement. Like…

“A is the case although K was the case before.” 

This is the vibe of obwohl. And here’s the vibe of dabei:

“Hey, A is the case. Curious, considering that was the case before.”

It’s really hard to put into words, so I hope I am making sense.
How did the dabei end up with this? Well, we do give some sort of add-on information in the dabei-part so the only “new” thing is this notion of contradiction. And that kind of comes automatically in certain statements.

  • Ich esse. Dabei habe ich gar keinen Hunger.
  • I’m eating. While doing that, I’m not hungry at all.

This is the standard dabei, the one that is about being “at” some activity. And the contradiction is already there through context. So it doesn’t take much for dabei to take up the mantle here.

  • I’m eating. And the weird thing is, I’m not even hungry.

Quick word about the grammar: this dabei can ONLY be at position 1 of a sentence and directly after it comes the verb.

  • Thomas spielt Heartstone. Dabei muss er eigentlich eine Präsentation machen.
  • Thomas spielt Heartstone. Er muss dabei eigentlich eine Präsentation machen.

Only in the first one, the dabei has this vibe of contradiction. And we actually kind of need the eigentlich in support because not every position 1 dabei is automatically contradictory. In the second sentence the contradiction is ONLY expressed by eigentlich while the dabei sounds 100% standard “while doing that”.
But hey, let’s not get bogged down by details. Let’s look at a couple of examples instead.

  • “Maria ist stinksauer auf mich. Dabei hab’ ich doch gar nichts gemacht.”
    “Vielleicht genau deshalb.”
  • “Maria is super pissed at me. And that although I didn’t even do anything.”
    “Maybe that’s exactly why.”

  • … und jetzt muss das Haus wohl abgerissen werden. Dabei wollte ich doch nur eine kleine Geburtstagsparty machen.
  • … and now the house will probably have to be pulled down. And all I actually/originally wanted was a small birthday party.

You don’t need to use this dabei actively, but you definitely should be aware that it can express contradiction at times.

All right. So we’re pretty much done with dabei but there’s one more p… oh there’s a call here, hold on…. German is Easy, I’m Emanuel you’re on the air.
“Hi, this is Kellyanne from Washington.”
Hi, what can I do for you?
“I just wanted to mention that you forgot one use of dabei.”
Oh really. Which one?
“It’s also the name of a country in the Middle East.”
Wait, what? Ohhh…  you mean the Emirate Dubai?
“Yeah, Dabei.”
Ah, haha… no it’s called Dubai in German.
“Well, Sir, it’s Dabei. It’s an alternative spelling and you probably don’t know this because the textbooks don’t cover it. Worst phone call yet click
Hello? Hello Kellyanne? She hung up on me. Weird.
Anyway, where were we… uh yeah… so there’s one more thing before we wrap up: dabei’s less determined sister.

The meaning of “wobei”

So, the standard use of wobei would be a nice sounding version for the question “at what?” (I’ll add a link to my article on wo-words below, if you want to know more)

  • “Du hast mich gestört.”
    “Wobei?/Bei was?”
  • “You interrupted me/broke my focus.”
    “At what?” (is that proper English?)

But just like dabei, wobei has a side usage that is about contradiction. Or let’s say second thoughts, that’s the better description.
It’s only used in spoken German and it is not even part of a sentence. Like… you’d say something, then you’d pause, then you say wobei and then you say something that kind of contradicts the first thing you said to an extent.
You’ll often see an eigentlich in the second part to support the contradiction.

  • Ich hab’ keine Lust auf die Firmenparty zu gehen… wobei… wenn die alle betrunken sind, ist es vielleicht ja ganz lustig.
  • I don’t feel like going to the company party… althooouuugh… if they’re all drunk there, maybe it’ll actually be fun.
  • “Essen gehen? Ja können wir machen… wobei... eigentlich muss ich Geld sparen.”
  • “Go out for dinner? Sure, let’s do it…. although… actually, I kind of have to save money.”

Just like with the contradiction-dabei, this is nothing you HAVE to use. But it’s one of those idiomatic bits that’ll really make you sound super native, so why not give it a try.

And that’s it for today. Phew, how on earth did that end up being so long :D.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, or if you try out some dabei-sentences just leave me a comment and we’ll talk about it.
Hope you enjoyed this, have a great week and whatever you do… I hope you have fun dabei ;).
Bis nächste Woche.

Further reading:


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