The meaning of “dabei”

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.

dabei

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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Moira
Moira
4 months ago

Hi Emanuel-

Ich habe diese beiden Sätze schon gehört:

Haben Sie Geld dabei?
Haben Sie Geld bei Ihnen?

Sind sie beide gleichwertig? Wenn ja, gibt es eine Präferenz für den einen gegenüber dem anderen?

Danke im voraus.

Arthur
Arthur
7 months ago

Hi Emanuel –

Does “ranmachen” have a colloquial meaning? I looked it up in several dictionaries and the definitions don’t seem to fit the meaning in your sentence:

Maria hat meine Suppe nicht geschmeckt. Dabei hatte ich extra keine Zwiebeln und kein Salz rangemacht, so wie sie es wollte.

Maybe I am using the wrong dictionaries?

Thanks

Karl
Karl
1 year ago

Hallo – Ich habe Schwierigkeiten, diese “dabei’s” zu uebersetzen?
Troztz Corona kannst du uns per Zoom dabei begleiten. Dabei lernst du immer in einer sicheren Umgebung. Ich nehme an, wenn bei sich auf jemanden or etwas bezieht muss das Substantiv oder Pronomen explicit gennant werden? Vielen, vielen Dank!!

cmilkman
cmilkman
1 year ago

Danke für den hilfreichen Artikel. Es hilft mir sehr, Wörter zu haben, die man benutzen kann, um zwei Gedanken wortgewandt zu verbinden.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

Hey, is this one of the new quizzes? I had a couple quick questions. For number 3, “ich höre beim Arbeiten gerne Musik” was marked wrong. Same for number 4 with “dabei sein” as an option to express the progressive tense. I thought both answers should be correct, although I wasn’t quite sure about the word order for the first one.

For the article on main sentences, I just noticed the answer to question 7 says “Ich gebe Maria eine Kuss.” Sorry to leave this part of the comment in the wrong place. I got lazy.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I have to be really careful with editing and checking stuff for work. It can be stressful and takes a lot of time. It’s kind of a struggle to turn that switch off sometimes, but it does feel nice to let loose when I can.

I seriously have so much fun reading all the articles here and it’s exciting to see the new ideas (and jokes) in the ones that have been redone :)

david
david
2 years ago

so wobei in contradiction sense works just like obgleich?

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago

dubai is not a country,its a city

absolutelysundu
absolutelysundu
2 years ago

“You just made me understand the song, “Gewinner” by clueso. It has use of “dabei” at the rate of “40 dabei” per sentence :)

aoind
aoind
2 years ago

That pricked my interest. Here is the chorus from that song.

Ich bin dabei, du bist dabei, wir sind dabei uns zu verlieren
Ich bin dabei, bist du dabei, sind wir dabei uns zu verlieren
Ich bin dabei, du bist dabei, wir sind dabei uns zu verlieren
Ich bin dabei, bist du dabei, bin ich dabei uns zu verlieren

The first and third lines are the same but 1, 2 and 4 are all slightly different to each other. Do they all mean roughly the same thing or is there a play on words and syntax producing very distinct meanings? What is the purpose of the subject/verb inversions in lines 2 and 4 – are they questions?

aoind
aoind
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks. I’ll take your “casual” interpretation as authoritative!

Just back from a lovely holiday including 4 days in Ljubljana which I absolutely loved – I can really see why you like it. The restaurant tablecloth thing is such a throwback to a more civilised time and the quality and value were even better, especially strukli which, as you rightly say, are quite delicious. I had them for main course and then again for pudding with one meal in Radovlica. For a country so warm in summertime I loved how lush and green everywhere was, but then I guess that’s down to its alpine location. I found that parking penalties are absurdly easy to come by! The parking wardens must be ninjas.

As you indicated might happen, I did not see a single “mutt” dog the whole time and instead saw a crazy new array of very well groomed exotic breeds, a few of which I’d never seen before. Definitely a city of and for dog lovers and no unpleasant surprises underfoot either! On our last day we had a lovely stroll to a Serbian barbecue restaurant through Tivoli Park, whose name reminded me of your comments about a Scandi feel. I’ve never properly been to any Scandinavian cities so I can’t really comment, but the place is extremely well kept and has a pretty classical look, sort of like Munich maybe.

Riverside bars were my favourite thing. There was even one underneath the bridge just down the road from where we were staying.

Hope I get to go back some day!

aoind
aoind
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I guess we’ll have to do Piran next time but we did get down to the coast at Pula in Croatia. It was nice enough. Beach holidays not really my thing though. Popped into the big cave at Postojna on the way back to the airport. Now that is worth a trip. Never seen anything like it.

aoind
aoind
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Looks amazing! Thanks.

bole1111
bole1111
3 years ago

can someone send me pdf on e mail
thanks

Kashani
Kashani
3 years ago

Hi Emanuel ,
thanks a lot for useful text. i have read da posts but still i have a problem. when i see one da words in a sentence, for example damit or dafür, i don’t know whether it refers to previous or next sentence or it is an adverb and has its independent meaning. how can i solve this problem?

Kashani
Kashani
3 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks for answering,
for example,when I first time read. ” Zuerst möchte ich Ihnen erläutern, warum uns dieses Thema so wichtig ist. Danach zeige ich Ihnen, wie und seit wann wir uns mit dem betrieblichen Gesundheitsmanagement beschäftigen.DAZU stelle ich Ihnen die Arbeit unseres Expertenteams vor.”
when I see DAZU, i think with my self whether is vorstellen a festverb with zu preposition. when i see it is not, i get in doubt,maybe it is not a fest but we can use zu with this verb and then i got confused. should I see this ZU independent and as an adverb or there is a relation with verb which I donot know?

thanks for answering!

Kashani
Kashani
3 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

ich danke Ihnen, ich finde das sehr hilfreich!!!

MichaelVG
MichaelVG
4 years ago

Hey, this is a really useful post…it’s a hard word for me to get a handle on.

I’ve got a few questions, if you don’t mind…

“Keine Ahnung, ich war nicht dabei. Ich hab’ das aber von Leuten gehört.”
In this sort of context I’ve always said „ich war nicht da,“ but was never sure if that’s too wortwörtlich. I get the sense that „dabei“ here is more appropriate for conveying the idea of „where/while the action was going on.“ Is the version I’ve been using weird or unidiomatic?

I’m also not really clear on the difference between dabei and darunter that you guys discussed above. Is there any difference between these, in meaning or in tone?
Ich habe circa ein Dutzend Hosen anprobiert, aber es war keine passende dabei.
Ich habe circa ein Dutzend Hosen anprobiert, aber darunter war’s keine passende.

„Ich hab keinen Ausweis dabei“—this is the main usage of the word I’ve become familiar with. Before I learned about it I would say „Ich hab keinen Ausweis mit“—I didn’t hear this anywhere, it was just what ended up feeling intuitive on the spot…I was sort of half-consciously abbreviating „Ich hab keinen Ausweis mitgebracht“ and imitating all the other mit-verbs where you don’t need the dative preposition. I just looked it up and according to Duden „mithaben“ is an existing colloquialism; how does it sound to you?

Emal Ghamsharick
4 years ago

Great post! Been long struggling with the fact that there’s no real equivalent of “dabei”.
Now I pepper all my EN to German translations with “dabei” and “entsprechend” (or even “DEMentsprechend”) and sound super official.
I think the real meaning of these phrases is: “How could you doubt me? I’m German.”
:D

SaeedNebo
SaeedNebo
5 years ago

you always find a great way to speak about each word and get it to our understandin
danke sehr

Aurélien
Aurélien
5 years ago

Emanuel was terrific in gifting me, a penniless French student, a 20€ subscription sponsored by the community.

It was a pleasure chatting with him!

SamC
SamC
5 years ago

What a great article! The da-componds always seem to allude me, it may be something about how non-english it makes the rhythm of the sentence, but this article really clarified a lot of my questions.

I wanna give a BIG thank you to all my fellow German scholars who have donated extra so that Emmanuel could grant me a “scholarship” for the site. It is very touching to know that there are generous people out there. Sometimes the internet can be a very mean place, and it’s wonderful when you find a corner that is supportive! : )

parisbongi
parisbongi
5 years ago

Quick question on word placement…. In your example “Ich habe circa ein Dutzend Hosen anprobiert, aber es war keine passende dabei.”, would the meaning of the phrase change if we put dabei after aber? or after war? or after keine? Just wondering.
Thanks again

person243
person243
5 years ago
Reply to  parisbongi

The quasi verb is “dabei sein” here. So “dabei” as the so to speak separable prefix has to be in the end of the clause, there is no other place for it.

parisbongi
parisbongi
5 years ago
Reply to  person243

Thanks, oh well.

person243
person243
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

No idea. Even in your example, it sounds to me more like “dabei” represents the idea of participation and not “at the meeting”. The placement just really stresses that. I am not sure whether there really exists a true matchup of “dabei” and “sein” without this really strong binding that you mentioned that makes them almost one word (with a space inbetween). Which it is if you make it a noun. As in the inofficial slogan of the Olympic Games: “Dabeisein ist alles.” (Participation is everything.)
Didn’t you have something on “quasi verbs”? I thought I read that here somewhere. If not, please excuse my wording, I don’t want to introduce grammatical concepts that you want to handle differently. Especially since I am no expert for that.
Seems like an interesting issue though. There are many such “quasi”-verbs with “sein”. “da sein”, “gut/schlecht drauf sein”, “wohlauf sein” and so on. Put that on my wish list for the year. ;)

der Libyer
der Libyer
5 years ago

Noch eine tolle Post, Emmanuel :)
Ich ein Frägchen, what does “dabei” mean in this sentence:

“Der Rausschmiss aus dem Mercy West macht seine Suche dabei nicht leichter”

Vielen Dank!

der Libyer
der Libyer
5 years ago
Reply to  der Libyer

Habe*

der Libyer
der Libyer
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Danke sehr Emmanuel, das hilft sehr! I’m now starting to appreciate the value of dabei in German.
What can I say, you got me hooked :). You’re the only one who has the answers I looking for, mach weiter so!

Quang Pham
Quang Pham
5 years ago

I was a bit confused with the weird meaning of dabei at first but then I realized my native language Vietnamese has the exact equivalent. It’s “trong khi” and it means both “while” and “although” too.

Quang Pham
Quang Pham
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Well sadly the resemblance ends at “while” and “although” :)
For “at that” and “with that” meanings we use “ở đó” which simply means “there”. So just “da”, no “bei”.

Tony Green
Tony Green
5 years ago

Nice bit of weird “dabei” in this video. “Die leute denken wir sind betrunken, dabei sind wir bloß Freunde.” singt Olli Schulz. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQ4_dC02yeQ

Ubungmachtdenmeister
Ubungmachtdenmeister
5 years ago

Das Buch Emanuels bleibt nicht fertig. Dabei hat er das mich versprochen. Scuse the bad German but is that the general vibe?