Word of the Day – “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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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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Take the quiz on "dabei"

Which preposition do you need to translate the sentence:
“Thomas is at Maria’s place.”

How would you translateI’ll stay with you.”?

Which of the following sentences are suitable translations for this sentence:
“I like listening to music while
working/at work.” ? (multiple answers)

Dabei sein means:
(multiple answers)

What does “Bin grad’ dabei.” mean?

Which is the most idiomatic translation for this sentence:
“Do you have cash with you?”

What idea does dabei express in the following statement:
“Ich esse. Dabei habe ich gar keinen Hunger.”

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berlingrabers
berlingrabers

I wish this blog had been here like 8 years ago when I first encountered the contradiction-“wobei” and could not for the life of me figure out what people meant by it. (Thanks for nothing, LEO…)

I could swear I’ve heard “wobei” used that way with more standard word order, like you’d use “obwohl” (“…wobei ich eigentlich Geld sparen muss” in that second example).

berlingrabers
berlingrabers

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

Hmm… “At what” could maybe work for the “you interrupted me” one, but I think you’d probably usually just ask, “What were you doing?” If you said, “You broke my focus,” then I think “On what?” would be reasonably natural as a response.

aoind
aoind

So glad you did this one Emanuel. Dabei’s always been one of those words I really wanted to understand, especially hearing it used so much and always thinking “what can it possibly mean this time?”

And Kellyanne’s “alternative spelling”! You’re properly hilarious you know.

duuuudeZ
duuuudeZ

In English, we’ll say “(but) at the same time” in the same sense as wobei to indicate second thoughts (on second thought/althooouuugh). I think this connects well with the “while doing that” feel of dabei:

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… (but) at the same time… if they’re all drunk there, it might actually be pretty fun.

Thanks, Emanuel!

berlingrabers
berlingrabers

Or also, “(but) then again…”.

Ubungmachtdenmeister
Ubungmachtdenmeister

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

Tony Green
Tony Green

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

Quang Pham
Quang Pham

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.

der Libyer
der Libyer

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

Habe*

parisbongi
parisbongi

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

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

Thanks, oh well.

SamC
SamC

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! : )

Aurélien
Aurélien

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

It was a pleasure chatting with him!

SaeedNebo
SaeedNebo

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

Emal Ghamsharick

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

MichaelVG
MichaelVG

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?

Kashani
Kashani

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?

bole1111
bole1111

can someone send me pdf on e mail
thanks

absolutelysundu
absolutelysundu

“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

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?