What is the Difference – “hinter vs. hinten”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: September 4, 2023

Hello everyone, what is the difference between hinter and hinten

and welcome to our German Word of the Day and today it is time for a

“What is the Difference”-Special.

I guess you all have come across this kind of words… they appear to be similar and yet you know that there must be a secret difference only comprehensible to natives as it seems. In this section, we will talk about those words and unveil what has been an unsolved mystery before.

Today, we will take a look at the difference between:

hinter  and hinten

I am sure that most of you have seen those words before and you kind of know that they have something to do with behind, so both words are used to talk about location. But when to use which?
I will try to explain the difference rather than to give translations for both words because those would be confusing. Behind  can mean either one of the 2 depending on the sentence. So let’s put on a smart look and THEORIZE… yeah!!! 

The next sentence is going to sound really stupid but please indulge me. If you want to specify a location in a sentence you need to tell the full location… … … This can be done in 2 ways, either by “naming” the location directly or by indicating it relative to another location.

Most of the time, what we do is the latter. When you say that you are in the kitchen, you location is expressed by giving the relation between you and the location kitchen. You are in the kitchen. If you say, that you are on Times Square, you are specifying your location telling us where it is relative to Times Square.
This is exactly the function of prepositions by the way – they express local or temporal relations between things and person.

Now you may ask how the other way, the “naming”, works. Well, whenever you say something like here, there, downstairs or overseas, you are just “naming” the location. You say the “name” and the location is clear, given that the person you talk to knows what the name stands for. German has more “names” than English. On the right for instance is using a relation with the preposition on, but in German you just say rechts, so there rechts is a “name”. The grammatical term for words like here and there is adverb but I’d say they are actually more like pronouns. Anyway, we can also just call them “names”… ok, no, they are too useful to deserve that… we denominate them as “names”.

So this being said let’s look at the difference between hinter and hinten. Hinter is a preposition while hinten is a name and hence…. oh wait… the red exception phone is ringing. Gotta take the cal real quick…
Yes listening, what’s up?… Damn it, true!… Would have been to easy after all wouldn’t it?… Thanks man… yeah, later!
Sorry, so turns out hinter is a preposition MOST of the time. I will discuss the exception in a minute. But let’s stick with the norm first.
So hinter is used to relate two things to one another. Just by itself it is (most of the time) not a complete information yet.

  • Ich bin hinter…. NOPE!

This sentence would make any German ask “Hinter was?” (“Behind what?”).

  • Ich bin hinter dem Baum.
  • I am behind the tree.

Hinten, on the contrary to hinter, is already a proper answer to the question Where?

  • Ich bin hinten.
  • I am in the back.

Of course the person you talk to has to have some idea as to what hinten refers to. But often enough this is the case.

  • Im Auto sitze ich gerne hinten.
  • In the car I sit in the rear.

Now it seems as if hinter is behind, and hinten is in the back. For the most part this is correct. But not always:

  • Ich rufe von hinter dem Haus.
  • I shout from behind the house.
  • Thomas nimmt Maria von hinten.
  • Thomas takes Maria dogg… oh uhm… from behi... damn. My precious G-rating… must quickly modify the German sentence.
  • Thomas nimmt Maria von hinten in den Arm.
  • Thomas hugs Maria from behind.

In the first example it is hinter because you are expressing a relation between you and the house. In the second example behind is a name for a place. The question is from where and the answer from behind.
So you really should remember the conceptual difference as opposed to mere translations.

Now before we get to a great surprise, we need to look at the exception regarding hinter. I said it is used to express relations between things. But in some cases it is used as a name of a location… or to be precise as the name of a destination. In that function it is a proper answer to the question Where to and it means the same as nach hinten.

  • Ich gehe hinter.
  • Ich gehe nach hinten.
  • I go to the rear. (literal)

When could this be used? Well for instance in a thrift store, the owner goes to check something in the storeroom.
This exception however does not concern hinten. Hinten is always a name and full stop. And don’t get confused by things like the following.

  • Meine Brille liegt hinten im Auto.
  • My glasses are in the back of the car.

Also here, hinten is technically a proper answer to where. But in this case the hinten is rather undefined, and the context must be given right away by saying in the car.

So to recap, hinten is a “name” of a location and as such you can answer the question Where? by simply saying hinten, given that the context is known.

Hinter is a preposition and it puts things or persons in a relation to one another. So hinter needs to be followed by a noun or person to make sense as a location.

And now, if you have understood this concept, I have some good news for you because you can use it to explain the difference between unter and unten, vor and vorn(e) , auf and oben, in and drin and aus and draussen. The first words are the prepositions, so they need to be completed by a noun. The other words are names and, some context provided, can answer the question where? all by themselves.

And what if you want to use the “names” as a destination or origin? Well, the former is built with nach and the latter with von. Examples? Of course :):

  • Wohin gehst du? Nach hinten.
  • Where do you go (to)? To the rear.
  • Von wo kommst du? Von unten.
  • Where do you come from. From down below.

So, this was our first rendition of “WitD – What is the Difference“. If you have any questions or suggestions please leave me a comment. I hope this was helpful and I hope to see you next time.

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