German Prepositions Explained – “durch”

Hello everyone,

and welcome back to our series German Prepositions Explained, the series where we look at the German prepositions one at a time. Usually, these episodes are pretty intense because of prepositions with their use as a prefix and those pesky prefix verb combos. But not today. Today will be fun and easy. Because today, we’ll talk about the meaning and use of

durch

 

It’s one of the easiest and most straightforward ones, but it’s still worth a look. So let’s jump right in

Durch is the German counterpart of through, and the two are actually related, as we can see if we squint hard enough, figuratively speaking… durch … dhurch…. dhourch … thourgh… through… meh… kind of, at least.
The origin is the ancient-ish Indo-European root *ter(ə) which carried the idea of “crossing over some boundary”. This is also where the Latin syllable tra(ns) comes from and the original sense is pretty much still visible, even in words where you wouldn’t expect it at first glance. Transport for example is “porting(carrying) across”, tradition is “giving, passing on to the next generation” and trance which comes from “trans+ire” literally meant “to go across”.
Anyway, let’s transition right back to the Germanic branch of the family tree. And both, durch and its English brother through, focused on traversing in the sense of location

  • Wir fahren durch einen Tunnel.
  • We’re driving through a tunnel.
  • Wir sind den ganzen Tag durch die Stadt gelaufen.
  • We walked around/through the city the whole day.
  • Thomas will immer mit dem Kopf durch die Wand. (idiom)
  • Thomas is full on and wants to force things his way.
    Lit.: “He wants to go through the wall with his head.”
  • Maria hat Thomas durch die Blume gesagt, dass er stinkt.
  • Maria told Thomas in a roundabout way, that he is stinky.
    (Lit.: “through the flower”)

  • Ich muss mir das nochmal durch den Kopf gehen lassen.
  • I’ll have to think about it again.
    (Lit.: “let it go through my head.“)

This isn’t the only use of the prepo… what? … oh… what case, you mean… oh, it’s accusative. Durch goes with the accusative. Sorry, I almost forgot to mention it.
But yeah… besides this pretty factual location idea, there’s also the broad sense of “cause” or “by means of

  • Ich lerne durch meine Arbeit hier viel über Englisch.
  • I get to know a lot about Englisch through my work here.
  • Thomas ist durch Maria ein besserer Yoga-Lehrer geworden.
  • Thomas became a better yoga teacher through Maria.

This use fits in with the other one quite well. Also here, we have some sort of journey, something “traverses” to us, if that makes sense.
Anyway, this sense of a cause is also the main idea of the da-word dadurch, which can mean by means of that and, when combined with dass, it can also be a translation for because.

  • Im Rückblick waren meine Besuche in der Oper etwas gutes, denn ich habe dadurch gelernt, bei Lärm zu schlafen.
  • In retrospect, my visits to the opera were something good, because through that (the experience), I learned to sleep with noise.
  • Dadurch, dass so viele Menschen nach Thailand fahren, wird es dort immer teurer.
  • Because so many people are going to Thailand, it gets more and more expensive there.

Oh and then there’s also the wo-word wodurch, which is basically questioning for the cause of something.

  • Wodurch der Brand ausgelöst wurde, ist noch nicht klar.
  • “Through what” the fire was started is still unclear.

And that’s pretty much all there is to know about durch the preposition.
So let’s now turn toward durch as a prefix.

durch as a prefix

And durch is probably the easiest prefix of all of them, because the core idea always durchscheint.
Get it? Get it… it shines through :).

  • Lassen Sie mich durch, ich bin Arzt.”
    “Na und? Das hier ist eine Supermarktschlange.”
  • “Let me through, I am a doctor.”
    “So what? This is the line of a super market cashier.”

  • Ich habe das Buch in einer Nacht durchgelesen.
  • I read the book (completely) in one night.
  • Ich habe versucht anzurufen, aber ich bin nicht durchgekommen.
  • I tried calling but I didn’t get through.

  • Wir sind den Test zusammen durchgegangen und haben die Fehler diskutiert.
  • We went through/over the test together and discussed the mistakes.

As you can see, there’s a certain “degree of freedom” to the meaning.
And some verbs even have two meanings. Durchmachen for example. In combination with words like viel or etwas, it can express the idea of going through a lot of hardship. And by itself (or with die Nacht) it means that we stay up all night.

  • Thomas hat viel durchgemacht.
  • Thomas has been through a lot.
    (note that it DOESN’T sound idiomatic with a concrete challenge like an exam or something)

  • “Hast du deine Hausaufgabe geschafft?”
    “Ja, ich habe durchgemacht.”
  • “Have you managed to finish your homework?”
    “Yeah, I pulled an all-nighter/I didn’t sleep that night.

Or durchfallen, where the verb is about “falling” through an exam while the noun der Durchfall is about food falling through your body…

  • “Wie war die Prüfung?”
    “Super schwer!!! Ich glaube, ich bin durchgefallen.”
  • “How was the exam?”
    “Super hard!!! I think I didn’t pass/I failed.”

  • “Wie war es in der Oper?”
    “Besser als gedacht. Ich habe Durchfall gekriegt, und war oft auf Klo, deshalb musste ich nicht so viel hören.”
  • “How was it at the opera?”
    “Better than I thought. I got diarrhea and was on the toilet a lot, so I didn’t have to hear that much.”

But I think you can see the idea of traversing/through in all of them.
In fact, the only ones I could think of that might be a little obscure are durchhalten, durchsetzen and durchdrehen.

Durchhalten is basically the opposite of giving up, which makes sense if we think of it as holding position throughout a challenge.

  • “Ah… meine Kehle… so durstig… ich schaff’s nicht.”
    Halt durch! Der Kellner kommt gleich.”
  • “Ah… my throat… so thirsty… I won’t make it.”
    Hang in there/don’t give up… the waiter will come soon.”

The next one, durchdrehen literally means to turn through. And one of its uses is for a wheel that doesn’t “grip” where it should. Like… think of a car wheel on ice.
And this image is actually quite helpful with colloquial meaning of durchdrehen… which is to go crazy, to flip out.

  • “Oh Mann, ich muss aufräumen. Wenn Maria die Wohnung so sieht, dreht sie durch. “
  • “Oh man, I have to tidy up. If Maria sees the apartment like that, she’ll flip out/flip her shit.

And then last but not least, we have durchsetzen, and the more common sich durchsetzen. It makes us think of sitting and setting. But what it’s actually about is pushing through your agenda and sich durchsetzen, is the German word for to prevail, to come out on top.
Think of it maybe as getting your “settings” into reality, if you need a connection.

  • Der Politiker will sein Gesetz unbedingt durchsetzen.
  • The politician wants to push through his bill at all costs.
  • Thomas will Kartoffeln. Maria will Reis. Wer setzt sich diesmal durch?
  • Thomas wants potatoes. Maria wants rice. Who will prevail this time?
  • Ich habe mich gegen meine Diät durchgesetzt.
  • I prevailed/won over my diet.

And that’s pretty much all about the prefix verbs.
Well… I guess, it would be more complete to also mention the few instances where durch- is actually a non separable prefix, like durchleben for instance. But I think there’s a bigger lesson to be learned here… the lesson that we don’t always have to have everything. It’s not fulfilling. And one skill about learning a language is to just live with loose ends. Learn to sit in peace with this nagging voice in your head that wants all the answers. So let’s just sit for a second and say to yourself
“Yeah… sometimes, some very few times, durch- is a non-separable prefix. I don’t know when or why. And that’s okay.”
And watch your curiosity go away.
#wholesome
Seriously though… instead of wasting head space with boring, rarely used verbs, I want to mention a couple of durch-words that I really want to mention because they’re just so common.

A few more durch-words

First up, we have zwischendurch, which expresses the idea of in between things in a temporal sense, with a casual undertone.

  • “Aber… du hast gesagt, zwischendurch mal sein Facebook checken ist ok.”
    “Ja, ist es auch. Aber zwei Stunden ist NICHT zwischendurch.”
  • “But you said, checking one’s Facebook in between was okay.”
    “Yes, it is. But two hours doesn’t qualify as in between.”

It’s kind of hard to translate but it’s pretty common in German. We’ve talked about it in more detail in the article on “zwischen”, though, so I’ll give you the link below, if you want to know more.

The other word if wanted to mention is durcheinander. Taken literally, it’s something like “through one another” and the idea it expresses is chaos, disorder. Like… the entity is all mixed up. It can be a translation for confused but it is about general confusion, not just confusion between two things. Think of a swarm of bees, if you need a visual image.

  • Ich bin total durcheinander.
  • I’m totally confused.
  • Meine Kleider sind alle total durcheinander.
  • My clothes are all mixed up/ in a mess.

This word is pretty useful because it’s not only used as a stand-alone but also as a prefix. You know… because who says that a prefix has to be short :).

  • Beim Dinner haben alle durcheinandergeredet.
  • At the dinner, everyone was talking at the same time/over each other.
  • “Puh, ich hab voll den Kater.”
    “Ja, das ist, weil du alles durcheinandergetrunken hast.”
  • “Phew, I have such a hangover.”
    “Yeah, that’s because you mixed all kinds of alcohol.”
    (do you have a better translation? Mine sounds like making a cocktail :))

And last but not least, as a sort of honorable mention, let’s give a quick shout out to the noun der Durchschnitt and the adjective durchschnittlich. The verb they come from, durchschneiden, simply means to cut through, but der Durchschnitt is the German word for … average.
And if you think of the symbol Ø , this makes perfect sense… a circle cut through in the center.

  • Ein durchschnittlicher Deutschlerner verliert durchschnittlich/im Durchschnitt 200 ml Speichel, bevor er durchschnittlich gut aussprechen kann.
  • The average German learner loses 200 ml saliva on average, before he’s able to properly pronounce durchschnittlich.

And that’s it for today.
I know some of you might be wondering what happened to the part about these pesky preposition-verb-combos that cause so many problem. But for durch, these aren’t really a thing. Like… there aren’t really obscure, random combos. The idea of through is always pretty clear.
So yeah… we’re really done for the day.
This was our look at the German preposition durch and the main takeaways are: it means through, in a traversing sense as well in the sense of by means of, dadurch is always about the latter, and the prefix verbs are no problem.
As usual, you can test yourself and learn a few more cool words, just try out the little quiz we have prepared for you. And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions or you want to bring up some other cool durch-words (and there are plenty), just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

 

Further reading:

Word of the Day – “zwischen”

** Vocab**

durch = through (for locations); also in broad sense of “cause” or “by means of”;
durch den Kopf gehen lassen = to think about something
durch die Blume sagen = to say something in a roundabout way, lit. to say something “through the flower”
dadurch = by means of, through that;
dadurch, dass = because
durchlassen = to let through
durchlesen = to read (completely)
durchkommen = to get through
durchgehen = to go through/over
durchmachen = to stay up all night, also to go through a lot of hardship;
durchfallen = to fail an exam
der Durchfall = diarrhea
durchhalten = to hang in there/not give up, (the opposite of giving up)
durchdrehen = to turn through; to go crazy, to flip out;
sich durchsetzen = to prevail, to come out on top; to push through;
zwischendurch = in between things in a temporal sense, with a casual undertone
durcheinander = confused; mixed up/ in a mess;
durcheinanderreden = to talk at the same time/over each other
durcheinandertrinken = to mix all kinds of alcohol
durchschneiden = to cut through
der Durchschnitt = average
durchschnittlich = average
im Durchschnitt = on average

 

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