Time 4 – gleich, bald, später, nachher and more

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the forth part of our (not so) mini series on how to talk about time in German.

The first part was all about the big picture and we learned what different categories of time indications there are in general (not just in German). This kind of was the road map for the whole mini series and I strongly recommend that you read that theoretical monster… uhm article (find it here)

The second part was dedicated to telling the time of day.  And it was soooo lame. No, seriously… you have no idea how lame that part was.
If you want to read something really lame, then that is your post (find it here).

After the lame part came the tough part. In the third part, we looked at all those “names” for times like Monday, June, morning, last week and so forth. Of course we had to deal with the prepositions… and man oh man, were there many exceptions there…. so many. If you like exceptions, then that is your post (3rd find it here).

And while all three parts have quite different subjects, they have something in common: they are incredibly long.
And the burning question is: will part 4 live up to its predecessors and be as long, as complicated and as bestrewn with exceptions?


Here is what we’ll do. We’ll look at some words.
You will say some things like “Oh my god, I always used that the wrong way”, “Oh cool, that is really good to know.” and “Oh cool this is also really good to know.” and “Oh cool, this is also really really good to know.
And then we’ll be done.
Sounds great? Cool. The let’s jump right in and look at German time adverbs.

Now, what are adverbs of time? Well, they’re basically words that can indicate a point in time (or a span) by themselves.  Actually, we’ve already learned some of them last time, when we were talking about the “names”. Today and yesterday. Those are also adverbs of time.
And the key thing is really that they can answer the question when? by themselves.

  • When did/will you do your homework?
  • … .

Today, we’ll look at words like now, soon, later, earlier, or recently. And because there are so many of them and they’re SUPER USEFUL, we’ll split this in two parts. We’ll start in the present and move along the time line, first to the future and then (in the next part) back to the past.
And I’m sure most of you know what the word for now is in German… it is jetzt.

Now and jetzt do line up pretty well, and there are no traps to watch out for so let’s move forward in time to the immediate future.

The immediate future

And the first word to know  is sofort. Sounds like so forth, looks like so forth, smells like so forth. But it means immediately because German likes to mess with our heads.

Generally sofort really sounds pretty immediate, but sometimes people do use it just more loosely. A kid playing Fortnite might very well use sofort as an answer to “Start doing your homework!” only to keep playing for another 10 hours.
Or a waiter might say sofort, when you ask for the bill, only to go have a cigarette with the waitress.
I think, neither immediately nor right away can be used in this kind of Einsteinian-way … like stretching their meaning the way sofort can.
Anyway, generally sofort is the closest to now there is in the future.

Also pretty close in the future, but not as immediate as sofort is the word gleich.
The temporal range of gleich is roughly from about in 5 minutes to in 2 hours, depending on context.
If a waitress says:

that means that she will probably be there once she’s done with that cigarette.
If you are on the phone with a friend and you’ll see each other one hour later in the park, the saying

is the best choice.
Of course, the range of gleich doesn’t stop right at the two hour mark. It’s blurry. But saying bis gleich on the phone to someone you’ll see five hours later for dinner might already be confusing.

In this situation, we need something that’s a bit  that is a bit further in the future.

Later that day

And the two main possibilities here are nachher and später.

Später is the literal translation of later. However, if used as a name for time in German, I’d say it is somewhere between 2 hour and 5 hours. Why 5 and not 6? Well, no idea… it is just a feeling. If you agree with someone at noon that you will meet up at 8 pm, you could say später, but you could also say heute abend (tonight) and that would sound better.
The best use for später is as a reference to some point within the next few hours, and it is not clear when exactly. So, you go shopping and your friend goes to the library and you’ll see later –  that is a perfect moment to say

Just to make sure… später always means the same day. If you say “Bis später” to someone when you mean the next day, that’s actually a bit confusing. Like… which is it, today or tomorrow?

The other word, nachher, refers to the same range of time as später. And many times nachher and später are interchangeable. But I feel like nachher is a bit more specific. If you do know the exact time you will meet, nachher is the better pick, because it sounds more “aware of the date”. And später has more procrastination potential, if that makes sense.

But this difference between nachher and später is really subtle, I would say. Here are two examples, where they’re pretty much interchangeable.

Now, before we move one, I want to say a quick word about danach. It sometimes translates to later as well, but it NOT mean the same as später or nachher. It might be a bit too advanced for some of you, but danach is what I call a pointer, not a name.
We will talk about those in part 6 of this series, but don’t use danach if you have no point in time to point to. Cool, so far we have learned words, that can be applied for the same day.
Now let’s go further into the future.

beyond tomorrow

And the main two words here are are bald and demnächst. Just like später and nachher, bald and demnächst are interchangeable oftentimes.
They both can refer to any point  in the future between, let’s say three days and four weeks maybe… yes, they are THAT vague :).
They CANNOT be used for the same day, and the shouldn’t be used for the two or three following days as those are quite close and can be addressed with morgen, übermorgen or in ein paar Tagen.
So if you are going to see someone three days from now you WOULDN’T say

And not only because three days is a bit closer than bald and demnächst sound like, but also because bald and demnächst with all their inherent vagueness really express that you do NOT know when something is going to happen. They’re like soon but think bald actually sounds less soon, than soon does…. like… bald sounds a bit less urgent.
Here are some examples.

Now, is there a difference between bald and demnächst? Well, yes. It’s tone.  Demnächst wouldn’t really sound right. I think demnächst has kind of a technocratic touch to it. Bald is the heart, demnächst is the Google calendar.

I don’t use demnächst that much in every day speech but I think you’ll see it around. One example, where they do use demnächst is in movie trailers.

However, both things work as a good bye if you are not quite sure when exactly you will see someone.

So this has gotten quite long already so I think we’ll divide it into 2 parts and make a … oh, hold on… my red exception phone is ringing, gotta take that call real quick… hey John man, how is it going?… WHAT? … I messed up?!?!… about bald?…uh … oh …. ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh … oh crap…. damn bald… well, good you called man, that is a BIG deal, thanks a lot man and keep watching…. yeah you too, bye.
So…. sorry guys but I have really overlooked something about bald. So … I said that bald doesn’t refer to the same day!
That is true in context of good bye phrases. “Bis bald” does absolutely NOT WORK for the same day.
However, there are many occasions when bald refers to the same day in sense of soon.

This same-day-bald can mean anything between 30 minutes and 2 hours … that’s what I feel. It is actually kind of similar to gleich, just a little more extended.
So bald is REALLY vague after all. And it’s really up to context.

And I think we’ll actually make a break here. We’ve learned the most common time adverbs for the future and next time we’ll do the same for the past. To recap quickly here is a list of today words in temporal order:

jetzt – sofort – gleich – bald – später/nachher (all same day)– bald /demnächst (till 1 month or more into the future)

And to wrap this up, here is the ultimate word that can stand for ANY point in time and is thus often used in good bye phrases:


It is a pointer so it will be part of another lecture but it means basically then and you can use it in any occasion.

This is fine for in an hour or in 2 months, for a fixed appointment or for no idea when exactly… it just always sounds appropriate.
If you want to recap what we did, go ahead and take the little quiz my beautiful unpaid assistant made.
And if you have any questions or suggestions please leave me a comment, I hope you liked it and
Bis dann.

further reading:

Word of the Day – “gleich” .

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