and welcome to the forth part of our (not so) mini series on how to talk about time in German.
The first part was and overview over what the different ways to indicate time, not just in German but in language in general, and I strongly recommend that you read that theoretical monster… uhm article (find it here)
The second part was about saying the time of day in German, and it was pretty boring. Like… REALLY boring. But you still have to know this stuff, so have to read it sooner or later (find it here).
In the third part, we looked at all those “names” for times like Monday, June, morning, last week and so forth and if you like exceptions (who doesn’t) then that’s gonna be your favorite article. (find it here).
And while all three parts have quite different subjects, they have one thing in common:
they are incredibly long.
So will part four live up to its predecessors and be as long and tiring?
The answer is… No!
The first three parts were like the 2020 of talking about time, and now slowly, we’ll start the fun again.
Here is what’ll happen today:
We’ll look at a bunch of words, I’ll say a few things about them, you will go 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 either 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”, because grammatically, today and yesterday are 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?
- … .
But the bulk of time adverbs are words likee 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 – the past and the “not past”.
In this lecture, we’ll focus on the latter, so we’ll start in the present, and move along the time line into the future.
And the first word is of course the German word for now – jetzt.
- Ich muss jetzt gehen.
- I have to go now.
- So, what now?
- Und, was jetzt?
German actually also has nun, a direct relative of now, but jetzt and nun are synonyms for the most part, and jetzt is definitely more common, so just stick with that one.
So, now that we know how to refer to the now, let’s move forward in time to the immediate future.
The immediate future
And the first word to know there is sofort. Sounds a bit like so forth, looks a bit like so forth, smells a bit like so fart… I mean forth.
But it means immediately because German likes to mess with our heads.
- Mach sofort den Fernseher aus!
- Turn off the TV immediately!
- “Hast du deine Mails gecheckt?”
“Noch nicht, aber ich mache es sofort.”
- “Have you checked your Email?”
“Not yet, but I’ll do it right away.”
Generally, sofort really sounds pretty immediate, but time is of course relative.
A kid playing Fortnite might very well use sofort as an answer to “Start doing your homework!” only to keep playing for another 3 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.
But anyway, generally sofort is the closest to now there is in the future.
Also pretty close to “now” 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:
- Ich komme gleich.
- I’ll be there in a minute.
…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 say
- Bis gleich.
then that might mean that you’ll meet in one hour in the park.
Of course, the range of gleich doesn’t stop precisely 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.
- “Ok also dann sehen wir uns heute Abend zum Dinner.”
“Ja ich freu mich, bis gleich.”
“Ähhh… wie bis gleich… ich dachte, heute abend?”
- “Ok, so we’ll see each other tonight for diner.”
“Yep, I am excited, I’ll see you in a bit”
“Uhh… what do you mean “in a bit”.. I thought, tonight?”
In this situation, we need something that’s a bit further into the future, which bring us right to our next section.
Later that day
And the two main possibilities here are nachher and später.
Später is the literal translation of later, which could technically be in 100 years. But in practice, as a name for time, später covers the span between 2 hour and 5 hours from now.
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’d rather say heute abend (tonight) and that’s just more idiomatic.
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
- Bis später.
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?
Now, 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 sounds 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 sounds more open and has more procrastination potential, if that makes sense.
- “Thomas, wann machst du die Küche sauber?”
“Nachher Schatz.” (Thomas acknowledges that he will do it at some point later really should do it, just not now)
“Später, Schatz.” (Thomas sounds a bit as if he doesn’t really care and is just procrastinating the chore)
- “Thomas, when will you clean the kitchen?”
But this difference between nachher and später is really subtle. Here are two examples, where they’re pretty much interchangeable.
- Bis nachher.
- Ach Mist, ich muss nachher noch zur Uni. Ich habe keine Lust.
- Oh crap, I have to go university later. I don’t feel like it.
Now, before we move one, I want to say a quick word about danach, beacuse I’m sure some of you are wondering about it.
Danach can translate to later as well, but it NOT mean the same as später or nachher because danach is what I call a pointer, not a name, and you need a reference point for it.
Don’t worry, we’ll talk about this stuff in part 6 of this series, but you can keep it in the back of you head that you CAN’T use danach if you have no point in time to point to.
Now so far, we have learned words, that can be applied for the same day.
Time to go further into the future.
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 four 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
- Bis bald /demnächst.
- Till soon.
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.
- Ich muss bald/demnächst mal wieder Fenster putzen.
- I will have to clean my windows at some point /soon.
- Ich glaube mein Handy geht bald kaputt.
- I think my phone will break at some point (soon).
- Bald ist wieder Winter.
- Not so far from now/ soon, it will be winter.
- Ich will so bald wie möglich Kaffee trinken.
- I want to drink coffee as soon as possible.
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.
- Wir haben demnächst in unserer Firma Besuch von einem wichtigen Investor.
- We will have a visit from an important investor in our company soon.
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.
- Demnächst im Kino.
- Coming soon.
However, both things work as a good bye if you are not quite sure when exactly you will see someone.
- Bis bald/demnächst.
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.
- Ich glaube es regnet bald.
- I think it is going to rain soon.
- “Ist Maria schon da?”
“Nein, aber sie sollte bald kommen.”
- “Is Maria here yet?”
“No but she should be coming soon.”
- “Was machts du gerade?”
“Ich bin noch in der Bibliothek aber ich glaube ich gehe bald nach Hause.”
- “What are you doing?”
“I am still at the library but I think I will go home 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.
- Wir sollten bald wieder ins Theater gehen.
- We should go to the theater again at some point in the near future/soon.
- Wir sollten bald losgehen, sonst kommen wir zu spät ins Theater.
- We should head out soon, or we will be late for the theater.
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 – now
- sofort – immadiately
- gleich – (a few minute)
- später, nachher (bald) – (a few hours on the same day)
- bald /demnächst (a few days till 1 month or more into the future)
If you REALLY have no idea, then you can also say irgendwann, which is at some point.
And to wrap this up, here is the ultimate word that can stand for ANY point in time.
Technically, this is one of those pointer-words, that we’ll talk about in part 6, so it needs a reference point. But when saying good bye to someone, it can be used generically.
- Bis dann.
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 assistant and I have prepared.
And if you have any questions or suggestions please leave me a comment, I hope you liked it and
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What can you say for:
“I’ll see you in a bit” ?
How do you say:
“See you later.” ?
Which German words are translations for “at some point in the near future/soon-ish.” (multiple answers)
Which statements about “Bis bald.” are correct?
Which word does a procrastinator not like?
Which of the following does NOT refer to the same day?