Time 6 – Actions

Hello everyone,

welcome to part 6, the part with a kick start. No boring recap, no witty banter and most importantly .. no flippin’ part 5.2. That’s right. I am skipping it.
I know… we still have to talk .. excuse me… (yaaaaaaaaaaawn)…. about von-bis, vor, nach, während and her but frankly…  I don’t wan’t to…   I just hate leftovers.
All throughout the time mini series I have been looking forward to the part we are going to do today. It is the most interesting, most useful and most eye-opening, insightful part of all plus the picture has a baby polar bear in it. Those little black eyes and that fluffy fur. So cute. Would you be able to resist? I am not… so we’ll do part 6 today and as for part 5.2 … well, we’ll see.


Alright. Today is going to be special because I actually have a guest here, Mike welcome…
“Hi Emanuel, hey everyone out there…
Mike, you’ve been working at German is Easy for about 9 months now, tell us what exactly you do here…
Sure... so I’m Mike and I work in the SB-Department and we are responsible for the design and rendering of the speech bubbles in the pictures… I mostly do the outlines…”
…and I have to say, you guys are always doing a terrific job..
“Well thank you…
… but, Mike, you don’t only design speech bubbles, you’ve also started learning German a couple of months ago…
“That’s right…”
So .. today is going to be a little intense, so I have decided to invite you over to magically ask all the right questions at the right t… uh… I mean… to support me… yeah, that’s what I wanted to say. So you’re going to be kind of a representative for all the people learning German out there and whenever I am counting on you to tell me, whenever I stop making sense… feel free to speak up at any time.
Hahaha… well I’ll do my best to look utterly confused…
Alright so let’s start … and let’s start with a little warning.
Today will be intense. And it will be loooooong because I am not going to split this one up. It is nothing too difficult, just a lot to digest. So… if you’re at work and you were planning to kind of rea .. erm… listen to it while you do your work stuff like shooting birds or checking Facebook… don’t do it, you wont get anything out of it.

So what is today about? We have talked about a lot in this mini series but what we haven’t talked about is how to order 2 actions in time…
By action I mean information that is conveyed using a verb or better a sentence. My basketball game certainly was an action for me but grammatically I packed it as a noun, a thing.

  • I played basketball.

This is an example for what I mean when I say action. Now, Mike, could you give me 2 basic activities…
“Uh… let me think… erm… ok

  • Thomas reads.
  • Thomas listens to music.

is that ok?”
That’s perfect. Those are 2 actions and today we’ll learn how to communicate in which order they happen…. in all ways possible. Let’s look at some example in English.

  • Thomas reads before he listens to music.
  • Thomas listens to music after he reads.
  • Thomas reads. Then / after that he listens to music.
  • Thomas listens to music. Before, he reads.
  • Having read, Thomas listens to music.
  • Listening to music Thomas had already read.

“I don’t know about the last one… sounds kind of weird to me…”
Haha.. yeah maybe … that one is a little contrived but anyway… even without that we have quite a variety. And you have probably realized that all those sentences in fact imply the very same order of actions …
“To be honest… I didn’t but now that you say it…
so including other orders would give us even more examples. So let’s look at the big picture and organize things a little.

Some REALLY useful background

It is a universal fact that there are only 3 possible ways to order 2 actions in time.

  1. A happens before B happens.
  2. A happens while B happens.
  3. A happens after B happens.

My god… 3 configurations. That is an excessive number of configurations… too many for my taste. I like things simple. My beer cold, my coffee black and my temporal configurations less than 3.
So… time to be even more abstract. Valiant pigeons, orbiting the effervescent waters… she saw them, oh she certainly did see them all. the cabin Grew vegetables
“Sorry man but you just lost me… I think this was a bit too abstract for me….”
Really… hmmm … ok… so what I meant was, sentence 1 and 3 are basically the same … only the order of the actions (A and B) has been reversed. We could get along just fine in a world in which we only can express that something happened AFTER something because that does implicitly also tell us tha.. etc. etc. you get the idea.
So we can basically say, stuff happens simultaneously or not.
Got it.
Great. Now, before we start there is another tremendously important concept you need to understand… absorb, become one with…  The name I had in mind for this concept was Purple-Puppy-Paradox but some network executives overruled me on this one and told me to be a bit more “conventional”… so I have to call it the 2-way-theorem.
“That is so lame.”
Yeah I know, but what can I do… so…   the 2-way-theorem says that there are ALWAYS 2 ways to phrase relations between 2 actions, be it in the time domain or not… a minor-sentence way and a reference-way.
And I ain’t talkin’ about word order or synonyms here. I’m talking structure. Here is what I mean.

  • Because Thomas is tired he goes to bed.
  • Thomas is tired. Therefore he goes to bed.
  • Although he has to do homework Thomas does the dishes.
  • Thomas has to do homework. Nevertheless, he does the dishes.

The first version in each example  is one sentence. By adding a functional word like because or although one of the 2 actions has been „demoted“ to be a minor-sentence, or in jargon superdinosaur claws…. or something… not sure though… anyway, here is an example with time.

  • Thomas reads before he listens to music.

Without the functional word before „He listens to music.“ is a complete statement… with it, it is not. In fact, that whole part after before has pretty much the same status as a word like today. When does he read? Today. When does he read? Before he listens to music. The whole minor sentence is just one block of information filling the when-slot in the main sentence.

  • Thomas reads [insert time info here].

Now, in the second version,

  • Thomas reads. After that he listens to music.

we have 2 stand-alone sentences, one for each action. Of course the second sentence doesn’t make much sense without the first but that is on the content level. Grammatically it is a complete sentence. The words after that express the temporal order by making reference to whatever has been said before. Here, those 2 words occupy the when-slot in the sentence. We could replace them with today or any other time information.

  • [insert time info here], Thomas listens to music.

We could even insert the before-sentence from the first version there so after that is kind of a stand in for that.
Now, in the minor-sentence structure, I can take the whole before-sentence and move it to different positions… wherever I can fit in today, I could also fit in the before-stuff.

  • Thomas reads, before he listens to music.
  • Before he listens to music, Thomas reads.

So the order of actions is flexible in the minor sentence way. This is different  for the reference way. Most references in language do point backwards so they need something to point at.

  • After that Thomas listens to music. He reads.

This doesn’t make any sense, because the reference after that is pointing into the void and the second sentence just sits there without any connection whatsoever.
So… for any time configuration imaginable there will always be both structures available… the minor-sentence-way and the reference-way, each having it’s own specific functional word(s). Hence we always have pairs… for instance becausetherefore or beforeafter that.
And all I’ve just laid out holds for any language I know. Analyze your own and let me know if it doesn’t apply to yours. I would be surprised. So… Mike… you don’t look too confused so I assume I’ve been clear so far?
Yeah.. so far it was pretty logical…
 Cool… so, with all this in the back of our minds, we’re set to talk about German.

Actions happening simultaneously

Let’s take our first example again and say Thomas is a hell of a multi-tasker:

  • Thomas reads while he listens to music.

Now, what way is that? Right, it is the minor-sentence way with while being the functional word. The German word for while is während (yes, the same word as we use for during)

  • Thomas liest, während er Musik hört.

Mike you look confused.. let me guess, it is because of the word order??… well that is because just like weil or dass, während is what I call an intro-word. It makes a major sentence into a minor-sentence and causes the verb that was initially in position 2 to go to the very end of the phrase.

  • I was waiting for my bus.
  • I deleted a bunch of text messages.
  • While I was waiting for my bus I deleted a bunch of text messages from my phone.
  • Ich habe auf den Bus gewartet.
  • Ich habe ein paar SMS von meinem Handy gelöscht.
  • Während ich auf den Bus gewartet habe, habe ich einige SMSs von meinem Handy gelöscht.

Can I ask something?
Sure sure…
Ok… so while does have this other more comparing notion… does während have that, too.
Oh, that’s a good question… for the most part it does
, but there is one exception… it is kind of off topic though. I think I’ll just do a Word of the Day on während…
Oh ok… great…
So… während-while is the minor-sentence-way of expressing simultaneouityationnessship. Now let’s look at the corresponding reference-way.

  • Thomas reads. At the same time he listens to music.
  • Thomas reads. Simultaneously, He listens to music.
  • Marie cuts the onions. Meanwhile, Thomas prepares the meat.
  • Marie cuts the onion. In the meantime, Thomas prepares the meat.

As you can see, there is more than one possible functional term but the structure is the same in every case. I’d say the default counterpart of während is derweil.

  • Thomas liest. Derweil hört er Musik.

Other words are gleichzeitig (simultaneously), zur gleichen Zeit (at the same time), währenddessen (meanwhile) and in der Zwischenzeit (in the mean time). You can replace derweil with any of those words without having to alter word order. Grammatically they are synonyms. However, each word has a different notion and might sound weird in certain situations. I don’t want to discuss that in detail, though because it would be way to much.
Derweil works almost always and as for the rest… I linked each word to Linguee so you can see them in action and hopefully catch their vibe.:)

So our first couple of words is:

  • während – derweil  (zur gleichen Zeit / gleichzeitig / währenddessen).

And the blueprint for it would be this (lower case letter indicates that the verb has to be final in that part of the sentence.

  • A, während b.  =  Während b, A.            minor-sentence-way
  • A. Derweil B.                                                       reference-way

The während-derweil pair is used when both actions have a certain duration…. Like 2 cars that drive alongside each other for a while. But what if this is not the case, be it because one action is rather short or one is more of a state? Like here:

  • You called me. I locked my door.

Unless you have like dozens of locks it would be odd to say

  • You called while I was locking my door.

In English you would use either when or  as (likely in combination with right or just). When to use which… well, good thing I don’t have to explain that because I have no clue :)… for German it is simple, though.
When talking about the past use als, for all the rest use wenn.
I will focus on als here, but the same systematics apply to wenn, too.

  • You called as I was just locking my door.
  • Du hast angerufen als ich gerade die Tür abgeschlossen habe.
  • When she saw the price for the dress she knew she just had to buy it.
  • Als sie den Preis des Kleides sah, wusste sie, dass sie es einfach kaufen musste.
  • Ich war gerade unter der Dusche als plötzlich das Telefon klingelte.
  • I had been in the shower when suddenly the phone rang.

People use words like gerade, plötzlich or genau together with als to stress that it was really that very moment.
 Now, this was the minor-sentence-way. What about the other way, the reference-way? The default functional word in German is… da… yes, da... the most generic pointer there is.

  • I was locking my door. In that moment you called me.
  • Ich war gerade dabei die Tür abzuschliessen. Da hast du angerufen.
  • Ich war unter der Dusche. Da klingelte plötzlich das Telefon.
  • I was under the shower. It was then, that the phone rang.
  • She saw the price of the dress. It was then, that she knew she just had to buy it.
  • Sie sah den Preis des Kleides. Da wusste sie, sie musste es einfach kaufen.

An alternative for da is in diesem Moment (at that moment) but other than that I can’t really think of anything. So our second couple is:

  • als/wennda / in diesem Moment / etc.
  • Als / wenn a, B.             minor-sentence-way 
  • A. Da B.                                reference way

Actions happening in sequence

Let’s go back once more to Thomas and his leisure activity …
“Man, this guy sure reads a lot today…”
Haha, yes he does.

  • Thomas reads before he listens to music.

“Hold on, we had this in the beginning… this is the side-sentence way of phrasing things, right?”
Exactly. The functional word here is before and the German word for this is … bevor. Note that bevor is only the translation of THIS before. It is not the translation for, say, this:

  • Before diner I must finish work?

“Why not?
Well, the functions are different and German trends to have different words for different functions.
“Oh God, German is soooo organized…”
Before is especially versatile.

  • Before diner, I must finish work .   (preposition… would be vor in German)
  • Before I eat diner, I must finish work.      (subordinating conjunction … would be bevor in German)
  • I’ll eat diner, but before, I must finish work.      (temporal adverb… would be vorher in German)

So try to understand the function of a word and then learn the word that serves that certain purpose rather than just translating.
Anyways… bevor really can only be used to create a side sentence.

  • Thomas liest, bevor er Musik hört.
  • Before I brush my teeth, I usually check my mail.
  • Bevor ich mir die Zähne putze, gucke ich normalerweise meine Mails nach.
  • Before she went Thomas, Marie had been busy with her make up for almost 3 hours.
  • Marie war, bevor sie zu Thomas gefahren ist, fast 3 Stunden mit ihrem Make Up beschäftigt.

“Wow, that last one had a weird order…. do people actually talk like that?”
Well, not that much but , yeah… you can hear that … and definitely read it.
Now, this time there is actually another word in German that has the same function as bevorehe.
„Wait, that’s marriage isn’t it…???“
Ohhhhhh, THAT  is spelled with a capital E because it is a thing… die Ehe. With a small e it is a functional word meaning before
“Today is really driving me crazy… that is soooo random… I mean… WHYYYYYY?
Hehe… the bevor-ehe comes from the old Germanic ēr and this is related to … drumroll early…

  • Ehe ich mir die Zähne putze, gucke ich meine Mails nach.

Ehe has some sort of special notion to it which I can’t really explain, but in daily life you won’t need it anyway. Alright.
Now, on to the reference way.

  • Thomas reads. After that he listens to music.

Any ideas for other references?
“Oh… let me think… erm… yeah like then and thereafter.”
Yap, those were the ones I had in mi..
“Oh I got one more…subsequently…”
Good one! So… the default reference in German is danach… that’s right… one of the famous da-words and it is absolutely no surprise since its job here is to point.

  • Thomas liest. Danach hört er Musik.

Now, would this work?

  • Danach hört er Musik. Thomas liest.

“I guess not… like, danach is pointing backwards and there is nothing to point at there.
 Absolutely…. alternatives for danach are anschließend, which is pretty close to danach, daraufhin, which has a slight notion of reaction or response, or the generic dann, which is like the English then.

  • I check my mail. Then I brush my teeth.
  • Ich gucke meine Mails nach. Anschliessend putze ich mir die Zähne.
  • Der Manager präsentierte die Quartalszahlen. Daraufhin war erstmal lange Stille.
  • The manager presented the quarterly numbers. “Thereupon” (or more idiomatic: what followed/there) was a long silence.

So… the pair we have is this:

Bevor , ehe  –  danach, anschließend, dann, daraufhin

A, bevor /ehe B. Bevor / Ehe B, A. – A. Danach B.

With what we have learned so far we know already enough to express every combination of A and B imaginable. But there is one more pair we need to look at which is kind of mirroring bevor-danach. So Mike, can you take one more…
“Ha… I guess I have to… bring it on man…
So … for better comparison both versions of the minor-sentence-way back to

  • Before Thomas listens to music he reads
  • Thomas listens to music after he reads.

The German word that has the same function as this after is nachdem.

  • Thomas hört Musik, nachdem er gelesen hat.
  • Nachdem er gelesen hat, hört Thomas Musik.

There is no synonym for danach so we can move on to the references. A quick look at English first:

  • Thomas listens to music. Before (that) / (but) first / prior to that, he reads.

The default reference-word in German is vorher.

  • Thomas hört Musik. Vorher liest er.

Other options are davor, which is a stronger pointer than vorher and zuvor, which barely feels like a pointer at all.

  • Ich gehe heute ins Theater. Davor muss ich unbedingt nochmal nach Hause mich umziehen.
  • I’ll go to the theater today. Before that I really have to go home and change clothes.

Also words like erst, zuerst or zunächst can be used in this function, too… but not alone. The words themselves just qualify something as being the first action in a sequence but they don’t point. We need some sort of pointing, however, in order to connect our 2 sentences.

  • Thomas listens to music. First he reads.

This is weird. It sounds as if reading is the first step of his listening to music. Maybe he reads the booklet or something… I don’t know. So… we need form a connection somehow.
English uses either but or however.

  • Thomas listens to music. But first / however, first he reads.

Just based on the temporal order they express those constructions do mean the same as before that. Now, how is this done in German? Either with aber or with … doch, and the latter sounds much more bettererer.

  • Thomas hört Musik. Doch zuerst /zunächst liest er.
  • I want to take a bath, but first I do the dishes.
  • Ich will ein Bad nehmen, doch zuerst mache ich den Abwasch.

Alright… so where were we??? Oh yeah… the pairs. Our last pair is this:

  • Nachdemvorher / davor / zuvor / doch erst / doch zunächst / etc
  • A, nachdem b. 
  • A. Vorher B.

And to recap it once again, let’s look at all the different possibilities for 2 actions happening after one another.  My 2 actions are:

  • Ich habe gekocht.
  • Ich habe gegessen.

And here the combination.

  • Ich habe gekocht, bevor ich gegessen habe. (Bevor ich gegessen habe, habe ich gekocht. ; Ich habe, bevor ich gegessen habe, gekocht.)
  • Ich habe gekocht. Danach habe ich gegessen.
  • Nachdem ich gekocht habe, habe ich gegessen.(Ich habe gegessen, nachdem ich gekocht habe. ; Ich habe, nachdem ich gekocht habe, gegessen.)
    Ich habe gegessen. Vorher habe ich gekocht.

Keep in mind that using the wrong functional word doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. But it might reverse the order of things.

  • Ich habe gegessen. Vorher habe ich gekocht.
  • Ich habe gegessen, bevor ich gekocht habe.

The word order is almost identical and both functional words can mean before and still… it is NOT the same ;).
“Maannn… this is sooo confusing…
I know, don’t think about it too much. Just train a little.
A good exercise would be to come up with 2 basic actions and then just say all the versions and configurations there are. Here is one to et you started.

  • Ich telefoniere mit meiner Schwester.
  • Ich mache Hausaufgaben.

Sometimes one pair makes more sense than the other, but this is no different to English so I am sure you can figure that out :).

Lean English – clunky German

Now, in all these examples I have avoided one certain type of construction in English… the -ing ones. There is one to express that things are being done at the same time:

  • Listening to music, Thomas reads.

as well as one that puts the actions in a sequence.

  • Having read, Thomas listens to music.

Maybe they are not always purely temporal but they definitely always convey an order of actions. These lean constructions are are nice because they make things short and on point so it is no wonder that they are very common in English and in the Roman languages, too.
In German however they are not. Don’t get me wrong here! German does have the grammar necessary to do those kinds of things. Here they are:

  • Musik hörend liest Thomas.
  • Gelesen habend, hört Thomas Musik.

This is incredibly weird sounding. It is not wrong but that is just not how Germans talk. We don’t use these kind of constructions for everyday stuff. It is novel-lingo at best.

  • Ihre Pizza essend schlenderte Marie am Strand entlang und dachte an Thomas.
  • Eating her pizza, Marie was strolling along the beach and thought about Thomas.

This still has to be used with care. …  and as for spoken…I am pretty certain you can go weeks without hearing anything like that. In that respect German is really clunky. We always phrase actions using sentences… be they major or minor. So when you want to translate one of these -ing things to German, first rephrase it to the more basic less elegant way.

  • Seeing Thomas play with the kitten Marie suddenly realized that she had a crush on him.
  • As she saw Thomas play with the Kitten, Marie suddenly realized, that she had a crush on him.
  • Als/während Marie zusah, wie Thomas mit dem Kätzchen spielte, wurde ihr plötzlich klar, dass sie sich in ihn verguckt hatte.
  • Having been told to do the dishes, Thomas entered the kitchen with a frown.
  • As / after / because he had been told to do the dishes, Thomas entered the kitchen with a frown.
  • Nachdem / Weil ihm gesagt wurde den Abwasch zu machen, betrat die Küche mit einem Flunsch.
  • After hanging up the phone, John lighted a cigarette.
  • After he had hung up the phone, John lighted a cigarette.
  • Nachdem er aufgelegt hatte, zündete sich John eine Zigarette an..

In each example the German sentence is by far the longest and I am sure it seems unnecessarily long but this is how we talk. German loves verbs and puts verbs in an active mode whenever possible.
And this trait is not only bad… sure… for these examples here it might feel clunky but as soon as whatever you’re saying or writing gets a little more complex, having all the verbs in an active version actually makes it sound alive…

  • people do things and things happen

as opposed to

  • people doing things and things happening.

To me, there is no verb in the latter pair. It is just people and things and a description. This is why I sometimes find it hard to read English… because nothing seems to be going on. What is a succinct way of expressing yourself can backfire and make things sound stiff and technical….
This is my personal impression though and there is no right or wrong or better or worse. But you should really try to understand the German way of expressing things… when there is an action, we prefer to phrase it as such be no matter how long it is. So… Mike… you’re so quiet…
“Haha yeah… this was overwhelming… I’m afraid I wont be able to eat German for at least a week now..”
I know, I know… that was really a lot today but hey… having read all the other parts on time you should now be able to express ANYTHING time related in German…
“You mean except for the stuff you wanted to talk about in 5.2…
Oh that… yeah… except for that… I’ll do it … big big promise… so… this is it. This concludes the German is Easy Time Mini Series…
“… man, don’t make me cry… hahaha…. any idea what you’re gonna do next, yet?
Well, I was thinking either place or sentence structure… I might do both… anyway… Mike, thank you sooo much for being here today, it was really a pleasure.
“It was great man, thanks for having me…

And to the rest of you, thank you for listening. As always if you have a question, leave me a comment and I’ll try to answer it. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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