Word of the Day – “ansehen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will have a look at the meaning of the word:


Sehen means to see and an means at or on or to or in and we’ll go with… uhm… atthis time. But ansehen is actually not so much the sum of its parts. The glamour is in the grammar. And that is not just a stupid rhyme by the way… those glamour and grammar were the same word once (don’t believe me? Check it here) . But then the Scots extracted the glamour, and ever since “grammar” has the appeal of eating sand. I don’t like grammar…it’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.
But just like Tatooine is nothing without sand, ansehen is nothing without grammar.
So let’s take a look at the different meanings and how to build them. Sounds good? Cool.

etwas ansehen

This is the simplest ansehen and it works exactly like the word to see… so you ansehen something … or someone

And just like to look at it is used in both, in the general sense or in the specific “looking in the eye” sense.

However, to look at is actually pretty broad and ansehen covers only a part of that. For people it works great and although you can do it with things, too, it would sound odd to me to say:

  • Ich habedas Bild angesehen

This sounds like you just see the thing “picture”, you don’t see what’s on it. Or at least it is not the point. Or perhaps it is leaning face against the wall, so you don’t even see the actual picture. So in this case, ansehen is kind of something in between looking atand simply facing something. You have your gaze fixed at something and that’s about it.
If we want get more involved, if we want to really look at the picture as in, well, not just seeing it… then we need to make a little addition… a very very reflexive addition.

sich etwas ansehen

The infamous self referential mir (or diror sich or uns…)

This would be commonly understood as a looking at the “content” of the picture. And in general, we could say that the self reference adds the idea of observe. Sichansehen implies at least some duration, it implies “thoroughness” and involvement of your brain. That is in fact quite a lot like to inspect. You see, speceremeant nothing other than to look at in Latin. And the in makes it “more thorough”. The German mir( dir, sich…) does the same … just with a more personal touch.
Let’s look at an example with both ansehens back to back.

Here, I just stand in the door and I look at the mess for a few seconds. Then you call the service technician to ask how much it is going to be and she says

She would never say it without the mirbecause then it would literally just mean that she is going to “look at it”… like… “I see your broken washer… that’s gonna be 120 bucks”.
Or here’s another example

In the first sentence, we see THAT it is, in the second we check out HOW it is.
So… sich(mir, dir…) ansehenmeans to look at in a more observing, personal sense.
And that is used much more than the version without the self reference.

I don’t just direct my gaze at a movie… I watch them. You might find people who say it without the mir, but to me that would sound quite odd. And as soon as we’re looking at or watching at activities, it is plain wrong to leave out the self reference.

You cannot ansehen, how someone does something. That works ONLY with sich ansehen.

Now, here are some common phrasings with sich ansehen.

All right.
So this is sich ansehen. One thing we should mention is that doesn’t work well for people. It kind of objectifies them and it doesn’t imply eye contact the way the plain ansehen does. Sich ansehen is what the doctor does with a patient. So a very rough rule of thumb would be… use ansehen for people and sich ansehen for things and activities.
And now let’s get to the third ansehen… which is a bit different than those two.


Now,this self reference we just had does feel a bit like those other mirs and dirs that German uses for verbs like kaufen.

They don’t really translate and they make it more “personal”. In the first example I could just replace myself with another person. So I can by myself something or I can buy you something. In the second example that wouldn’t work.

  • Ich lese dir ein Buch durch.

This is just wrong.
In case of ansehen, we’re dealing with the third… the meaning changes. And if we want to understand that it helps to think about an for a second. So far, it pretty much meant at in sense of toward. here, it still does but it is not so much my gaze that is directed…

it is kind of like this

  • I read something into you.

Only that in case of ansehenit is not an assumption… it is the truth I am seeing.

If you want to be more specific you can add the feature that gives something away… guess which preposition you’d have to use… exactly…an.

So let’s do a quick recap…

  • Ich sehe etwas an – I keep my gaze on something
  • Ich sehe mir etwas an – I check out/watch/”observe” something
  • Ich sehe dir etwas an – I can see/tell something by looking at you

And if this were TV you could see the mischief in my face now :)

crazy grammar fun

With three version that are so close, there sure must be potential to mess around… and boy oh boy there is. Specifically with the reflexive uses.
We’ve already seen that ansehen can be used with a self reference…

But that is not the only self reference we can use…

So, what does that mean? Exactly… I look at myself … in the mirror for example. And could there also be this?

  • Ich sehe mich etwas an.

No, because the michis one of the many possibilities you can insert instead of something. It has the same function.
Now, sometimes we might be looking at ourselves a little more thoroughly, or a little longer… like … at your latest selfie “Man, I would be looking SO COOL if it wasn’t for my stupid chin. And oh god what’s that on the forehead?? Is that a … a wrinkle?”Of course we could just say that we’re analyzing our selfie… but, at least in theory, we could also use ansehen… with two self references.

The michtells us what we’re looking at and themir adds this thorough, observing touch. And although that sentence doesn’t sound very nice, it is poetry compared to the following…

I bet you can really confuse people in your course with that sentence. Sure, it is awful German but on a purely technical level it is correct.
Now, how about this:

  • Ich sehemir mein Alter nicht an.

This could actually be two things… the looking at version

  • I don’t look at my age.

That would make sense if, say, you have amnesia and you deliberately do not look at the age on your identification.
But the sentence could also be the third ansehen… so basically just like

  • Ich sehe dir mein Alter nicht an.

Just with myself instead of yo.. wait.. I think it should be dein Alter, shouldn’t it? I’m getting really confused here. I guess that was enough crazy grammar fun for today :/… I just thought it could be helpful to see the extremes.

All right. So…we’re almost done for today. Oh… maybe we should have a look at words that are related to ansehenreal quick.

related words to “ansehen”

First of, there is die Ansicht which can mean inspectionor view but I’d say the most important meaning is view as in opinions.

As far as adjectives go, there is ansehnlich which literally would be “look at”-able, which is something short of beautiful, but outside the whole looks context it is also used to mean quite good.

Finally, there is the noun das Ansehen,which is the generic “nounified” verb the watching, but also a word for renown or reputation… in a positive way.

This Ansehen is kind of limited to certain phrasings though, so I’d suggest to put it on the passive pile.
And … I think… we’re done. Maybe one quick word about anschauen and angucken. Those two are colloquial and the use depends on the region. I, myself, for example would use anguckena lot and using ansehen for many examples felt quite unnatural to me and made me cringe a little. But for someone from the south of Germany angucken would be just as strange and he would much prefer anschauen. Ansehen is the standard though plus it is the only one that has the third meaning.

  • Ich gucke/schaue dir an, dass du traurig bist… nope…

I don’t even know if people would understand that. Oh and ansehenis also the only one that works in the following phrasing

So… with ansehen you’re on the safe side but if you want to blend in with the locals just use whatever they use.
And that’s it. That was our German Word of the Day ansehen. If you have any questions or suggestions about ansehen or if you want to try out some examples that everyone can ansehen then, just leave me a comment :)
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Oh and just to warn you… the whole “watching a movie” thing is rather complex… gucken, sehen, ansehen, anschauen... when to use which depends on the region but also on the tense and the phrasing.

Further reading:

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