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… at this 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 two 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

  • Ich sehe dich.
  • I see you.
  • Ich sehe dich an.
  • I look at you.

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

  • Sieh mich an, wenn ich mit dir rede!
    “Mach ich doch!”
    “Nein, weiter oben!”
  • “Look at me, when I’m talking to you!”
    “But I am looking at you.”
    “No, look higher.”

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 habe das 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 at and 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 dir or sich or uns…)

  • Ich sehe mir das Bild an.
  • I look at the picture to/for myself.(lit)
  • I look at the picture.

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. Sich ansehen 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, specere meant 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.

  • Ich sehe meine kaputte Waschmaschine an und denke “Na toll, die war neu.”
  • I look at my broken washer and I think “Splendid, it was new.”

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

  • Ich komme morgen vorbei und sehe sie mir an.
  • I’ll come by tomorrow and take a look at it /I’ll check it out.

She would never say it without the mir because 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

  • Ich sehe das Buch an.
  • I look at the book (have my gaze fixed at it)
  • Ich sehe mir das Buch an.
  • I look at the book. (turn it around, open it, turn pages, perhaps read a chapter…)

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

  • Ich sehe mir einen Film an.
  • I watch a movie.

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.

  • The consultant looks at how we work.
  • Der Unternehmensberater sieht an, wie wir arbeiten…. is wrong
  • Der Unternehmensberater sieht sich an, wie wir arbeiten.

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

  • Wenn ich mir so ansehe, was diese Firma in den letzten Monaten erreicht hat, dann muss ich sagen… da ist noch Luft nach oben.
  • Looking at what the company has achieved over the last few months I have to say… there is still room for improvement.

Now, here are some common phrasings with sich ansehen.

  • Sieh dir das mal an!
  • Look at that.
  • Ich seh’ mir das nicht mehr lange (mit) an.
  • I won’t be taking/accepting/go along with that much longer.

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.

  • Ich kaufe mir die erste Staffel von Mad Men..
  • I buy the first season of Mad Men.
  • Ich lese mir die E-Mail durch.
  • I read the (whole) email.

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…

  • Ich sehe dir etwas an.

it is kind of like this

  • I read something into you.

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

  • Ich sehe dir deine Sorgen an.
  • I can see that you’re worried, (no point denying)
  • Man  sehe dir an, wie  müde du bist.
  • One can see how tired you are.
  • Man sieht ihr ihr Alter garnicht an.
  • She doesn’t look her age at all.
  • “Poah.. ich konnte die ganze Nacht nicht schlafen.”
    “Echt? Sieht man dir garnicht an. Du siehst echt fit aus.”
  • “Boah… I couldn’t sleep all night.”
    “Really? Well it doesn’t show. You look really fit.”

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.

  • Ich sehe dir an der Nasenspitze an, dass du lügst.
  • I can see it in your face (lit: by the tip of your nose) that you’re lying.

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…

  • Ich sehe mir etwas an

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

  • Ich sehe mich an.

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 mich is 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.

  • Ich sehe mir mich an.

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

  • Sie sieht sich sich an.
  • Sie looks at herself.

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 sehe mir 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 ansehen real quick. First of, there is die Ansicht which can mean inspection or view but I’d say the most important meaning is  view as in opinions.

  • Er hat komische Ansichten.
  • He has strange views sometimes.
  • Meiner Ansicht nach macht das keinen Sinn.
  • In my view/IMO that doesn’t make sense.
  • “Süßes Popcorn ist besser als salziges.”
    “Das ist Ansichtssache”
  • “Sweet popcorn is better than salty one”
    “That’s a matter of opinion.”

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.

  • Dein Essen ist lecker, aber es ist total unansehnlich.
  • Your food is tasty but it is no joy to look at/looks gross.
  • Thomas hat einen ansehnlichen Betrag im Lotto gewonnen.
  • Thomas has won a rather decent amount of money in the lottery.

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.

  • Er genießt bei seinen Kollegen großes Ansehen.
  • He is held in high esteem among his colleagues.
  • Sein Ansehen hat durch den Skandal sehr gelitten.
  • His reputation has suffered as a result of the scandal.

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 angucken a 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 ansehen is also the only one that works in the following phrasing

  • Ich sehe das als Kompliment an.
  • I see that as a compliment.

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: