The meaning of “nachdenken”

Hello everyone, this man is doin' it intensively

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time, with a look a close look at the meanings and mechanics of the great word :

nachdenken

 

And in this case a picture really says more than a thousand words. Because nachdenken is exactly what this Rodin statue called “The Puncher” does:

to punch oneself in the face.

Nah, kidding… nachdenken is of course about thinking. Although too much of it can be a bit like punching yourself.

Now, most of you know that denken means to think, but nach is a little more confusing. When you look in a dictionary, you can find that it can translate to to, after, for, according to and past. That’s quite… broad.
But there’s actually a core theme to nach that’s kind of inside all these translations.

And that is the idea of pursuit. We’ve actually talked about nach in detail in a separate article, though, so I’ll leave you the link below.
For today, the idea of pursuit is actually pretty perfect. Because nachdenken is about the act of actively pursuing a thought, or train of thought.
One possible translation is to ponder, but nachdenken doesn’t sound anywhere near as lofty or epic. It’s really an everyday word.

So let’s look at a little more at how denken and nachdenken are used in daily life, to get a feel for the difference.
Denken is first of all used for the general act of thinking. So this is kind of what humans can do while animals can not. As René Go-Cart said…

  • Ich denke, also bin ich.
  • I think, therefore I am.

Denken is also used in sense of having an opinion or an idea:

  • Was denkst du über den Film?
  • What do you think of/about the movie?
  • Was denkst du, wer wird der nächste Präsident? Trump oder Biden?
  • What do you think, who is going to be the next president? Trump or Biden?
  • “Hast du morgen Zeit?”
    “Ich denke, ja!”
    “Super!”
  • “Got time tomorrow? ”
    “I think so.”
    “Awesome!”

And then, German  denken an is also very often used in the sense of to remember something.

  • Ich muss an meinen Termin denken.
  • I have to remember my appointment.
  • Denk daran, dass du morgen schon um 7 aufstehen musst!
  • Remember, that you have to get up at 7 already tomorrow!

Nachdenken on the other hand is as we said the pursuit of a thought. In more practical terms, it is thinking about one certain question, in order to find a solution.
Suppose it is Friday night and your best friends ask you if you want go to the bar with them. Naturally this is a tough call and it sure is not something you could decide immediately as you also have lots of German to study, the kitchen sink is filled with sponge-hungry dishes and there’s also this Corona thing… or is that even a thing still?
Anyway, so in that scenario, you might answer by saying:

  • Hmm, klingt gut, aber lasst mich kurz nachdenken.
  • Hmm, sound good, but let me think about it for a minute.

Technically, what you do is “ponder” the question, but pondering sounds just too epic or lofty. Nachdenken however is perfect. A
Here’s a couple more examples:

  • Ich denke darüber nach, mir die Haare zu schneiden.
  • I am thinking about getting a new haircut.
  • Ich habe lange darüber nachgedacht, und dann habe ich schließlich meinen Job gekündigt.
  • I have been pondering on it, and I eventually quit my job.
  • Denk darüber nach!
  • Think about it!

And just to make sure… the word denken alone does NOT not work here. Denken über is only used in the sense of opinion.

  • Was denkst du über Maria?
  • What do you think about Maria?

But nachdenken doesn’t always have to be think about. It’s also used for to think in the sense of trying to recall something.
Like… you have put your car key somewhere but you don’t know where. You sit in class and the teacher has asked you something you should know. The thinking you need to do in these situations is also nachdenken and not just plain denken.

  • Denk mal scharf nach… wo hast du den Schlüssel hingelegt!
  • Think real hard man… where have you put the key!

And actually, it doesn’t always have to be one specific question. It can also be loosely following a train of thoughts.
So if someone asks you what you have done the last 2 hours it is totally fine to say:

  • Ach, ich hab ein bisschen nachgedacht.
  • Oh, I was just contemplating/thinking a bit.

People might ask, what you were thinking about but you don’t have to say it. And in case your partner is German, you can also use that phrase to give them a real good scare. Just put on a serious face, use a neutral voice and slowly say:

“Du (meaningful break) …    Ich habe nachgedacht....  … …”

Because that sounds a little bit like “I… we need to talk.”.
Cool, so there you have it. That’s nachdenken. There’s also the adjective nachdenklich, but I think you can find what this means if you nachdenken for a second :).
Nachdenken is definitely a must have and you should start using it.
If you want to recap and check if you got the most important points then you can take the quiz I have prepared.
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment. I hope you enjoyed it and see you next time.

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Brandon Gilles
4 years ago

Vielen Dank für einen tollen (und lustigen) Artikel!

Nicklas Kulczycki
5 years ago

I know this article is quite old now (Emmanuel, your English has improved considerably in the last 4 years!), but I wanted to offer an extremely literal translation for the last “boyfriend/girlfriend” sentence: “So…I’ve been thinking.” This is 100% the likeliest line you would hear in this situation when your significant other is about to drop a bombshell. I think the present perfect progressive (gotta love English verb forms) expresses this quite nicely, as the construction seems to imply frequent, careful deliberation and a recent (and ultimate) determination.

person243
person243
6 years ago

Hi,

thanks for this recap of “nachdenken”. Now I know that I should not use “already” as I sometimes do in English. (as early as, or just somehow early, cool)
I see you cut short this time with the related words section. I would like to add “nachdenklich”. That does not often mean “thoughtful” as some dictionaries might suggest. So: “How thoughtful of you.” is not: “Wie nachdenklich von dir.” but rather: “Wie aufmerksam von dir.”
“nachdenklich” basically means “with a lot of pondering” or “full of pondering”.
“Das stimmt mich nachdenklich.” = “That makes me think.”
“Er sieht mich nachdenklich an.” = “He looks at me pondering.”
“Sie verfielen in nachdenkliches Schweigen.” = “They fell into a pondering silence.”

That makes me think (the pun is obviously intended and not funny at all.), when these words are actual translations of each other. I had a similar problem with “Lust” and “desire” before. Maybe you can help.

PS: That makes me realise that you probably did not mention “nachdenklich” because it is not easy to translate.

person243
person243
6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Not really. It is just that for some words in many translators there is a number one translation for an English word (or a German one into English) and you have to fight your way to find a situation where this “number one” really is a translation of the word.
“Lust” and “desire” were such an example. Most times “desire” is better translated with “Wunsch” and “Lust” is better translated with “urge” or “craving” but if I look at some common translators, bamm, “Lust” = “desire” (Häh?!).
The same occured to me with “thoughtful” and “nachdenklich” now. Because as you said “nachdenklich” is often not “thoughtful” since that is translated as “aufmerksam” or “vorausdenkend”. I mean “nachdenklich” is thinking about past events and “thoughtful” is thinking about future events or just thinking in general. So you would need a situation where the time is not important. Like if you are using it as an adverb like in your example (I think it would be “thoughtfully” though), when the verb already gets you the time.
It would be an interesting new rubric for your website: “Two words and why they are the ‘best’ translations but are never translated to each other.” or something like that.

PS: The time difference is how I explained it to myself, when I did some pondering about it. Maybe I am completely off there and “thoughtful” actually has a much broader meaning.

person243
person243
6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I thank you anyway. The cloud atlas of a word, haha. I think I understand what you mean. “Mengenlehre” is not really my best forte but I study mathematics so, yes, I think I understand statistics (or the fields of functional algebra or algebraic numbers theory for that matter) better than the general public. Maybe I wish the translators of several websites would too. So that they wouldn’t put the word with the smallest, ähm (Schnittmenge?) – intersection set(thanks leo) on the first position.

person243
person243
6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Oh, sorry. I misunderstood your example at first. If you describe a person the words also fit, good. Does the thing with the time still works though? I mean in: “Du siehst nachdenklich aus.”/”Du erscheinst nachdenklich.” = “You look thoughtful.” It just about the thinking not what this thinking is about. I am not quiet satisfied with the German wording. Normally you say “Du siehst so aus, als würdest du über etwas nachdenken.” Or “Du wirkst (aber ganz schön) nachdenklich (heute).” Yes, “wirken” here. “Du wirkst nachdenklich.” = “You seem thoughtful.”
Anyway, thank you for helping me with your example. I almost thought there was not any situation where the two words translate without confusion.
Sorry, for the rambling.

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Hi German is easy

In your example
Hmm, klingt gut, aber lasst mich kurz nachdenken.

Hmm, sound good, but let me think about it for a minute.

I believe the sentence is: aber lasst mich kurz nachzudenken or something like that. Lasst = Let so it is another rule or it is equal to English.

Thanks

danieljvdm
danieljvdm
6 years ago

Great article! A common pattern that I noticed while reading this, is it seems denken seems to be used when asking people what their thoughts/opinions are (they already have them), while nachdenken is used more to develop those thoughts/opinions.

Heute Abend denke ich über den Film nach.
(Am nächsten Tag)
Hallo Daniel, was denkst du über den Film?
Ah! Ich habe gerade darüber nachgedacht! Ich denke, dass der sehr philosophisch war.

Does this make sense?

danieljvdm
danieljvdm
6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Glad to be of help – your blog has helped me tremendously! Thanks!

mrbosch07
mrbosch07
6 years ago

I would have loved to have an example of denken von…

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks!! That was great!!!

Ramkrishna
Ramkrishna
7 years ago

Hi about the phrase “Denk daran, dass du morgen schon um 7 aufstehen musst!”
Did you mean or does ‘schon’ here mean “Remember you need to wake up at 7 on the dot / 7’o clock sharp!” Am considering another scenario. Supposing there previously wasn’t much clarity on whether you had to wake up at 7 and then at some point later 7’o clock is the confirmed time, then I suppose they’d say “Remember you need to wake up at 7 itself.” Hope that’s what ‘schon’ here means.

MegaMu
MegaMu
7 years ago

So…. The difference between nachdenken und überlegen….?

The Smileyman
The Smileyman
8 years ago

Interesting question. These particles in German are always subjects of debate wherever I go. On different language forums I usually get the response that these modal particles have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, since they have different effects on the sentence depending on context and their position and such… I don’t know too much about particles other than there are numerous books and online grammar lessons which focus solely on modal particles in and of themselves. One surefire way to have some understanding of particles in my opinion would be to look at already established examples of their usage in dictionaries. For instance, my Larousse Ger-En dictionary gives the following: schon adv. 1. [bereits] already; > wir essen heute schon um elf Uhr we’re eating earlier today, at eleven o’clock In this example, no ‘already’ was necessary, since other words were used to convey the meaning. > er ist schon lange hier he’s been here for a long time Notice how ‘already’ has also been omitted completely. I’m not sure if it could have been included or not, but this translation sounds good enough to me nonetheless. Also on wikipedia, they give the following; > Ich kenne mich in Berlin aus. Ich war doch letztes Jahr schon dort. (“I know my way around Berlin. I was here last year, after all/as a matter of fact.”) So sometimes “schon” can even be translated as “after all/as a matter of fact”. As for “The meeting will start already at 11.”, I think it is a matter of the overall idea and usage. English and German sometimes try to state the same ideas, but with different word usages. This can be observed most often in movie subtitles. I have noticed that in some German movies, the English subbed sentence will use a different choice of words to convey the same effect. Although it might sound perfectly normal to hear the literal German version of “The meeting will start already at 11.” auf Deutsch, the wording may be altered in English to better suit the speech of casual English. Personally, this example might be like two sides of the same coin. I, myself, do not really see too much of a problem with this choice of words to convey that the meeting will start today at 11, rather than at the usual time of 10 or whatever. But I can see how some other native English speakers might have a problem understanding it. Therefore, like I stated above, it might sometimes be better to use what I like to call, the “movie subbing technique”. Just pretend you are subtitling this sentence for English speakers as if it were a motion picture, and simplify it for the movie goers. Deutsch Film; The meeting will start already at 11. (Das Meeting wird schon bei 11 starten.)??? Englisch Untertitel. The meeting will (now) be starting at 11 today. Today, the meeting will be starting at 11. The meeting is going to start already at… Read more »

The Smileyman
The Smileyman
8 years ago

Hi, German-is-easy moderator!
As a student of this site, I have noticed that at times some English sentences could be translated better to suit the speech of localized English.
For example;
“Denk daran, dass du morgen schon um 7 aufstehen musst!”
I personally have trouble remembering this sentence as:
“Remember, that you have to get up at 7 already tomorrow!”
Although this would be comprehensible, it just sounds too foreign and odd to my native ears. I would suggest something along the lines of:
“Remember that already, you gotta get up tomorrow at 7!”
I would contend that the “already” is the main idea of the sentence and therefore, should be highlighted like this from the beginning to give it more emphasis. Also, it just sounds more natural for me to hear it this way than the translation you gave. There are dozens of sentences like this all across the website which I have noticed could use a tune-up of this kind. I am too lazy to point them all out, but I think this gives you a general idea of what some people might think…

I hope I did not offend you, I’m just trying to get my opinion across on the matter.
Love the site, keep on Germanizing!:)

MegaMu
MegaMu
7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

English would normally leave the ‘already’ out of the translation unless you want to be really umgangsprächlich (enough already! Get up already!).

Jastonite
Jastonite
7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

To me this sounds the most natural, “Remember that you have to get up early at 7 tomorrow!” And “The meeting will start early at 11”. Both of those indicate that the times 7 and 11 are earlier than the typical wake-up and meeting times.

Betts
Betts
7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I am not a native English speaker but my gut feeling about this kind of ´schon´ is as follows:

´Denk daran, dass du morgen schon um 7 aufstehen musst!´
´Remember that you have to get up as early as 7 tomorrow!´

or another example would be:

´Es ist unglaublich, dass diese Hypothese schon vor 2000 Jahren bewiesen wurde.´
´It´s incredible that this hypothesis was proved as early as 2000 years ago.´

There are, of course, other ´schons´ and a whole bunch of other particles that are hard to understand, especially at a beginner´s level. My advise for everyone out there that´s just starting out with German is to just ignore them. Because they can´t be understood, only felt. Frankly speaking, I don´t even know what ´doch´ is and at this point I don´t even care {well I do know to use it if someone tells me ´du kannst kein Deutsch!´ .. ´Doch, doch!´ :)) }

So I just focus on things like grammar, sentence structure and most importantly vocabulary. Because vocabulary CAN be understood and the more words and expressions you know and understand, the better and easier you get to feel stuff like ´doch´, since these particles derive their meaning from context, that is to say from the words and expressions near them ;)). Wanting to learn German and starting with ´doch´ ist just like wanting to be a doctor and instead of starting with human anatomy, you start with the handwriting.

But this is just my opinion, I might be wrong of course about the whole thing and also the about the translation ;))

Sam
Sam
8 years ago

A couple quick questions:

Your example:
“Was denkst du über dem Film?”

Why is Film in the dative case in this example?

Also, with regards to using the past-form of “denken” in conversation. When looking at the real past (dachte) compared to the conversational past (hat gedacht), is one form more commonly used in conversation than the other? Just curious.

Thanks, as always.

Rhys
Rhys
9 years ago

wonderful. thank you!

Rhys
Rhys
9 years ago

another great article! I was just wondering if you could explain the difference between denken and meinen, when used in the sense of to think. thanks again!

conanon
9 years ago

Wie immer ist diese Beitrag auch sehr lustig. Ich lache oft auf, da seiner Blog nie seriös wird. Zum Beispiel, Ihrer lezter Satz. Ich will jetzt diesen Satz nutzen, aber es gibt niemand um mich, wer den Witz verstehen kann. Auf jedem Fall ist es wieder ein schöner Beitrag. Danke!