The meaning(s) of “vorbei”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll have a look at the meaning of

vorbei

 

And the question on everyone’s mind is of course “Come on, German, for real? We’re combining two of these ..uhm.. things into one word now?”
To which German will answer
“Na klar, wo ist das Problem?”
The problem is of course that it can be bit confusing for learners, especially when they hear it in a sentence.
But okay, German is not exactly known for caring if something is confusing for learners.
“I am the most confusingest language on the planet… muahahahahahaha!”
Yeah, yeah whatever.

Anyway, so vorbei is obviously a combination of the two prepositions vor and bei.

Vor is about the core idea of in front, ahed, and it can be used for location as well as time and all kinds of other figurative contexts.

  • Ich bin vor dem Baum.
  • I am in front of the tree.
  • Vor dem Espresso esse ich immer gerne eine Mahlzeit.
  • I like eating a meal before the espresso.

And German bei is maybe not exactly a false friend of English by, but not a close friend either, because bei  is about being at or with someone or something.

  • Ich bin bei meiner Freundin.
  • I am at my girlfriend’s.

So these are the two parts, and what do we get when we combine them?
Drumroll for the big reveal, please:

The core idea of vorbei is – by.
In the sense of passing by.

Yeah… what a let down.
So the bei essentially shifts toward of its English brother by and the vor has just kind of disappeared.
Makes one wonder why we couldn’t just use bei for that. I reached out to German for comment, and here’s what our favorite language had to say:

“Just learn it, lol.”

So helpful.

“vorbei” as literally “passing by”

So, the core theme of vorbei is passing by and this of course goes VERY well with verbs of movement, like vorbeifahren, for example.

  • Ich halte mir die Ohren zu, wenn eine Feuerwehr an mir vorbeifährt.
  • I cover my ears, when a fire truck drives by (in front of me) /passes me by .

The default preposition that goes with vorbei it is an, so you vorbeifahren an something.
But if you want to be specific, you can use a different one, like hinter or vor or über or whatever.

  • Das Fahrrad fährt hinter mir vorbei.
  • The bike passes by behind me.

And of course this usage doesn’t just work with fahren, but with all kinds of movements.

  • Ich wollte ihr gratulieren, aber sie ist einfach an mir vorbeigegangen.
  • I wanted to congratulate her, but she just walked by me.
  • Die Elfe schleicht/ tanzt/ schwebt an dem Baum vorbei.
  • The elven woman sneaks/ dances /floats by/past the tree.

Cool.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed but passing by can actually mean two things in English. It can be about passing by in the sense we’ve just seen, but it can also mean NOT passing it by.
Like, imagine you’re on your way to a friend and you pass by the store to get beer. Here, passing by means that you actually do go there.
German vorbei works exactly the same.

  • Ich gehe nach der Arbeit bei der Bibliothek vorbei.

So this can mean that I just walk by it but it can also mean that I stop there and go inside.

  • In der Galerie sind echt gute Bilder. Geh da mal vorbei.
  • The exhibition has really cool pictures. You should go there some time.

The context makes it clear here, what is meant.
Another really nice example for this double meaning is vorbeikommen, which can mean to manage to pass by something…

  • Thomas versucht, am Türsteher vorbeizukommen.
  • Thomas tries to get past the bouncer.

…but its also a really common colloquial term for casual visits, like to drop by.

  • Ich komme um 10 vorbei.
  • I’ll come by at 10.
  • “Bock, heute was zu machen?”
    “Klar, komm einfach nachher vorbei.”
  • “Wanne do something today?”
    “Sure, just come by later.”

Context will usually make it clear, but if not, the prepositions will give it away. Because for the idea of passing we usually use an, and for the idea of visiting, dropping by, it’s bei.
And yes… vorbei bei is a thing in German ;).

  • Ich fahre an der Bibliothek vorbei und mache ein Foto.
  • I am driving past the library  and I’m taking a picture …. (like… out of the window of the car.)
  • Ich fahre bei der Bibliothek vorbei und mache ein Foto.
  • I’ll drop by the library (“driving-wise”) and take a picture… (I stop there, lock my bike, get out my tripod etc.)

All right.
Cool.

Now, the ideas we’ve seen so far were passing by in the sense of, well, passing by and passing by in a sense of visiting, dropping by.

 

so far the verbs we had were about us moving somewhere ourselves.
But vorbei also works with other verbs. And there, we often see it used with an idea of missing.

“vorbei” in the sense of missing

Take vorbeiwerfen for example. Werfen means to throw and based on what we just learned, vorbeiwerfen is basically throwing an object so it “passes by” something.

  • Ich werfe am Baum vorbei.

This means that I throw something and it “passes by” the tree.
And the translation essentially depends on my intention.

  • I throw past the tree. (could be on purpose)
  • I miss the tree. (I tried to hit it)

Once again, we’ll need the help of Cpt. Context to know, but as you can see in the following examples, it’s usually pretty clear.

  • Der Spieler schießt vorbei.
  • The player misses the goal.
    The player shoots past.(lit.)
  • Deine Idee geht an dem Problem vorbei.
  • Your idea misses the problem.
  • “10 Euro, wenn du von hier mit dem Schneeball die Laterne triffst.”
    “Ok…” (wirft)
    “Oh, vorbei.
    “Ja, aber es war knapp.”
  • “13,64 dollar if you can hit the lantern with a snowball from here.”
    “Okay… “(throws)
    “Oh… missed it.
    “Yeah, but it was close.”

Only sometimes, it’s a bit less obvious.

  • Die Quartalsergebnisse gehen  meilenweit an den Erwartungen vorbei.

This sentence is about the quarterly result “passing by” the expectations and it would make perfect sense to assume that it means to exceed.  But in that context, a native speaker will understand that as to miss, even though that doesn’t even technically include “passing” the target.
There’s no deeper logic here, though. The verb just came to be used in that sense only.

  • The quarterly results missed the expectations by a mile.

Most of the time, the context will make it clear though, so don’t worry.

Cool, so that’s passing by in a sense of missing.
It’s common with all kinds of verbs where you “move” some object, but you can also see it as a standalone, like here:

  • Wenn du zum Markt willst musst du an der Kirche vorbei.    (gehen is omitted)
  • I you want to go to the market you have to go past the church.

 

  • “Komme ich hier geradeaus zum Markt?”
    “Oh, da sind Sie schon dran vorbei.”
  • “If I go straight, will that get me to the market?”
    “Oh you already passed that.”

 

And just to bring it to your attention again… also here we see that an is the default preposition buddy of vorbei… vorbei an. Remember that. If there was to be a quiz once the show is over, this would be a question.

And speaking of something being over, that brings us to the last meaning of vorbei – vorbei in the sense of time.

“vorbei” in the context of time

So far, all the uses we had were about location, or at least they were “spatial” in some sense.
But as one of the smartest people the planet has ever seen has taught us:

“Space and time are a continuum.”
(Brad Pitt)

Thanks, Brad Pitt!
Or wait, was he one of the smartest or one of the prettiest? I always mix this up.
Anyways, just like in the spatial realm, we can also use passing by and vorbei in the domain of time.

  • Ich arbeite gerne, wenn viel zu tun ist. Dann geht die Zeit schnell vorbei.
  • I like working when there”s a lot to do. The time goes by quickly then.

And it isn’t limited to just “time” but also works for events or states or other temporal things.

  • “Ich bin einfach so deprimiert, seit ich mit Thomas Schluss gemacht hab.”
    “Keine Sorge, das geht vorbei.”
  • “I am just so down/depressed since I broke up with Thomas.”
    “Don’t worry, that’ll go by/pass.”

And that’s why vorbei by itself is a translation for over.

  • Das Konzert ist vorbei.
  • The concert is over.
    The concert has gone past.(lit)
  • Diese Zeiten sind Gott sei dank vorbei.
  • Those days are over, thank god.

Now, vorbei is not the only option for this kind of over. Two other ones are  zu Ende and beendet.
Zu Ende is very “pointy” and it works well for things with a definite ending… like a movie or a play.

  • Der Film ist zu Ende.
  • The movie is over.
    The movie is at an end. (lit.)

Beendet is just the ge-form of the word beenden which is to bring something to an end/to finish something. So this kind of only works if a people have an active role in ending it, and like many be-verbs, it sounds a bit technical.

  • Die Diskussion ist beendet.
  • The discussion is over.

So beendet wouldn’t really work with a movie, for example, unless you mean that the filming has been completed.
Vorbei itself is pretty neutral and just means that the time something lasted has passed.

  • Das Projekt ist vorbei.

This just means that the project over. You cannot partake in it any more.

  • Das Projekt ist beendet.

This puts a little more emphasis on the fact that someone declared it to be over.
But I think I’m getting lost in the details a little. Please don’t worry about this kind of stuff too much.

And we’re almost done here, but there’s a couple more things I want to mention real quick.

First up, I want to mention vorüber. This is a synonym for vorbei and primarily used for time. It sounds a bit high register and vorbei is definitely more common in daily life. But there’s one use that vorbei DOESN’T have and that’s the word vorübergehend, which means temporarily.

  • Dieser Geldautomat ist vorübergehend außer Betrieb. Bitte benutzen Sie…
  • This cash machine is temporarily out of order. Please use the ….

Last but not least, I want to show you a few pretty common idioms with vorbei – one is about missing, one about passing and one about visiting.
I won’t give you the translations, but I think you might be able to figure out what they mean. Leave a comment, if you have an idea :)

  • Knapp daneben ist auch vorbei.
  • Das geht mir am Arsch vorbei. ( a bit vulgar)
  • Wobei, ich wollt’ davor bei dir vorbei.

Okay, the last one isn’t really an idiom, actually.
It is  a “confusium” for beginners when they hear it :).
Like…. “voby-blah-voby-di-voby… whaaaat? What a mess.
And it actually reminded me of one last thing… no matter which vorbei we’re talking about… the emphasis is ALWAYS on bei and it is strong….
vorBEI
and it would be quite confusing the other way around.

And with this important last minute insight, we’ll wrap it up :).
This show about the meaning of vorbei is vorbei now :).
If you want to recap and check how much you remember, just take the quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course, if you have any question or suggestions about vorbei or if you want to take a shot at the three idioms just komm vorbei in the comment section :)
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

 

further reading:

5 13 votes
Article Rating