German Word of the Day – “vorbei”

Hello everyone,

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



Come on, German, really? Like… really?? We’re combining two of these ..uhm.. things into one word now?
“Ja, natürlich.”
Oh… uhm… okay. I mean… It’s just… I … er… I’ll just explain
“Viel Spaß.”
So.. the word vorbei is a combination of two prepositions or prefixes, which is a completely natural thing to do. Vor has at its core the meaning in front of.

  • Ich bin vor dem Baum.
  • I am in front of the tree.

But soon it also took on a temporal meaning… and just as in English before, it looks at the past.

  • Vor 10 Jahren gab es noch kein Facebook.
  • 10 years ago, there was no Facebook yet.
  • Vor dem Espresso esse ich immer gerne eine Mahlzeit.
  • I like eating a meal before the espresso.

Yeah… reversed priorities in the last example ;).
Anyway. The main meaning bei has today is a local at.

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

But of course it is related to the English by and in case of vorbei that shows, specifically the “going by/past”-by. And thus we’ve arrived at the first meaning of vorbei…. passing in front.

  • 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 fahren is the means of moving, bei expresses the passing and vor kind of kind of implies that it is in front of me… vorbeifahren. Okay, I guess the “in front”-part has kind of faded a bit. I would also use use vorbeifahren for things that pass by behind me… but behind would be indicated then.

  • Das Fahrrad fährt hinter mir vorbei.

And of course it is not limited to fahren

  • 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.

So… whenever there is a verb of movement with vorbei it means to pass , right? Well.. uhm… nope. It can also mean the opposite… like… NOT passing something by.
Imagine you’re riding your bike through the city and you’re passing by a little gallery. But what if you stop for a second to look at what they’re showing, and then you continue… that would still be passing it by, right? Now, what if you went inside… just for second, just to ask how long they’ll be open the next day. And back on the way you are. Then you still passed it by, right? And now, you don’t really know how it happened, but you end up with a ticket in your hand… aaand you might as well go see the exhibition. But before long you’ll be right back on your path… can you catch my drift? The German vorbei has also taken on the idea of visiting… and by is actually no different

  • I passed by the market and I bought carrots.
  • I by-passed the market and continued to the gallery.

So… vorbei can also imply dropping by … like… for all those casual every day visits.

  • 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.”

Especially the combination with kommen is … uhm very common but in theory it works with any movement

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

Context makes it clear that the person is not telling us to literally walk by. And we don’t always have to rely on context because both vorbeis use different prepositions.. hooray :). For the passing-one it’s an, and for the “dropping-by“-one it is.. bei. Really, German? Bei…. vorbei?
“Na klar.”
Oh… okay.. uhm… just making sure…

  • 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.
Now let’s move on to the next idea of vorbei which is actually just a slight variation of the original.

vorbei – missing

We’ll start with an example

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

This one is purely about the path, so to speak.

  • “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.”

This is more about the idea of missing your destination. And that is the next idea of vorbei which can be used whenever there is a target involved… be it a movement or any other activity that involves aiming

  • Der Spieler schießt vorbei.
  • The player shoots past.(lit.)
  • The player misses the goal.
  • 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.”

Although it comes from the simple idea of passing something, this missing-vorbei does as negative as to miss( the target).

  • Die Quartalsergebnisse gehen meilenweit an den Erwartungen vorbei.

Strictly logically speaking, this could also mean that the expectations were exceeded. But every German will understand that only one way…

  • The quarterly results missed the expectations by a mile.

So… this missing vorbei doesn’t always include passing. Even falling short can be expressed with vorbei.
All right.
Now on to the last idea of vorbei.

Vorbei – past

Again it is just a slight variation of the original passing. A bus drives by. And then? It has passed. It is past.

  • 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.

But it is also used for events, movies and things that take time in general.

  • “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.”

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

Now, there are some other translations for over in that context… zu Ende and beendet. So let’s have a quick look at what the differences are.
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 at an end. (lit.)
  • The movie is over.

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…..

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

Zu Ende would work too but beendet wouldn’t work with a movie… because once the movie is shot it ends by itself. What you could beenden is the shooting of the movie.
Finally, vorbei is really just about that it is gone, it is in the past. It work for a pointy ending as well as a fade out that lasts a generation. What matters is that it is past.

  • Das Projekt ist vorbei.

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

  • Das Projekt ist beendet.

This means that someone declared it to be over… either because it was finished or because it was a failure.
So, I hope that gave you some idea of how to use the over-vorbei.
We’re almost done here. Just two more things. There is a synonym for vorbei… vorüber. This mainly has the over-meaning and from that comes the quite common vorübergehend which means temporarily.

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

You can also find vorüber as the very literal passing by but it does not at all work as the visiting-vorbei.
Last but not least, there are two pretty common idioms with vorbei... one uses the missing vorbei, the other the passing one. I won’t give you the translations… can you figure out what they mean :)?

  • 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… it is a “confusium” for beginners when they hear it :).. “voby-blah-voby-di-voby… whaaaat? 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….
and it would be quite confusing the other way around.
All right. I think we’re done. This was our German Word of the Day vorbei. The core is something like “passing in front of” and from comes the idea of missing the destination and the idea of over/passed. And, if you include a short, or not so short stop, on your way by… them you also get the idea of dropping by. All 4 ideas are equally common I would say but I am sure the context will always help you out.
This episode is vorbei now. 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.

Click here to download all audio files (zip-archive, mp3 files)

further reading:

5 9 votes
Article Rating

for members :)

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments