The meaning of “vorstellen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will have a thorough look at the meanings of the verb:

vorstellen

 

Before we actually begin maybe you want to get a tea or a beer; whichever helps you concentrate is fine, as this time it is … grammar-time. Case-time to be specific.
The reason is that vorstellen is actually has two super important meanings  and the cases kind of matter here. I mean… they kind of always kind of matter, but here they REALLY matter.
Anyway, before I ruin this intro even more, let’s jump right in…

And I’m going to tell you the two main meanings of vorstellen right away.. many of you probably heard about them:

  1. to imagine
  2. to introduce, to present

And it’s a great example for how German prefix verbs can appear to be crazy and random on first glance, while actually being quite logical.
Vorstellen consists of the basic verb stellen and the prefix vor.  The prefix vor, one of the easiest of the bunch, expresses the idea of in front of/ aheadStellen basically is the brother of legen and they’re both about placing something. Legen means to place it horizontally while stellen covers the vertical part, but that doesn’t really matter for us today. The general idea of placing, putting is enough.
So taken literally, vorstellen is something like putting something in front.
And that actually fits perfectyl with both meanings the verb has.
Let’s take to present first.

You see, presenting is in essence putting something in front of someone like “Tadah!”.
And it’s the same for to introduce, only that there you’re often presenting people.

Sure, Thomas doesn’t literally puts his girlfriend in front of his parents, but we really don’t need much mind bending to see that vorstellen as introduce actually makes a lot of sense.

But what about the other meaning, to imagine?
Well, think about it. Is it really that different?
If you imagine yourself on a beach for example, you do picture that beach right in front of your eyes. You mentally “put” an image in front of you.
It’s actually kind of the same.

So the meaning of introducing and imagining are certainly different. But they share this aspect of something or someone being “put” in front of you. And that’s why German uses the same verb for it.
Now, you might have noticed that I used different colors in the examples. That was to kind of lead toward the grammar portion. But before we get to that, let’s really quickly give a shoutout to the third meaning of vorstellen.
Yes, there’s a third meaning.
It’s nowhere near as useful as the other two, but we do need it at least once per year when clocks are switched to daylight savings time. Because that’s also a meaning of vorstellen… setting your watch ahead.

“Bro, it’s 2020. Watches have been doing that by themselves for a while.”
Well.. okay… I guess you’re right. I just wanted to mention it.
But I see you can you can’t wait to get to the grammar part, so let’s do it.

The grammar of “vorstellen”

The challenges with using vorstellen correctly is first of all to pick the right cases for what we want to express.
We’ve just learned that the imagine-meaning of vorstellen ties in well with the idea of presenting. Let’s take that translation for a second and compare three configurations. Blue is the direct object which will be accusative in German, and green is the indirect object, which in German will be Dative.

  1. I present something/someone to someone. (introducing, presenting)
  2. I present myself to someone.  (introducing oneself)
  3. I present someone/something to myself. (imagining)

Now, let’s loook at the same examples in German.
Actually, I changed someone to Frau, so the phrases look a bit more natural, but structurally they’re the same.

  • Ich stelle einer Frau etwas vor.
  • Ich stelle mich einer Frau vor.
  • Ich stelle mir etwas vor.

We can see that the thing that is being presented (introduced, imagined) is ALWAYS the direct object and the person who gets to see it is the indirect object.
That’s actually pretty straight forward, and makes perfect sense.
What makes the whole thing a little confusing to many learners is the self reference.
The imagine-vorstellen ALWAYS has a self reference, and it is the indirect object. You “present” the mental image “to yourself”. So it’s Dative in German.

  • Ich stelle MIR ein Bier vor.
  • Du stellst DIR ein Bier vor.
  • Er stellt SICH ein Bier vor.

The introducing-vorstellen CAN have a self reference, if you are introducing yourself to someone. Then the self reference will be the direct object, or Accusative in German:

  •  Ich stelle MICH vor.
  • Du stellst DICH vor.
  • Er stellt SICH vor.

But you the introducing-vorstellen works fine without a self refernce, too:

  • Ich stelle meine Freundin/sie vor. – I introduce my girlfriend.
  • Du stellst deinen Opa /ihn vor. – You introduce your grandpa.
  • Er stellt seinen Bruder /ihn vor.  – …

Note that if you were to add a little mir to the first sentence it would change and become to imagine.… because now I present to myself and that means to imagine. I admit that it is a little tricky but let’s also not think about it too much because that’ll stress you out…. ah, screw that… let’s actually look at some twisted examples with this :). Just for … ahem… “fun”.

  • Marc imagines a woman.
  • Marc introduces himself to a woman.

Only one letter difference, barely audible. And yet a question of being home alone or not. The woman in the second sentence is in Dative. Thus she is the one to whom is presented while in the first example she is the object being virtually presented to Marc by himself.
I know you’re like “Gee, how am I supposed to build this.” but don’t worry. You don’t really have to. We’re doing this just so you get a better understanding of what’s going on.
So, ready for the next mess?
Behold…

Here, we can’t tell which case is which because sich can be either. So technically, this can mean two things. The first one is  Marc imagines himself in 10 years… like, where is he going to be, how is he going to look and all that. The other one is that Marc travels to the future and introduces himself to his future self. Which is more likely depends on how much you believe in time travel.
Seriously though, let’s do one more …

Cases really matter here, but I think rather than thinking about the cases too much, you should think about the ROLE that the case expresses. Like… who receives the “putting in front”. Because cases are usually just an expression of role, not a thing on their own.

Cool.
So we’re pretty much done for today, but I think we actually haven’t had a proper example for vorstellen in past tense, so let’s do that real quick.
The ge-form is vorgestellt and it works with haben.

And let’s also mention the corresponding noun die Vorstellung, which can be imagination or  show, screening, presentation so it covers both meanings of the verb.
i’ll leave the examples up to your Vorstellungskraft :)

And that’s it for today. This was our look at the two meanings of vorstellen, how their ideas connect and what to pay attention to with their grammar.
As usual, if you have any questions or recommendations as to what needs to be explained a little better, please leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

for members :)

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Alex
Alex

Hi, thankfully we have a word in my native language (Bulgarian) that also combines the 3 meanings of vorstellen, but it also has another one: to represent (f.e. a company). We do have another word for that but we also use our corresponding vorstellen for that as well, my question is can it also be used in such a way in German?

Alex
Alex

Yes, it did, thank you :)

Anonymous
Anonymous

Wird die Vergangenheitsform nicht mit haben gebildet?

aktham
aktham

viele danke, das war eine große Hilfe

Helmut
Helmut

Hello,
Why is it written as “Er stellt sich ein Bier vor” and “Marc stellt sich…..” when referring to imagination

Helmut
Helmut

If you use the dative case for imagination, why isn’t “ihm” used like “mir” and “dir” in the preceding examples of your description? In short, why is “sich” used and not “ihm” ?

Dankeschön!

Helmut
Helmut

Ah, I see sich is the dative reflex for Er…….this is new to me and I’ve taken a few German language courses. Can you provide me with some additional examples when you’d use this reflexive dative “sich”?

Thanks!

Helmut
Helmut

Sehr hilfreich! Dankeschoen!

Korova
Korova

Hello,
This is really great! I found your page as I was trying to understand the difference between “vorstellen” and “darstellen”, and you explanation helped me a lot. However, I need to distinguish between the two in a specific context, and I’m not shure I’m drawing the right conclusions. I thus thought it would be best to ask you for some advice. So here’s my question:

How would you translate “vorstellen” and “darstellen” if they were used in connection with “Bild” (as in “Das Bild stellt (an X) vor”, and “Das Bild stelt (an X) dar”)? I would say that, according to your explanation, “vorstellen” transaltes as ” to represent”. In this case, “Das Bild stellt (an X) vor” would translate as “the picuture represent an X” and it would be saying – in a (contorted) way – something like “putting the picture before an X”. On the other hand, I would translate “darstellen” as “presents”. Though, “Das Bild stelt (an X) dar” would mean something like: “the picture present an X”. In this latter case “darstellen” would act as a sinonim for “zeichen”.

Is this correct? I really hope I managed to exlain myself clearly,
Thanks

Jastonite
Jastonite

I think you may have made a mistake, reaching the same conclusion for the first and second example:

“In the first example mich is case 4 so I myself am the thing presented to someone else. Thus it must be to imagine. In the second sentence I present you TO myself, thus it must mean to imagine. Imagine is not something you can do to someone else.”

Shruti
Shruti

Hi :)..could you let me know where vorstellen is used with Akkusativ and where it is used as Dativ ?
Your site is realy helpful und vielen dank fur Ihre Hilfe!! :)

Resom
Resom

Thanks for presentation

Alexis
Alexis

Hey thanks so much for this. I’m a bit of a beginner myself, and I was wondering if this silly sentence was correct:

Ich stelle mir dich vor.
Aber ich hoffe dass ich mich dir vorstellen werde.

As in:

I imagine you.
But I hope that I will introduce myself to you.

Samsubahree
Samsubahree

Great topic!

I have a question regarding this sentence ‘Thomas stellt seinen Eltern seine neue Freundin vor’. Shouldn’t it be ‘Thomas stellt seinen Eltern seiner neuen Freudin vor’ since his girlfriend is the indirect object? Correct me if I’m wrong.

Andy Averill
Andy Averill

So helpful. Duolingo had me really confused.

Das
Das

Amazingly enough just on Thursday I was pestering my teacher (professional teacher, ha) about why vorstellen had such various meanings, and she basically said “shut up. Just because”. And then on Sunday this appears in my Facebook feed. I’m a happy boy.