Word of the Day – “vorstellen”

Hello everyone, homer imagines a beer

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


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… can’t dodge this. (he who tells me in which post I used the same joke will win an day on my unicorn ranch).
So… we WILL talk a little more about grammar than usually but it will be well worth the time as vorstellen is an incredibly useful word.
And vorstellen doesn’t only mean one important thing, it can mean 3 important things. And the best part is, they will make soooo no sense in the beginning.
So now that I have you all at the edge of the back-button of your browser… uhm I mean on the edge of your seat, let’s jump right in. 

To make this a little more fun, here are the 3 main concepts vorstellen covers:

to imagine,
to introduce, to present,
put foward/ahead…

Do these words have anything in common at all? Yes they do, and vorstellen really captures the basic concept.
Vorstellen consists of the basic verb stellen and the prefix vor. Stellen basically is the brother of legen. Whenever you need to place something somewhere you will use one of those 2 words. Legen means to place it horizontally while stellen covers the non vertical part. I don’t want to get too deep into that as we have enough to get through already so let’s say stellen means to put and move on.

The prefix vor is a very easy one to deal with as it pretty much means the same wherever you see it… in front of/ ahead. In a temporal context it is also used as before at times but this does not contradict the other meanings.

So vorstellen is the concept of putting something in front of something else. With this in mind let’s take the different meanings one at a time and see whether it fits the concept. The first one is to present.

  • The writer presents his new book.
  • Der Schriftsteller stellt sein neues Buch vor.
  • The new iStuff 3x has been presented yesterday.
  • Das neue iZeug 3x ist gestern vorgestellt worden.

To use the literal translation of  ‘to put forward’ instead of ‘to present’ might seem a little… well… goofy but it is actually a pretty descriptive way. The presenter has whatever he is going to unveil hidden behind his back, in his pocket or in his mind and he pulls it out and put it in front of himself so everyone can see it. Makes sense? Cool!
The second vorstellen is to introduce someone.

  • Darf ich mich vorstellen?
  • May I introduce myself?
  • Thomas stellt seinen Eltern seine neue Freundin vor.
  • Thomas introduces his new girlfriend to his parents.

Now if you look at to introduce as the process of unveiling your name and some of your basic information previously unknown to the person you introduce to, then this is actually not so much different to to present. You present the person you are introducing be it someone or you yourself. Although it is not meant in a physical way, in German you “put in front” the person because you want it to be seen and acknowledged. In the formal world people who have not been introduced yet tend to stand a little bit further at the back until they step forward to shake hands or bow. Can you sort of see the common idea? Good.

And on we go to the third meaning of to vorstellen – to imagine and to picture.

  • I imagine a large, cold beer.
  • Ich stelle mir ein kühles, großes Bier  vor.
  • Can you imagine how much fun that was?
  • Kannst du dir vorstellen, wieviel Spaß das gemacht hat?
  • Ich kann mir nicht vorstellen, wie man so dumm sein kann.
  • I can’t imagine how one can be so stupid.

So here you really need some imagination… haha…  to see how that is anything like to present or to introduce. But to me it works. Think of to imagine as mentally putting something in front of your eyes so you can see it better… virtaully of course. If you think of a pizza that might if any be a short and imprecise picture, once you start to picture the pizza you consciously start to lay it out in your head and you could describe it.
So the German vorstellen sort of captures this process of virtual visualization by saying you put it in front of yourself because then it will be right in your field of vision. Does that make any sense to you whatsoever? If so, you rock, if not I suck and I wait for hate-comments. Anyway, vorstellen is THE word for to imagine and all its synonyms so don’t hesitate to use it.

The last meaning of vorstellen is to put forward but in German it is only used in the following sense:

  • Ich stelle meine Uhr vor.
  •  I set ahead my watch / I put forward my watch.

If you want to put other things forward you need to use nach vorne stellen.

Now we need to go visit grandma boys so dress properly… she has a lot to say today I feel like.

So let’s translate vorstellen as to present for the examples and let’s say that present can mean all things vorstellen can mean. You always present something or someone to someone. The configuration then makes it clear in which meaning the word is used. The possible configurations with I are:

I present someone/something to someone.
I present someone/something to myself.
I present myself to someone.

The first one is clearly to introduce or to present. The second one is to imagine as to do it to yourself can’t really mean to introduce. Why not? Because in order to introduce you would need to know it already and thus no introduction would be necessary anymore The third one is to introduce oneself.
Now lets look at the same examples in German. For the sake of clarity I will replace someone by eine Frau.

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

What is most important is that for the imaginary vorstellen the subject needs to do it with something to ITSELF. In German grammar terms it is case 3. So this would be:

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

Don’t confuse that with the yourself of to introduce yourself…. the imaginary vorstellen works with TO yourself and not just yourself. Let’s look at the corresponding list for to introduce oneself:

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

You can of course introduce others. Then it would be just case 4 for the person you are introducing to:

  • 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 became to imagine…. because now I present to myself and that means to imagine. I admit that it is a little tricky but you will get the hang of it over time. Let’s now look at some twisted shit you can built.

  • Marc stellt sich eine Frau vor.
  • Marc stellt sich einer Frau vor.
  • Marc imagines a woman.
  • Marc introduces himself to a woman.

Only one letter difference and yet a question of being home alone or not. The woman in the second sentence is case 3. 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. Want more?

  • Marc stellt sich sich in 10 Jahren vor.

This one is actually not clear and cannot be deciphered anymore because the reflexive third person is the same for case 3 and 4. It can either mean that Marc imagines himself in 10 years, so where is he going to be, how is he going to look and all that. It can however also mean that he time-travels to the future, meets his older self and then introduces himself to … well himself. Sounds stupid but might be legit novel material. Let’s do one more.

  • Ich stelle mich dir vor.
  • I introduce myself to you.
  • Ich stelle mir dich vor.
  • I imagine you.

In the first example mich is case 4 so I myself am the thing presented to someone else. Thus it must be to introduce. 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.

Now I know you guys want to wrap this up, but grandma still has some more stories to dump on you … What? If it is about the past? Of course it is… it’s a grandma after all :).

So the ge-form is vorgestellt and it works with haben.

  • Ich habe mir vorgestellt
  • I have igagined/I imagined…

The real past stem would be vorstellte but you will get by without. The most corresponding noun is die Vorstellung. Die Vorstellung can be imagination, show, screening or presentation and all the synonyms so it is a very useful word to.

And thus we have reached the end… finally… I really hope you guys made it through save. Vorstellen is just so useful. 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.