Talking about Time – Introduction

Hello everyone,

and welcome to another lecture of the slowly growing German is Easy Online course.
And this time we will start to learn how to talk about:


As always, our lines are open for you during the show, so feel free to call whenever you have a question. The number is 0800 – 151-vocab-4-u, I’ll repeat, 0800 – 151-vocab-4-u. We are going to discuss time today, so stay tuned… here is Prince:

What a truly great song, … timeless really.

All right, so… time. Talking about time is an essential part of daily conversations. And that is not limited to schedules and due dates. In fact, most of the time when we talk, we give at least some indication of time. Even if we just put a verb into the past tense, we bow before the all ruling god that is time.
But using conjugation is not the only way to give time information. Every language offers a load of ways ranging from pretty unspecific phrases like “back then” to very precise indications like “22.11.2014 12:00:01 pm MET” or the no less precise “60 seconds from now“. And all these can be an adequate answer to “when?”

Because time is so important, we will take our… time … with it. So this will be a time mini series of 3 or 4 episodes… I don’t really know yet. What we’re going to do today is learning how to say time of the day and maybe, if we get to it, the date as well. I have learned some languages too, so I know how yawn-inducing and rather mechanical this agenda sounds… honestly, I think no one really ENJOYS learning how to say the time of day and everyone would much rather go right to the interesting stuff and learn about bevor, nachdem, danach, dann, bis, seit and all those functional words that allow you to use the language freely.
And yet, knowing how to say “It is 12 pm.” in German is kind of mandatory so we’ll get it over with today, and then go to the more interesting stuff next time.
However, I do want to give you some insight that goes beyond the average “Learn German” web source, so we’ll start this mini series with a little background that’ll be helpful later on… a look at the big picture :).

Answering “when?” – a general overview

When you are to answer the question when, you have to specify a certain point or span of the ever floating stream that is time. Think of time as a long line. Giving time information then means to verbally point to a certain position on that line. There are different ways to do that.

First, there is the direct way, which is simply “naming” the time. The most obvious example for this is of course the time of day:

  • Call me on Thursday the 4th of June 2012 at 8:15 am.

This is as clear as it can be. In daily life, if it actually was Thursday the 4th, we would probably trim some fat and just say:

  • Call me at 8:15.

The rest of the information will be hopefully assumed correctly by the listener, and usually this does work pretty well.
But there are more ways to “name” time directly. Today, tonight, yesterday, in the morning, at night, Monday, April, 2004, the 90s, the stone-age and even extremely vague things like at some point, sometimes, never,always etc. are all “names” for time. And there is more.
Also, all the words that use now (the moment in which something is said) as a reference can be called “names”. Immediately, soon, shortly, later, earlier, just now, next week can all answer the question when satisfyingly.

  • “Honey what are you doing?
    “Watchin’ cartoons, mom'”
    “And when will you start doing you homework?”
    At some point, mom.”
    “All right honey, just wanted to know.”

Hmmm… ok I guess not all names are ALWAYS satisfactory. The mom probably would have liked a more precise indication.
And this brings us to another possibility of indicating time… by giving a time difference to a reference. A prime examples for something like that would be 5 minutes ago.

  • Your boss called 5 minutes ago.

The speaker wants to tell the listener when the boss called, and he does it by using the reference point now, the moment in which he is speaking, and then giving the time difference to the moment the call occurred. In theory, he could have also said this:

  • Your boss called today at 12:40 am.

Uttered at 12:45 am, this would convey the same info. And yet he opts for the relative indication. Other examples for indicating time by using a reference and a time difference would be earlier, later, in or after.

  • Marie woke up at 9. Thomas woke up 1 hour earlier and thought about making her breakfast, but then…
    He logged out of Facebook 2 hours later and said:
    “Oh crap, I forgot the time… I must be at work in 15 minutes. Damn.”

All right. So far, we’ve referred to time by “naming” it or by giving a time difference to a reference.
But there is a third way. You can simply put one action into an time relation with another action . Here is an example for what I mean:

  • Before I go to bed, I brush my teeth.

The actions are “going to bed” and “brushing teeth”. The real life order is obvious and the introductory word before reflects that in speech. Other introductory words are after, as, as soon as, while and also when and whenever.
And if we have to order one action and one “thing” in time? How would we do that?
Well, in English you will use mostly words we’ve already mentioned.

  • After his graduation, Marc plans to travel.
  • During the ceremony, his mom had to shed a tear.
  • Before her birthday party, Jane was very excited.

Now some of you may be asking: ” Hey Emanuel, you make up all these different ways to talk about time but then you keep giving us the same words? I mean…. why make it seem all complicated? Just translating the words should be enough, right? … ”
That is a good question. But there is a reason for making a distinction… the thing is… in English, many of those time related words like later or before have different functions. And, you might have guessed it, in German they will translate to different words depending on what they do in the English sentence… Are the German translations not to be interchanged ? Of course not. So the reason why we have to kind of lay down the different ways of talking about time first, is because in German every way will have its own vocabulary. After can be nach, nachdem, or danach in German and they all have totally different mechanics. Mixing them up will sound extremely strange and might not even be understandable anymore. German just isn’t as flexible as English.
Take the word during. If you arrange 2 actions in time you’d use while. If you arrange one action and one “thing” in time you’d use during.

  • During the phone call with his mom, Thomas was doing the dishes.
  • While he was on the phone with his mom, Thomas was doing the dishes.

Both sentences are essentially the same, and yet you need different time-words. This illustrates how it works in German perfectly. German has WAY more of these “different-function – different word” situations, so knowing a bit of background won’t hurt…. By the way, the during-while pair is actually translated with the same German word während… so much for the exception that makes the rule :). So, knowing about different ways to indicate time will help to organize all those German words that you need to know… now don’t be scared… It’s not that hard after all.

Anyway, there is one last way to indicate time and that is to simply point to a time that has been specified earlier in speech…. you use a sort of stand-in or temporal pronoun if you will. The best example is then. Then alone doesn’t mean anything.

  • “Son, when will you start looking or a job?”
  • Then dad.”

Then only points to some time that has been mentioned before, and if there hasn’t been anything, the word is empty. This is different to for example later. If later has no reference specified, people will assume that now is the reference and still understand it. If you compare it to words for persons, later would be for example some guy… not very precise and yet understandable. Then on the contrary wold be something like he. It just doesn’t mean anything if I don’t know who he is referring to.
So… other time-stand-ins besides then are thereafter, before that, after that, at the same time or meanwhile. In fact let’s go back to the during-example and add a version with meanwhile.

  • During the phone call with his mom, Thomas was doing the dishes.
  • While he was on the phone with his mom, Thomas was doing the dishes.
  • Thomas was having a phone call with his mom. Meanwhile he was doing the dishes.

Always the same information conveyed… and yet we have to use different words. Welcome to the world of German time indications.

So, let’s recap. We can indicate a point on that loooooong horizontal line that is time by … well saying a “name” or coordinates for it, we can use a time difference to a reference point (which we will have to indicate in some way too of course), we can do it by relating 2 actions or an action and a thing to each other and finally we can use a stand-in that just refers to a point in time we have mentioned earlier.
Sounds a lot but it isn’t… well.. okay it kind of is. But talking about time in German is not that big of a deal if you compare it to how INSANELY specific German is when talking about place. German is so incredibly precise when in comes to location, you have no idea, it’s like… you don’t just sit ON a chair, you have to give the Gaussian coordinates for every molecule your butt is in contact with, plus the momentum of said part of your butt… hence BE SCARED :)… time is simple compared to place.

So… and now that we have looked at the big picture, who feels like starting right away with the time of day?
Me neither… :)
So let’s just call it a day or a night or a morning or a working hour… whenever you read this… and continue next time with

Time 2 – The time of day (in 3D and IMAX 3D)
If you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next … time.

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5 months ago

When i am reading your article,i would normally study in a quite and lonely room,i would read the article outloud like i was giving a lecture or some sort of lesson
Then i would write down the notes and key points
Your article give me a sensation of a teacher who have such a humour but yet provide enough seriousness and material to comprehend.
Es ist wunderbar,Danke !!!

11 months ago

Thanks Emmanuel. It was a great article, love the humour and thanks to the sponsors, I can now study this for free!!!

2 years ago

Speaking of location, do you intend of making a “Talking about location” module some time? (or is all the information across posts?)

1 year ago
Reply to  SpearheadBT

Idiot hah

5 years ago

Video does not exist/play. So, here is another one related to Time…fab.

7 years ago

As always I love the entertaining tone of voice that you use Emmanuel! It makes my climb-up-the-huge-mountain-that-is-learning-German much more enjoyable. Here is one correction to the early section of this piece: in English it’s incorrect to say “call me 8:15”. In almost all cases, you would have to say “call me at 8:15”. Sometimes in a crime story, you might have the Chief of Police grumble angrily to the smart-mouthed detective, “Call me, 8:15” but the “at” is so longed-for in the sentence that even this tough guy needs to add a comma to stand in for the preposition. (The Police Chief’s first-grade teacher would probably correct him, but the detective would know what he means.)

7 years ago

You use (well, misquote) the expression “The exception proves the rule”.
I found a German translation of this expression written as “Ausnahmen bestätigen die Regel” wherein the use of the word ‘confirms’ is chosen over ‘test’ or as I would have expected ‘Prüfung’. The expression dates from Roman times but there is no certainty as to which Latin word is the root of the word ‘probate’ in the expression – test or confirm.
The exception confirms (the existence of) the rule is the most common meaning – eg “you may play your tuba on the weekend” is an exception which *suggests* that a general rule exists – ‘you may not play your tuba during the week’. The less common understanding is that “you may play your tuba on the weekend” tests (by putting to proof) the existence of a general rule banning the playing of tubas.

There is an unrelated but similar legal principle to the ‘confirms’ usage; by creating a list you exclude items not in that list – thereby creating a general rule and exceptions.

So either während is a single exception (but from this post it is hard to figure out a general rule) or the existence of während evidences that there is no general rule.

As a lawyer starting to learn German (at a very advanced age) I would like to thank you for your work creating this hugely educational and entertaining blog.

And don’t worry about the prudes who can’t find humour in the use of occasional profanity – fuck ’em. Onwards, to Time 2 …

8 years ago

Thank you for the explanation. Obviously I know which one to use in English but although I can readily see “while” as a subordinating conjunction I have difficulty thinking of “before” as a preposition. I vaguely thought that prepositions modified/related to verbs.
I think it is probably best to let me brood over it for a while. (no pun intended)

8 years ago

OK here we go:
into (the) past tense
we will take our… time … (with) it
miniseries You have this everywhere but I believe it should be two words although when I Googled it there where some entries that were one word. I always try to read it as Missionaries or Ministries which could both roughly fit the context.

rather mechanic(al) this …

no(-)one No hyphen

that allow (for) you to use the Take “for” out

Just translat(ing) the words should …

All the stuff below is correct, I just cannot understand the distinctions you are making and I therefore could not transfer the concept.
“Take the word during. If you arrange 2 actions in time you’d use while. If you arrange one action and one “thing” in time you’d use during.
•During the phone call with his mom, Thomas was doing the dishes.
•While he was on the phone with his mom, Thomas was doing the dishes.

There were not as many as I thought on first reading but finally

hence BE SCARED … So when is the scary episode appearing

8 years ago

This particular piece has more than the usual number of typos and on occasions has things that an English native speaker just would not say. For that English native speaker it does not matter but it possibly could concern others. Do you want them corrected and if so what is the best way to give you the info?

Don Zimmer
9 years ago

Cuss words such as “shit” and “fucking” don’t make you any hip or cooler. They merely coarsen what is otherwise a witty and enjoyable experience for the reader. Please don’t get angry with me. I just don’t understand why it is necessary to lace your lessons with base language.

Pop Wir Haben Sie Alle
Pop Wir Haben Sie Alle
9 years ago

Spot on with this write-up, I truly believe this website needs
far more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the info!

9 years ago

Emanuel, good job buddy!
I’ve just missed more examples in German.
Keep it up!
I’m looking forward to the next post.