Meanings and Uses of “dabei” in German

We use this word a lot in German with different meanings depending on the context. In this post I explain its different uses.

1. dabeihaben: to carry/have something with you

This verb is separable. You can see its conjugation here.

Example: Haben Sie Ihren Personalausweis dabei?
(Do you carry/have your national ID with you?)

2a. dabei sein: to be in (a plan)/to be there

Verbal expressions with sein are always written separately.

Examples: Kaufen wir zusammen ein Geschenk für Sarah? – Klar, ich bin dabei! (Shall we buy a present for Sarah together? – Sure, I’m in!)

Letztes Jahr sind wir in den Dolomiten gewandert! – Ich weiß, ich war dabei! (Last year we hiked in the Dolomites! – I know, I was there!)

2b. dabei sein (etwas zu tun): to be doing something/to be “on it”

There are 2 expressions with a similar meaning:

  • The fixed expression Ich bin dabei means “I’m on it” (= I’m doing it right now/I’m about to do it [right now]).
  • The verbal expression dabei sein, etwas zu tun corresponds to the English gerund in “I am doing something”.

Example: Ich bin dabei, das Essen zu kochen. (I’m cooking the meal.)

3. Use as an adverb

Derived from the meaning explained above (to be doing something), this word can be used as a simple adverb, i.e. alone, without any of the verbs listed above.

But the meaning remains the same: “something happens while you are doing something”, thus also “at the same time”. Example:

Er wollte den Müll in den Eimer werfen und dabei fiel er hin.
(He wanted to throw the trash in the bin and “[by/while] doing that/so” he fell.)

4. Use as a prepositional pronoun

If we use a verb with the fixed preposition bei, e.g. helfen bei, we must use dabei either

  • as a pronoun for something that has just been mentioned:
    Ich muss mein Zimmer aufräumen. Hilfst du mir dabei? (= beim Zimmeraufräumen)
    (I have to tidy up my room. Can you help me with that?)
  • or as an introductory particle for the following subordinate clause: Kannst du mir dabei helfen, mein Zimmer aufzuräumen?
    (Can you help me tidy up my room?). In this case, the pronoun is not mandatory.

5. Use as a conjunctional adverb (connecting sentences): (al)though, however

Example: Sie/Er wollte mich küssen, dabei hatten wir uns gerade erst kennengelernt!
(She/He wanted to kiss me, although we’d just met each other!)

If you have any other question about this word or if you have seen another use not listed here, please let me know.