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We all know that when speaking a foreign language, we should never simply translate the words directly from our own mother tongue. However, despite this fact, many of us instinctively try to avoid unfamiliar grammatical structures in other languages, especially those that do not have a counterpart in our own.


For many students learning German, this occurs when they are confronted with a sentence that requires the da-structure. Even those students who are really quite advanced typically just don’t use it. But why is this? Is it because it looks difficult? Is it because there isn’t anything similar in their mother tongue or in any of the other languages that they might know? Is it because it doesn’t have any concrete meaning? One thing that is true is that this structure is very uncommon in other languages. In fact, I personally can not think of any other language in which it exists (however, if there is one, please let me know, as I would be very happy to confirm that German is not the only language with this strange structure).


So, that being said, how can a student learn this challenging structure? One way is to first try and understand the reason why it sounds so incorrect (to native speakers, of course) when it is omitted. Let’s see why it is necessary, and how you can sound more like a German.


The reason for the da-structure


As in English, many verbs, some nouns and a few adjectives require a preposition in order to express their object.


  • I’ll wait for you.
  • Ich warte auf dich.


  • I am interested in the German language.
  • Ich bin an der deutschen Sprache interessiert.


These structures look pretty much the same in German and in English. However, what happens when an action is involved?


  • I am interested in learning German.
  • Ich bin daran interessiert (,) Deutsch zu lernen.


Let’s have a look at the differences. First, we have a different word order. Second (and related to the first), there is no ing-form in German, but instead an infinitive that has to be placed at the end of the sentence and that requires zu. Finally, there is the da-part.


So, when do you have to use it? Let’s compare these other two sentences:


  • Can you help me with my homework?
  • Kannst du mir bei den Hausaufgaben helfen?


  • Can you help me with doing my homework?
  • Hilfst du mir dabei(,) die Hausaufgaben zu machen?


helfen, as with many other verbs, needs a preposition (bei). But how do you get from the first sentence to the second one? Prepositions are used with nouns and can’t be used with verbs. In order to use a verb (or actually an infinitive sentence) another solution must be found. This is the reason for the da-structure.


Let’s have a closer look. In the first sentence, there is a noun: Hausaufgaben, so the sentence is correct. However, the situation in the second sentence is different. Here, we have an entire sentence, with a verb: Deutsch lernen or Hausaufgaben machen.


It is simply wrong to use a preposition with a verb, because prepositions exclusively require a noun. So, what the language does is offer a way to, more or less, cheat. We just add a nice da, put the infinitive at the end and add zu, and the language is happy with that. In this way, we have transformed a sentence without a noun into one which seems to have one. Pretty easy, right? Just don’t forget the da! When speaking German, do as the Germans do!


How to form the da-structure


Now, there are two ways to attach the da to the preposition: The first one is to just put it in front: da + mit = damit.


The second one occurs when the prepositions starts with a vowel, like an. In order to avoid having two vowels in a row, we need to add r: da + r + an = daran.


This happens, for example, with bitten um: darum, but not with sich entschuldigen für: dafür.


Here is a list of the prepositions that can be used to build the da-structure: an, auf, aus, bei, durch, für, gegen, hinter, in/ein, mit, nach, neben, über, um, unter, von, vor, zu, zwischen.


So, why do we have the two different structures?


  • Er hat mich um einen Gefallen gebeten.
  • Oder: Er hat mich darum gebeten, ihm einen Gefallen zu tun.


  • Sie hat sich für die Verspätung entschuldigt.
  • Oder: Sie hat sich dafür entschuldigt zu spät gekommen zu sein.


The meaning of both pairs of sentences above is more or less the same, but the structure is different. Okay, you might say: Why should I use the longer, more complicated one? Simply because you often need a verb.


  • Ich freue mich darauf(,) in den Ferien nicht arbeiten zu müssen.
  • Sie hat sich dazu entschlossen(,) in Deutschland eine Arbeit zu suchen.
  • Er hat sich immer noch nicht daran gewöhnt(,) morgens früh aufzustehen.
  • Ich muss mich darauf konzentrieren(,) für die Prüfung zu lernen.


In these sentences, both of the verbs have the same subject. Therefore, we use the infinitive. What happens when there are two different subjects?


  • Ich freue mich darauf, dass du in den Ferien nicht arbeiten musst (und wir zusammen etwas unternehmen können).


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Instead of the infinitive, we need a subordinated sentence (with a subject and the conjugated verb at the end of the sentence). The da-, dass-structure is used when the subjects of both sentences are not identical (or with question words like wann, wie, ob, etc.). Other examples are:


  • Er freut sich darüber, dass seine Freunde ihn zu sich eingeladen haben.
  • Wir haben (mit ihm) darüber diskutiert, ob er das alleine schafft.
  • Ich frage die Leute danach, wie man zum Bahnhof kommt.
  • Es hängt davon ab, wann wir beginnen.


Now, how would we form a question about the information given in second part of the sentences above?


  • Worüber freut er sich?
  • Worüber habt ihr diskutiert?
  • Wonach fragst du?
  • Wovon hängt es ab?


Both sentences, the infinitive sentence and the subordinated sentence, are possible answers. The strange thing is that the wo-part actually means was (what), so it refers to things or situations. That is why most native speakers would say the following in spoken (and often even in written) German:


  • Über was freut er sich?
  • Über was habt ihr diskutiert?
  • Nach was hast du gefragt?
  • Von was hängt es ab?


Grammatically, it is not correct, but it is somehow accepted and used much more frequently than the correct form.


Other uses of the da-structure


When the object is a person, we must use this structure. wen is the accusative of wer (who), wem the dative.


  • An wen kannst du dich gut erinnern? - Ich kann mich gut an meine Großmutter erinnern.
  • Mit wem hast du gerade telefoniert? – Mit meinem Chef.


Furthermore, we will also find da in other constructions that refer to a noun.


  • Mit diesem Stift? Damit kann man nicht schreiben.
  • Zuerst haben wir zu Mittag gegessen, danach sind wir spazieren gegangen.


In the first sentence, da refers to the pencil, while it refers to the lunch in the second one.


Once again, this structure applies only to things, places, etc., but not to people. When talking about a person, the preposition and the personal pronoun are used.


  • Triffst du dich mit deinem Freund? Ja, ich treffe mich mit ihm.


When referring to things, the pronoun is also used, but only without a preposition.


  • Siehst du den Baum dort? Ja, ich sehe ihn.


In some words, da- has become a fixed part, such as in danach, damals, davor, dazugeben, dazufügen, dabei haben, dabei sein, dabeibleiben. In these cases, it refers to something mentioned prior or to something that will appear just ahead in the sentence.


  • danach: (afterwards) literally means “after the event which was previously mentioned.”
  • davor: means “before the previously mentioned event.”
  • damals: means “in those times we are speaking about.”
  • dazugeben: means “to add,” but literally to add to the other things that we have already got. For example: wir geben die Eier dazu. In this case, dazu means to add the eggs to what is already there (supposedly the flour and the water that make up the dough).
  • dabei: means “at the same time, however.” For example: Er hat nie Zeit, dabei sitzt er den ganzen Tag zu Hause und langweilt sich.
  • dabeihaben: means “to have something with/on you.” For example: Hast du Geld dabei? Oh nein, ich habe keins dabei.
  • dabei sein: means “to be present, to take part.” For example: Kommt Klaus heute? Ja, natürlich ist er auch dabei.
  • dabei bleiben: means “to stick to a decision.” For example: es bleibt dabei  (we’ll stick to that).


Other examples of these words refer to a place. For instance:


  • da sein: means “to be present.” For example: er ist da (which actually means “here”: he is here, present).
  • dableiben: means “to stay where you are.” For example: ich bleibe da (I’ll stay, I won’t leave).
  • da-/hierlassen: means “to leave something in a place.” For example: ich lasse das Buch da/hier.
  • da hinten/vorne: means “over there.” For example: die Post ist da hinten/vorne (there is no significant difference between vorne and hinten, vorne might be a bit closer than hinten).
  • dran sein (where the a has been lost): means “to be someone’s turn.” For example: wer ist dran? – Du bist dran.
  • drinnen: means “inside.”
  • draußen: means “outside.”


In spoken language, especially in the southern parts of Germany, the d is often doubled.


  • Hast du Lust auf einen Film? – Dadrauf habe ich keine Lust.


It is also often separated: Da habe ich keine Lust drauf.


In the northern parts of Germany, both parts are often separated:


  • Da weiß sie nichts von. Instead of: Davon weiß sie nichts.


Hopefully, you have learned how useful this structure is. Now, let’s just try to use it!