The German Preposition 'Bei'

Meaning and Common Uses

The cat is sitting by the dog.
"Bei" is often used to indicate physical proximity: "The cat is sitting by the dog".

Marcou Séverine/EyeEm/Getty Images

How would you translate the following sentences into German?

  1. Bei diesem heißen Wetter, würde ich nie Socken tragen.
  2. Sie arbeitete bei Tag und bei Nacht.

Most German students learn early on that it is often a different German preposition that replaces the main English equivalent in a sentence. What we find interesting is how the dative preposition bei/by was once written the same way in both Old English and Middle High German (bi) and meant the same thing (near), yet they both have evolved to mean also different things.

For instance, bei can mean today, depending on the context, or near, at, by, among, in case of. On the other hand, in English, it means bei, neben (beside), bis (until), mit (with), nach (after), um (around), von (from), über (over).

German learners should not despair, as there remain sufficient phrasal contexts where ​bei equals 'by'. (One of them being the second expression stated at the beginning of this article -> 'She worked by day and by night.' However, the first example translates into "I would never wear socks in this hot weather.')

When to Use the Preposition Bei

Here are several examples of the main uses and meaning of bei, including common phrases which are not translated with 'by' in English.

When stating that something is nearby or in the vicinity. It can often replace in der Nähe von:

  • Die Tankstelle ist bei dem Einkaufszentrum - The gas station is right by the shopping centre.

When stating something (a thing, an event, etc) or someone is at a place or event:

  • Sie lebt bei ihrer Tante - She is living with her aunt.

During an event; while one is doing something:

  • Sie ist beim Rennen hingefallen - She fell while running.

Used when describing 'with':

  • Du sollst bei ihm bleiben - You should stay with him.

Some lesser-used meanings

  • Bei uns zu Hause beten wir täglich - At our house, we pray daily
  • Sie arbeitet bei der Eisdiele - She works at the ice-cream parlor.
  • Meine Mutter ist beim Friseur - My mother is at the hairdresser.
  • Ich habe keinen Kugelschreiber bei mir - I have no pen on me.
  • Ich habe ihn bei einer Karnevalfeier getroffen - I met him at a carnaval party.
  • Ich werde um neun Uhr bei der Universität sein - I will be at the university at nine o'clock.
  • Sie ist bei der Arbeit in Ohnmacht gefallen - She fainted at work.
  • Mein Vater singt immer beim Abwaschen. - My father always sings when he is doing the dishes.
  • To shorten the expression Im Falle … (in case of). So instead of Im Falle eines Unfalls you could say: Bei einem Unfall ...
  • To describe the cause/reason of/for something: Bei solch einer Hitzewelle, sollte man schwimmen gehen - In such a heat wave, one should go swimming.

'By' in German

In these cases, bei is used to mean 'by':

When someone or something is right by a place as opposed to in a place:

  • Sie trifft mich bei der Statue - She's meeting me by the statue.
  • Er sitzt bei seiner Freundin - He's sitting right by his girlfriend.
  • Dein Freund ist vorbeigekommen - Your friend passed by.

When it involves touch:

  • Der Lehrer nahm den Schüler beim Arm - The teacher took the student by the arm.

Some expressions:

  • Beim Zeus ! By jove!
  • Ich schwöre bei Gott… - I swear by God

When 'by' Is Not Bei

Expressions with time:

  • You have to hand in the money by the latest on Friday - Sie haben spätestens bis Freitag, das Geld einzureichen.
  • She should be here by now - Sie sollte inzwischen hier sein.

Describing from something or someone:

  • This music is by Chopin - Diese Musik ist von Chopin

Methods of transportation:

  • By car/train etc - Mit dem Auto/Zug

Common expressions in English with 'by':

  • To judge by appearances - nach dem Äußerem urteilen
  • It's alright by me - Von mir aus gern.
  • By myself - alleine
  • Made by hand - handgearbeitet
  • To pay by check - mit Scheck bezahlen
  • One by one - Einer nach dem anderen.

Translation Tips to Keep in Mind

As you have probably realized, the dilution of bei into many varying meanings is reflected likewise when looking upon the German translation of 'by.' Even the main connection between by and bei, namely when describing the physical proximity of something, varies. However, in general, a sentence that contains a 'by' prepositional phrase that describes physical proximity, is most likely to be translated into bei.

Remember to keep in mind that these translations aren't necessarily reversible, meaning just because sometimes "by" can mean nach, that doesn't mean that nach will always mean "by." When it comes to prepositions, it is always best to first learn which grammatical case it goes with and then to learn popular combos (i.e verbs, expressions) these prepositions occur frequently with. 

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Bauer, Ingrid. "The German Preposition 'Bei'." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bauer, Ingrid. (2020, August 27). The German Preposition 'Bei'. Retrieved from Bauer, Ingrid. "The German Preposition 'Bei'." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).