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What is the difference between auf dem Weg and unterwegs?

Ich bin unterwegs/auf dem Weg nach Hause.

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"Auf dem Weg" also means to walk in an area designated for walking, as opposed to "walking on the lawn". –  Robert Feb 26 at 17:44
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3 Answers 3

In their adverbial usage, they are entirely synonymous.

Ich habe unterwegs/auf dem Weg Hans getroffen.

"Kommst Du endlich?" -- "Schon unterwegs/auf dem Weg!"

"Hast Du schon etwas gegessen?" -- "Nein, das mache ich unterwegs/auf dem Weg."

I can think of one usage where only one of the two works:

"Kannst Du bitte nachher den Brief einwerfen? Die Post liegt doch auf dem Weg.

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Downvotes without comments are rude. :( –  elena Jun 10 at 9:18
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There is a difference when used without giving a destination:

Ich bin auf dem Weg.
Ich bin unterwegs.

While

  • auf dem Weg implies that you are going somewhere,
  • unterwegs is not implicating any direction/destination.
    You can used even if you are randomly walking/driving/.. around

As mentioned auf dem Weg can be used literally if something is actually on the way (see example by elena)

Otherwise it is used synonymously.

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There is an interesting common etymology of the German "unterwegs", and the English "on the way":

Old High German: underwegen
Dutch: onderweg
English: on the way

Note the change of u to o. Still in the 16th Century "under Wegen" was used in Germany. Today "unter dem Weg" would be used for a location below a way. Only if used with the preposition "auf" both, "auf dem Weg", and "unterwegs" are synonyms in contemporary German.

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