I was reading the sentence

Ich war gerade dabei die Tür abzuschliessen. Da hast du angerufen.

and I worked out that it meant roughly

I was just about to close the door. While doing that, you called me.

I want to ask about the function of the word dabei. I know that dabei can refer to a specific noun (i.e., as it was happening). But what is the specific use of dabei here? Does it refer to anything in the first sentence?

  • 3
    Note: Die Tür schließen = to close the door. But: Die Tür abschließen = to lock the door. Mar 16, 2019 at 8:27

5 Answers 5


"Dabei" is expressing what the continuous form in English does - As German doesn't have that, we need to express concurrency of events using this (or other) adverbs.

A proper translation to English would be

I was closing the door when you called.

"dabei" is referring to the predicate here.

  • is this similar to "dabei sein"
    – vik1245
    Mar 13, 2019 at 21:30
  • 4
    @BobSmith Similar to "dabei sein" + <infinitive>. "Der König heiratete und ich war dabei" is a different usage.
    – tofro
    Mar 14, 2019 at 7:30
  • A somewhat regional, very colloquial structure (Rheinische Verlaufsform) is similar to the progressive form: "Ich war die Tür am schließen, als du anriefst."
    – Cacambo
    Jan 4, 2020 at 18:42

Dabei is derived from the preposition bei. Here, dabei refers to the following infinitive clause: die Tür abzuschließen.

An alternative wording is:

Ich war beim Abschließen der Tür.

Dafür and dagegen can be used in the same way:

Ich war dafür, die Tür abzuschließen.

I was in favor of locking the door.


In German there are no continuous tenses. In English you can make a difference between

I locked the door.
I was locking the door.

I German both is

Ich habe die Tür abgeschlossen.

When you want to tell that you was locking the door when the phone rang, it is:

Ich habe die Tür abgeschlossen. Da hast du angerufen.

You have two possibilities to translate this into English:

  1. I locked the door. Then you called me.
  2. I was locking the door when you called me.

If you want to make clear, that it should be #2, you must use some workaround. A very common way is the phrase

Ich war gerade dabei etwas zu tun

This phrase has no exact translation into English, because when you use this phrase in German, you always can use a continuous tense in English.

In our example you can build this sentence:

Ich war gerade dabei die Tür abzuschließen als du mich angerufen hast.

In this sentence the accusative object of anrufen (mich) is optional, and if you want you can use da instead of als, but then the relative clause must be converted into a full clause, which means, that the auxiliary verb hast must move to position 2. And then you get:

Ich war gerade dabei die Tür abzuschliessen. Da hast du angerufen.


You have seen a lot of answers which used many words to actually explain what to be in the process off means.

In other words, this form of dabei sein,

Ich war dabei, x

simply means

I was in the process of x

Here, x is die Tür abzuschließen = locking the door.


Let's not forget the very common usage of "dabei" in constructions like the following (I'm stating the whole thing in English, with the exception of the word "dabei," so that it's absolutely clear to English-speakers):

The U.S. spends billions of dollars each year for welfare. Dabei there are other, much more cost-effective methods of helping people in need.

In such constructions, "dabei" means "and yet, in this context (or 'regard' or 'respect')."

  • 3
    Welchome to German SE! An English sentence with a single German word is is somewhat confusing, could you also post the sentence in German?
    – Philipp
    Mar 15, 2019 at 17:13
  • 2
    You are talking about a completely different construction. Your posting does not answer the question. Mar 16, 2019 at 7:35
  • Yes, it is a different construction (though I wouldn't say COMPLETELY different).
    – Alex
    Mar 23, 2019 at 14:19
  • >>could you also post the sentence in German?<< Die Vereinigten Staaten geben jährlich Mrd. $ für die Wohlfahrt aus. Dabei gibt es andere, kosteneffektivere Methoden, den Menschen zu helfen.
    – Alex
    Mar 23, 2019 at 14:20

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