Is this sentence ambiguous?

Er war bei den Demonstranten.

Duden gives this as an example of "bei" meaning "unter, zwischen (einer Menge)" but to the best of my non-native understanding, it seems as if this could mean either "he was near the protesters" or "he was among the protesters".

2 Answers 2


Without further context it is clear:

He was with the demonstrators.

So he was among them. Either when they met to plan their demo, or he was walking together with them. But this does not necessarily mean that he was one of them (i.e. sharing their ideas, fighting for the same ideals).

Another example:

Ernst war gestern bei den Manchester-Fans.
Yesterday, Ernst was with the Manchester fans.

This does not mean, that he was near a place the the fans of Manchester met. No, it means that he was a participant of this meeting. (But this doesn't mean that he is a Manchester fan too.)

But the context can modify this meaning:

Walter nahm seine Kamera und machte sich auf den Weg zur Demo, um für den Fernsehsender Spy-TV darüber zu berichten. Es war Punkt 18:00 Uhr als Walter die Hauptstraße erreichte. Endlich: Er war bei den Demonstranten. Er stelle sich an den Straßenrand und machte ein paar Fotos, dann interviewte er einen Inhaber eines angrenzenden Geschäftes.

Walter took his camera and made his way to the demo to report on it for the television channel Spy-TV. It was at 6:00 pm when Walter reached the main road. Finally: He was next to the demonstrators. He stood at the edge of the road and took a few photos, then he interviewed an owner of an adjacent shop.

  • "Without further context" -- I don't think so. You already have the context from the question ("zwischen"). If a police is "by" the protestors, he's surely not "with" them. Consequently one would, in that context, rarely say "bei", but it's a fine line. Not to put too fine a point on it. I would also say "Ich war bei Geschäft XY" which means I was in the shop, not close by, neither with them. So we can clearly differentiate the preposition only if it's an anaphora of sorts, contrasting two sides of a competition or the like.
    – vectory
    Apr 1, 2019 at 8:21
  • Cp. "Er spielt bei FC Bayern", "He plays for the team FC Bayern". The contrast here is implicit! I guess "with" would be a usual alternative. Consider that "for" and "für" are akin to "pro". Cp. "by the will of ...", which shows that the relation is rather support "from", not "for", that is expressed with "bei". German "um Gottes Willen" then turns the figure of speech on its head. It is confusing indeed. "mit Gottes Beistand" would be a closer match, so that a equilateral "with" is indeed the best explanation, which does relate to "Mitte", "middle".
    – vectory
    Apr 1, 2019 at 8:34
  • So we specifically say "Er ging mit den Demonstranten", also "Er ging bei den Demonstranten mit" or redundantly "Er ging mit den Demonstranten mit". The matter of association is anyhow purely contextual. A copper might not care whether you are just taking Photos, after all.
    – vectory
    Apr 1, 2019 at 8:38

Native speaker from Germany speaking.

'Bei' is ambiguous. 'Bei' in a sentence may require additional context to be semantically clear. In particular, 'bei' can refer to place and position in space, but also to being a part or member of some entity.


  1. 'Peter ist bei der FDP.' usually means that Peter is a member of FDP. FDP (acronym) denotes a German political party. ('With' or 'Peter is visiting some FDP place', e. g. headquarters, may also be meant.)

  2. 'Peter ist bei den Zuschauern' translates as 'Peter is among/next to/near (to) the spectators/viewers'. (Even 'with' may be meant.)

  3. 'Peter ist bei der Bank', however, is highly ambiguous and requires context to be clear. It is not particularly careful speech, but commonly used in Germany in the following senses: 'Peter is an employee at the/some bank.' Or 'Peter is visiting the local office of the/some bank.' Or 'Peter is next to the bank.' Or even 'Peter is with the bank' OR even 'Peter is next to the bench'. The latter, however, isn't due to the German ambiguity of 'bei' only, but also 'Bank', which is used to refer to '(financial) bank' as well as 'bench'.

When 'bei' is used to refer to place or position in space, it can mean 'among' as well as 'next to', '(somewhere) near to'. For example:

'Winsen an der Luhe liegt bei Hamburg.' ('near', 'next to')

'Er ist bei den anderen. '(often 'among'; but 'near (to)', 'next to' may also be meant)

Recommendation: When using 'bei', always be specific, unless ambiguity is intended.

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