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To express the aspect of “just about to” in German, I have come across two possibilities:

(gerade) wollen + infinitive

  1. Ich wollte dich gerade anrufen.a
  2. Er ist gekommen, als wir gehen wollten.a

(gerade) dabei sein + zu +infinitive

  1. Er war gerade dabei abzuwaschen, als das Handy klingelte.

  2. Sie war gerade dabei, einen Brief zu diktieren.b

There are two related German SE posts - first and second - that describes how “gerade” is used to mark the progressive, while a third mentions that gerade + wollen is needed for ”just about to”.

Reading the various sources, it is not clear whether my two forms indicate only the “just about to” aspect or can also mean a progressive “___ing” aspect. If both can be implied, are there further sentence structures needed to narrow the meaning to only “just about to”?

Sources:

a) http://www.dartmouth.edu/~deutsch/Grammatik/Verbs/modals.html

b) https://www.dwds.de/wb/dabei%20sein/

German SE 1) What does "dabei" refer to?

German SE 2) English Present Progressive and German language

German SE 3) "Karl, der seinen Koffer gerade hatte ordnen wollen"

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    I'm not sure I understand the question. "Gerade dabei sein, zu" without "wollen" can in most cases not be translated as "being just about to". "Being just about to" means the action is in the immediate future ("kurz davor sein, zu ..." or "gerade ... wollen"). In contrast, "(gerade) dabei sein, zu" means the action is already in progress. Are you aware of that, or is that part of the question? What narrows the meaning to "just about to" is the word "wollen".
    – HalvarF
    Nov 28 '20 at 12:26
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    I guess what I'm trying to ask is: are you aware that (and why) your examples 3 and 4 can not be translated using "just about to", but your examples 1 and 2 can, or is that what you'd like to see explained in the answer?
    – HalvarF
    Nov 28 '20 at 12:37
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    Relevant: Rheinische Verlaufsform. Nov 28 '20 at 12:56
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    There are quite some ways to express the progressive in German (including the one of not expressing it at all, which is perfectly viable if there's enough context). I suspect German grammars aimed at English-speaking readers take the simplest way out and use "gerade", to explain where the continous form may end up in German.
    – tofro
    Nov 28 '20 at 13:37
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    To be honest, "gerade" is literally and figuratively "just" and can in all uses which come to mind be simply translated with "just". I don't see your problem at all. (Whether what's happening "just now" is a progression or an event is conferred by the other parts of the sentence.) Nov 29 '20 at 11:39
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In general, being "just about to [do something]" means that the action is in the immediate future, not already ongoing. Possible translations would be "kurz davor sein, [etwas] zu [tun]" or "gerade [etwas tun] wollen" or "im Begriff sein, [etwas] zu [tun]".

"I was just about to call you" => "Ich wollte dich gerade anrufen"

"He arrived when we were (just) about to leave" => "Er ist gekommen, als wir (gerade) gehen wollten"

In contrast, if the action was already in progress:

"He arrived when we were just saying goodbye to everyone" => "Er ist gekommen, als wir uns gerade von allen verabschiedet haben." or "Er ist gekommen, als wir gerade dabei waren, uns von allen zu verabschieden."

The difference in German is the missing "wollen" here -- they are not planning/willing to say goodbye, the are already doing it.

Likewise, your examples 3 and 4 are about something that is already in progress, so in English you cannot use "about to do sth." any more:

Er war gerade dabei abzuwaschen, als das Handy klingelte. => He was just (in progress of) doing the dishes when the cell phone rang.

Sie war gerade dabei, einen Brief zu diktieren. => She was just dictating a letter.

So in German, the difference would be between "etwas (gerade) tun wollen" (= immediately before starting to do something) und "etwas gerade tun" (= in progression). In English it would be between "to be just about to do something" and "to be just doing something".

That said, there are definitely edges cases, depending on the verb, where an action is at the same time "just about to happen" and "already happening". For example, "leaving a party" can be something that can stretch over a long time, during which it's at the same time already happening and about to happen. We are finishing our drinks, we are going around saying goodbye to everybody, we are getting our coats, thanking the host, talking at the door, before, much later, we actually leave.

So in this case, being "about to leave" and being "in progress of leaving" can be the same thing, and so can "gerade gehen wollen" und "gerade gehen". In the case of such verbs, it might be fine to translate e.g.

Er ist gekommen, als wir gerade gingen.

with

He arrived when we were just about to leave.

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wollte gerade somewhat secretely introduces an additional time level, i. e. the time, when you made the decision. For lengthy and complex task like painting a room, this may be considerably earlier, than when you take up the brush.

Your examples in section 2 do not require that additional time level. While not uncommon in conversation, they could be rephrased in writing:

  • Er wusch gerade ab, als ...
  • Sie diktierte gerade einen Brief, als ... (Since nothing follows in your example, one could even simplify further to Sie diktierte einen Brief. )

Deliberately not simplifying is one variant of the Rheinische Verlaufsform already linked.

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