z.B: Der Zeit nach geht also keine Erkenntnis in uns vor der Erfahrung vorher, und mit dieser fängt alle an.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781)

which translates to:

According to time, therefore, no knowledge in us precedes experience, and with this all begins.

I get confused by overlapping the meaning with the preposition "after", which ends up with the sentence making no sense.

Is it a matter of being used to it? How do you differentiate "according" from "after" in German?

  • 2
    it's like saying "Meiner Meinung nach", right?
    – VladiC4T
    Dec 11, 2021 at 20:47
  • 1
    First: Please use full sentences as examples. Short phrases without any context can mean anything. Second: Not only Germans speak German. Also most People from Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein and many people in Italy (South Tyrol), Luxembourg and Belgium speak German. Asking "How Germans distinguish A from B?" is like asking "How Englishmen distinguish A from B?" when you ask something about English language. Dec 11, 2021 at 22:41
  • 2
    Frankly, I don't see the problem here. If one of two possible interpretations makes no sense, then choose the one which does make sense. That's how everybody resolves language ambiguities, not only Germans.
    – RHa
    Dec 12, 2021 at 11:23
  • 3
    ... You just manage is so facile and effortless in your first language, that you don't realize that you're doing it all the time. It only becomes apparent when you learn a new language with new words who's meaning don't match with words from your first language, and a grammar that is different from what you know so far, because now you have to learn new strategies of resolving ambiguities. But the problem of resolving ambiguities in German language is not harder or weaker than in English or any other language. Dec 12, 2021 at 16:26
  • 6
    Oh Boy! You are quoting Immanuel Kant. He was born about 300 years ago. His German is outdated for centuries. It even was quirky and eccentric at the time he wrote "Kritik der reinen Vernunft". Here is a really good hint: Do not use the texts of dead philosophers to learn German! Nobody who is alive now and who is not a philosopher would understand you. And if you want to read Kant: Buy a good translation. Even we native speakers have troubles to understand Kants peculiar and idiosyncratic version of German language. Dec 12, 2021 at 16:38

3 Answers 3


We use context.



Johann Gruber wurde in der Zeit nach dem zweiten Weltkrieg geboren.
Johann Gruber was born in the period after the Second World War.

In dieser Tabelle sind die römischen Kaiser der Zeit nach sortiert.
In this table the Roman emperors are sorted by time.

Mit den neuen Daten können wir das nächste Ereignis wenigstens der Zeit nach vorsagen, aber nicht dem Ort nach.
With the new data, we can predict the next event at least in time, but not in place.

Wenn Umsätze nicht der Zeit nach abgegrenzt werden, verstößt man gegen einen wichtigen Grundsatz der Buchhaltung.
If sales are not accrued over time, you are violating an important accounting principle.


Context is so important when interpreting texts. For example the English sentence "Time flies like an arrow" has at least 9 different meanings:

4 commands:

  • Measure the speed of flying insects like you would measure that of an arrow. (You should time flies as you would time an arrow.)
  • Measure the speed of flying insects like an arrow would. (You should time flies by the same method that an arrow would use to time them.)
  • Measure the speed of flying insects very quickly. (You should time flies as quickly as an arrow moves.)
  • Measure the speed only of those flying insects that are similar to arrows. (You should time only those flies that are like an arrow.)

5 statements:

  • All individuals of a certain kind of flying insects (the so called “time-flies”) collectively enjoy the same single arrow. (Compare to: "Fruit flies like a banana.")
  • Each individual of a certain kind of flying insects (the so called “time-flies”) enjoys its own individual arrow.
  • The concept of a period or a duration passes by in a way an arrow would pass by (fast and in one direction).
  • The concept of a period or a duration flees (attempts to escape) in a way an arrow would flee.
  • A copy of the magazine Time, when thrown, moves in a similar manner to that of an arrow.

And this is a whole sentence! The shorter a phrase is, the more meaning it can have. Single words are often overloaded by dozens of meanings. For example the English word "turn" is listed with more than 50 different meanings in wiktionary (about 30 meanings for the verb and 20 for the noun). You can't expect to have a word with exactly the very same meanings (and no other meanings) in any other language.

This is what translation makes such a hard problem: You can't translate the single words as if they were separated from the rest of the text and then merge the translated words together using the grammar rules of the target language. This attempt will not work.

Here is how good translation really works:

step 1: Read the whole text, and make sure that you fully understand what the author really wanted to express with these words.
step 2: Reproduce the full meaning of the original text by using the vocabulary and grammar of the target language.

  • 4
    And then there is also the newspaper "Die Zeit", which gives the sentence "Der Zeit nach haben 50% der Deutschen ..." yet another meaning.
    – Polygnome
    Dec 12, 2021 at 9:46

Not only context, but case is used to differentiate the role of a word in a sentence, and so the appropriate translation:

Der Zeit nach

With the Substantive in dative case, this is an object phrase and "nach" is translated as "according" - it will be followed by a predicate and subject

Die Zeit nach

With the Substantive in nominative case, "nach" is part of an adjective phrase that describes the substantive which is acting as subject - here "nach" is translated as "after".

  • Simply an amazing logical explanation!
    – VladiC4T
    Dec 12, 2021 at 16:19

Keep in mind that "after" also has multiple meanings. The sentence "He's after you." has at least two meanings, one sinister and one innocent. You have to figure out what is meant by a word in German the same way as in English, using context. In spoken language you often have to use intonation and stress as well. When starting a new language this can be difficult, but it gets gradually easier as you learn; mainly it's a matter of practice.

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