When attempting to translate, "He remained silent, as if in thought," I said

Er blieb still, als wenn er im Denken war.

and I was corrected with

Er blieb still, als wenn er am Denken war.

I find both "im Denken" and "am Denken" in DWDS. What is the difference and why the correction?

Denk mir Kaffee und Schokoladendonuts herbei, wenn du schon am Denken bist.

Frage: Die Menschen suchen nach Kontinuität, wollen aber frei im Denken sein.

5 Answers 5


Both your sentences are missing a verb ;)

In general, constructions like "am (Verb) sein" are a progressive form mostly used in colloquial speech. It was known as the "rheinische Verlaufform" (roughly "Rhinelandian progressive form"), but recently the less localized term am-Progressiv is used more often.

The idea of the construction is roughly similar to something like "to be currently at (verb)-ing":

Sie ist am Lesen.
She's at reading.

or, in more natural English

She's reading at the moment.
She's busy reading.

Other examples would be

Was möchtest Du essen? - Ich bin noch am Überlegen.
What would you like to eat? - I'm still thinking.

Die Stimmung war am Kochen.
The mood was boiling / at the boiling point.

So, one of your sentences in question needs a form of "sein":

Er ist am Denken.

And in Konjunktiv it would be

Er blieb still, als wenn er am Denken wäre.
Er blieb still, als wenn er am Denken sei.

The difference between "wäre" and "sei" in this case would probably warrant a question of its own.

On the other hand, "in etwas sein" just means "to be in something". So, "Er ist im Denken" would be something like "he's in thinking", which could be understood as similar to "he's in thought". But it wouldn't be phrased like that in German. The example you found at DWDS uses a construction similar to "free in thinking" or "free at thought".

So, of the sentences you suggested, only

Er blieb still, als wenn er am Denken wäre.

would be correct.

But as mentioned before, the am-Progressiv is a quite colloquial construction. So there's a bit of a styles clash between the two parts of your sentence, as they are from different registers. A better way of phrasing, as Sixpence already suggested, could be

Er blieb still, als wenn er in Gedanken wäre.
Er blieb still, als wenn er in Gedanken versunken wäre.

"In Gedanken versunken" ("to be sunk into thought") is a fixed phrase that means something like "to be absorbed in thought".

  • Yes, sorry, I forgot the verb. Correcting...
    – user44591
    Mar 2, 2023 at 18:35
  • 1
    Although there is quite a bit of good information here, I do not feel that my question has been answered. I am not looking for a better way of saying something. I am trying to understand how the people who wrote the sentences I find in DWDS chose between im Denken and am Denken. Do I need to illustrate the variations with additional examples?
    – user44591
    Mar 2, 2023 at 18:41
  • @user44591 Maybe the confusion is about how "to be lost in thought" is expressed in German and English, respectively. In German, we think about it as a continuous action: He's thinking, and he's still thinking, and he's thinking some more. In English to my understanding, "thought" is more viewed as a figurative location where one can get lost. If we would speak of a location in German, then "im Denken" would be correct. But we need a progressive form. One of the examples from DWDS does use "thought" or "thinking" as a figurative location. Mar 2, 2023 at 18:58
  • I take it from what you say, then, is that there is no other way of understanding in any particular context which of the two, am Denken or im Denken, is the correct one, is to use the one found in German usage in that context? Since I am in an English-speaking environment, such a method becomes particularly difficult and error-prone.
    – user44591
    Mar 2, 2023 at 21:14
  • @user44591 "Am Denken", "am Lernen", "am Trainieren" and so forth is a progressive form. You could compare it to "in the course of thinking", "in the course of learning", "in the course of exercising". When the expression you want to use needs a progressive form, this is one you can use. "Im Denken" refers to a place, a location, literally or figuratively. When the expression you want to use needs a location, you can use that. Mar 2, 2023 at 21:24

"Im Denken" is just wrong in this case.

"Am Denken" is possible, but rather colloquial. It refers, however, to the act of thinking.

"He remained silent, as if in thought": Er blieb still, als sei er in Gedanken (versunken).

  • This reference says, „Ich bin im Nachdenken,“ is correct. So why not »Er war im Denken?«: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verlaufsform
    – user44591
    Mar 3, 2023 at 17:34
  • The article states that a progressive form with "in" is possible, but "subject to strong limitations". Your original question was, if I understand it correctly, why your translation "im Denken" for "(lost) in thought" was corrected. "Am Denken" doesn't make it any better; both are understandable, but, as Hennig Kockerbeck pointed out, there is a clash of styles. By the way, there is no need to translate "thought" by "Denken" instead of "Gedanken".
    – Sixpence
    Mar 5, 2023 at 6:58
  • Unfortunately, my level of ability with German does not permit me to consider issues of style. It is all I can do to be barely understandable and grammatical, and must settle for that as success, regardless of the style. I have come to appreciate that I will, therefore, need to be accustomed to being judged poorly along the way.
    – user44591
    Mar 5, 2023 at 16:15
  • 1
    I think the wikipedia article intended to list „Ich bin im Nachdenken," as example for wrong use. All three sentences listed there sound completely wrong to me.
    – Helena
    Mar 8, 2023 at 20:22

The important difference betwee the correct example "Die Menschen ... wollen ... frei im Denken sein" and your wrong example "... als wenn er im Denken [wäre]" is the word frei. With the preposition "in" you specify in which regard you are free.

Other examples:

  • frei in der Auswahl sein = to be free in one's choice (not in the course of choosing)
  • frei in der Entscheidung sein = to be free in one's decision (not in the course of deciding)

In these examples the word "in" does not refer to the moment you are actually doing something.

Regarding the progressive form:
As a native speaker born in Berlin, I would use "beim Denken" instead of "am Denken", but I would use this form only in slightly different context. In this specific case I agree with Henning Kockerbeck's answer that "in Gedanken versunken" would fit much better.


Er blieb still, als wenn er am Denken war.

This is a very colloquial way to put it, but it would be understood as "He remained silent, as if he was thinking". It technically is wrong and it sounds uneducated (apologies if this is a regional dialect somewhere).

Er blieb still, als wenn er im Denken war.

This is just wrong. "Im Denken" is neither a correct nor a common way to express a progressive action. The example you give

wollen aber frei im Denken sein.

does not use "im Denken" as a progressive. In this sentence "das Denken" means the discipline of thinking in general. Similar you could say "Das Denken fällt mir schwer" ("thinking is difficult to me").

In both cases is "Denken" is closer to the English "thinking" and not a good translation for "thought", which is better translated as "Gedanken".

Er blieb still, als sei er in Gedanken.


You are falling for a common error in translation, and that is translating word by word, verbatim.

Conventionally, in written Standard High German, the idea behind your English example sentence would be expressed using a different construction. The one that comes to my mind immediately is:

Er schwieg, als würde er nachdenken.

That is, both er blieb still as well as als wäre er am Denken are uncommon in written Standard High Germand and stilistically awkward.

Im Denken seems unlogical, as a person (as a physical being) commonly cannot be inside thought (compare als wäre er im Haus with als wäre er im Denken). In thought is a figure of speech in English which does not exist in German.

In spoken vernacular, constructions with am [Tun] are common, though: "Als ich gekommen bin, war er grad am Arbeiten."

  • Please specify how Im Denken is ungrammatical.
    – user44591
    Mar 9, 2023 at 19:31
  • @user44591 In this context. A person cannot be inside thought.
    – user52445
    Mar 9, 2023 at 20:08
  • This statement has nothing to do with grammar. You are stating a personal belief.
    – user44591
    Mar 9, 2023 at 21:02
  • @user44591 I see what you mean. Fair enough. I'll edit.
    – user52445
    Mar 10, 2023 at 8:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.