Difference between 'unterwegs' and 'auf dem Weg'

Hi there,

I’ve recently used ‘auf dem weg’ and was told ‘unterwegs’ was more appropriate. Now I wanted to know when I can or should use each one? (or if theres’ situation where they actually both work)?
Bis bald,

JC

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Hey JC,
this is a good question. To me, the only difference between the two is the destination.
They can be used interchangeably when you have a destination, but unterwegs doesn’t imply where you’re going.

It’s better to learn the difference with examples:

(Im Restaurant) Wo bist du? - Ich bin auf dem Weg/unterwegs.
[Where are you? - I’m on my way (there).]
–> You have a set destination, the restaurant, so you can say that you are auf dem Weg there. Maybe you’ve just got out of the shower and haven’t left the house yet, but you don’t want to worry your friend, then you should use unterwegs (since the destination isn’t specified). Both can be used in this case.

(am Telefon) Hey, bist du im Büro? - Nein, ich bin unterwegs.
[Are you at the office? - No, I’m out and about.]
–> Here, you can’t use auf dem Weg, because you haven’t specified where you are going. unterwegs is great in this case, since it just means you’re “out”.

(zuhause) Könntest du diesen Brief zur Post bringen? - Ja klar, die Post liegt auf dem Weg zum Büro.
[Could you bring this letter to the post office? - Sure, it’s on the way to the office.]
–> This is quite literal, the post office is on the way to the office, so you can’t use unterwegs.

The main point is the destination or the lack thereof. If I came late to class and my teacher asked me where I had been, cheeky little 13 year-old Antonia would say: “…unterwegs” :woman_shrugging:

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I recently got “I’m on my way to your place./Ich bin _ zu dir” and answered with “unterwegs”.

I would’ve thought that this would work here, but was marked wrong. Isn’t this the same as your first example/shouldn’t it work?

Thanks!

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Hi @averyshred, that’s a good question. The easiest way to explain why unterwegs doesn’t work here is that there is a specific destination involved.

I’m on my way on its own (no destination) would be either Ich bin auf dem Weg or Ich bin unterwegs.

However, if you take the destination into consideration, you can only have one option.

I am on my way to your place = Ich bin auf dem Weg zu dir.

The word unterwegs really implies an almost aimless, unspecified route. Let’s say your friend asked you where you are. If you didn’t want to specify where you are (you’re still at home, in traffic, running errands,…) then you could use unterwegs to avoid telling them where exactly you are. If you are en route to your friend’s house, then you would say auf dem Weg (zu dir).

When in doubt, just use auf dem Weg, because that can either be vague or clear. Use unterwegs to keep people guessing :slight_smile:

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