"Ich bin am Arbeiten" - the German progressive form

(The German) language is constantly evolving, and one of my students pointed out another great example during her Live Lesson!

When eating out with friends, the waiter came over to her party’s table intending to take the empty plates away when he saw that one guest was still eating.

He said: “Oh, Sie sind ja noch am Essen!”

Am Essen sein??? :thinking:

Everyone, let me introduce you to the “Verlaufsform”, or German progressive form, a structure that was able to slowly sneak into standard German, even when it has its roots in southern and western dialects. :male_detective:


Let’s start with a comparison. For English speakers the concept is nothing new:

  • “I am writing” basically means “I’m in the progress of writing.”

Using a Subject + a form of “to be” + a verb with the suffix -ing is a very efficient way to describe the current progression of an action.

In standard German we would usually use an adverb for that. In this case “gerade”:

  • “Ich schreibe gerade.” :nerd_face::memo:

But it’s not quite the same, is it? The German version with “gerade” means “I’m writing right now” which emphasizes the point in time and not the progress of the action. (This might be my personal linguistic intuition though…) :man_shrugging:


With the Verlaufsform it feels much more descriptive to me.

E.g. if you call a friend and she says “Ich bin am Arbeiten!”, then you know she is busy at the moment and not done with work yet. Better leave her be and call again later. :sweat_smile:

It started as “Umgangssprache”, now it’s widely accepted to use the “am-Progressiv”, even though for some natives it still sounds a bit odd and “unschön”.

But when the all-mighty Duden approves, it can’t be that bad, don’t you think?

Did you stumble across the “am-Progressiv” yet?

…or maybe his even lesser liked buddies:

  • Subjekt + sein + beim + substantivierter Infinitiv = Ich bin beim Lesen. (I am reading)
  • Subjekt + sein + im + substantivierter Infinitiv = Er ist noch im Wachsen. (He’s still growing)

German Tutors! What do you think? Is the “Progressiv-Form” here to stay? Do you use it? And if yes, which part of Germany are you from?

8 Likes

What a great explanation, thank you, @Toby!
As you mentioned, this kind of gerund or progressive tense is very common in Southern and Western Germany. I’m from the Stuttgart region, where we use it often. I always told my brothers “Stört mich nicht, ich bin am Lernen.” (Don’t disturb, I’m learning.)

Buuuuut I honestly never taught this to any student, because I always thought that it was a very dialectal grammar form. And, as I live abroad, I honestly haven’t used it for some years.

2 Likes

Thanks for this clarifying post!
It is such a wonderful language, isn’t it? Full of surprises if nothing else. :sweat_smile:

Is there a difference in meaning between:

„Die Pflanze ist am Wachsen.“
„Die Pflanze ist im Wachsen.“

Or is it just different flavours?

(The original sentence said „Die Pflanze ist am Wachsen und Gedeihen.“ in case the second part is of meaning.)

3 Likes

Good question!

To me, “die Pflanze ist noch am Wachsen” would be absolutely fine. E.g. when my girlfriend complains about the size of the tomato plant on our terrace, I could use the “am-progressive” to imply something along the line “Don’t worry, it’s still (in the progress of) growing. It’s not done yet. Just give it some time.”

The version with “im” sounds less eloquent and more colloquial to me in this context. There’s no real difference in implication, but it feels not quite right.

Maybe for poetry or prose it would make sense to use the “im” in some cases. E.g. when I talk about someone who lost a loved one I could say “Er ist immer noch ganz im Trauern.” The “im” here could be more heavy in meaning than the “am”. It almost sounds like he’s deep inside the process of mourning and not just “at it”. Here I kinda like the added layer of it.

3 Likes