1. Education

Doch! …and Other Tricky German Words
German “Particles” and How to Use Them
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German, like any other language, has particular words and expressions that can be used in more than one way. These include the short but tricky Wörter known as “particles” or “fillers.” I call them “small words that can cause big problems.”

German words such as aber, auch, denn, doch, halt, mal, nur, schon and even ja look deceptively simple, but are often a source of errors and misunderstanding for even intermediate learners of German. The main source of problems is the fact that each one of these words can have multiple meanings and functions in different contexts or situations.

Take the word aber. Most often it is encountered as a coordinating conjunction, as in: Wir wollten heute fahren, aber unser Auto ist kaputt. (“We wanted to go/drive today, but our car is broken down.”) In that context, aber functions like any of the coordinating conjunctions (aber, denn, oder, und). But aber can also be used as a particle: Das ist aber nicht mein Auto. (“That is, however, not my car.”) Or: Das war aber sehr hektisch. (“That was really very hectic.”)

Another characteristic that such particle-word examples make clear is that it is often difficult to translate the German word into an English word. German aber, contrary to what your first-year German teacher told you, does not always equal “but”! In fact, the Collins/PONS German-English dictionary uses one-third of a column for all of the uses of aber. Depending on how it is being used, the word aber can mean: but, and, at all, however, really, just, isn't it?, haven't you?, come on now or why. The word can even be a noun: Die Sache hat ein Aber. (“There's just one snag.” - das Aber) or Kein Aber! (“No ifs, ands or buts!”)

1000 Pitfalls
1000 Pitfalls by Henry Strutz devotes
several pages to particles in German
.

In fact, a German dictionary rarely offers much help in dealing with particles. They are so idiomatic that it is often impossible to translate them, even if you understand German pretty well. But throwing them into your German (as long as you know what you're doing!) can make you sound more natural and native-like.

To illustrate, let's use another example, the often over-used mal. How would you translate Sag mal, wann fliegst du? or Mal sehen.? In neither case would a good English translation actually bother to translate mal (or some of the other words) at all. With such idiomatic usage, the first translation would be “Say (Tell me), when does your flight leave?” The second phrase would be “We'll see” in English.

The word mal is actually two words. As an adverb, it has a mathematical function: fünf mal fünf (5×5). But it is as a particle and a shortened form of einmal (once), that mal is most often used in day-to-day conversation, as in Hör mal zu! (Listen!) or Kommt mal her! (Come over here!). If you listen carefully to German-speakers, you'll discover that they can hardly say anything without throwing in a mal here and there. (But it's not nearly as irritating as the use of “Ya know” in English!) So if you do the same (at the right time and in the right place!), you'll sound just like a German!

If you would like to see more particle examples, look at part three of this article, but now it's time to talk about doch. Doch! Really!

NEXT > Doch! Really! (Part 2)

> 1: ...and Other Tricky Words
> 2: Doch! Really!
> 3: Particle Examples

Also see > German Idioms and Proverbs


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