Word of the Day – “als”

2 meanings of alsHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will look at the meaning of:

als (pron. uls)

Als is one of these preposition-conjunction-congestion-stuff-things. Damn… sounds like we’re in for some grammar. But you need not worry for I have participated in a workshop last weekend… “Exciting writing – how to engage.”, and that was well worth the 3000$. I learned a lot and I will put t to the test today. Psyched yet? Aaaaawesome… let’s dive right in then.

So als is like one of THE MOST useful words… EVER. The German Wikipedia has this list of the most freakvu… uhm…. important words in German.The first 30 words in this list account for 31,8 percent of all words and 50 % of all written German consists of only 207 words.  And do you know where als is on that list? It ranks at twenty-fuckin’-one!!! Oh god I am so excited myself, I can’t wait to explain it… it’s just so cool.
So als basically has 3 possible translations: as, when and than. The main source of confusion is when. That’s where people make the most mistakes so I will talk about the difference between wenn and als today… but just a bit as I will write an article about the possible translations for if and when at some point.  I just want to cover all options - ob, wenn, als, wann and falls- before as a Word of the Day so the posts won’t get too long. Thus far I have finished ob and wenn.

Anyway, so als can mean as, when and than but of course the pure translations won’t likely be of much help. It is better to say als is used for 3 different things – tell your friends what you did, share opinions with your friends and ….a third thing  I can’t think of a catchy head line but it does of course involve friends. Share this on Facebook by the way… you know, with your friends.

als – speaking in past

Als is THE word you need if you want to specify a point in time in the past by saying what happened. Now everyone is going to say “Whaaaaaaaaaat?”. What I mean is this. You can answer the question when? in various ways. You can either “name” the point in time. Last Monday would be an example for that.

  • When did you buy this Bentley? Last Monday

The next option is to indicate the time by giving the amount of time that has passed since then. An example for that would be:

  • When did my friend call? 2 hours ago.

The third option is to define the time by saying what happened then.

  • When did you decide to quit your job? When I woke up this morning.

You decided it at the point in time when you were waking up. In English there are 2 possible words to introduce such a phrase: when and as. In German there is ONLY als.

  • Als ich bei Aldi war, habe ich meine Ex-Frendin getroffen.
  • I met my ex-girlfriend when I was at Aldi.
  • Du hast mich angerufen, als ich gerade gehen wollte.
  • You called me just as I was about to leave.

Note that wenn is absolutely not correct here. Wenn only works in future or conditional that is fictional context and it sounds really strange if you use it in past. I am not even sure as to whether you would be understood so try to hammer that into your brains… when in past is als and not wenn.

  • When I was 18 ….
  • Wenn ich 18 war… (W to the r to the ong)
  • Als ich 18 war …

One more thing to know about als is that it is one of those words that don’t get along with the verb very well so introducing als will alter your word order. The verb really prefers to hang out with the rest of itself at the end of the phrase rather than to sit in the vicinity of als.

  • Ich habe in Paris gewohnt. Damals habe ich oft Wein getrunken.
  • Als ich in Paris gewohnt habe, habe ich oft Wein getrunken.
  • I lived in Paris. Back then I often drank wine.
  • When I lived in Paris, I often drank wine.
  • Two years ago, when he was studying in Italy, Thomas was very happy.
  • Vor 2 Jahren, als er in Italien studiert hat, war Thomas sehr glücklich.

als – comparing things

Als is also THE word you need if you want to compare things…  when they are  NOT equal. Why do I write NOT in capital letters? Because in English it is exactly the other way around. Let me look for an example… uhm… I need to get to the mall to get new ones soon… damn the only category left is “Horse riding center”… anyway, we gotta put up with this… here you go.

  • My horse can gallop as fast as yours.
  • No way, my horse is like twice as fast as yours.

There is as in the sentence but there won’t be als in the German version. “But didn’t you say that als is the one to go for, different pace of the horses provided?”. Good point. It was probably not the best wording. Anyway let’s look at an example that will translate to als.

  • Ponies sind süßer als Katzen.
  • Ponies are cuter than cats. (no, they’re not)

So whenever you compare things using than the translation is als in German. Let’s go back to the pony yard for 3 more examples.

  •  Mein Pferd mag Hafer lieber als Pommes.
  • My horse likes oats better than fries.
  • Die Mähne von meinem Pferd ist viel schöner als die von deinem.
  • The mane of my horse is more beautiful than the one of yours.
  • Reiten ist schwerer als ich dachte.
  • Riding is harder than I thought.

2 important notes. First, this als does not affect the word order… it basically just replaces than and 2nd, the word denn, despite its sound, is NOT a proper transation for than … any more. It used to be and you can certainly find it in old books but nowadays it doesn’t work anymore. Als does the job alone. They had to cut costs in the comparing department I guess. Damn globalization. Anyway… on we go to..

als – the third meaning

I really have now idea which headline to use… I’ll try to phrase it. So als is also used when you virtually assign a role, profession function or general character to a person or a thing. In English this is usually done by as.

  • Als kleines Mädchen war ich ein ganz großer Pferdefan.
  • As a little girl I was a big big fan of horses.
  • Als Tierarzt muss man sehr viel über Tiere wissen.
  • As  a vet you need to know a lot about animals.
  • Du kannst diese Decke als Sattel benutzen.
  • You can use this blanket as a saddle.

This als is also used with numbers.

  • Als erstes füttere ich mein Pferd.
  • Als zweites kämme ich seine Mähne.
  • First, I feed my horse.
  • Then (secondly) I comb its mane.

But the power of this als goes beyond that as it can also be used for fictional statements that assign some role or feature to someone… at least you could see it that way. Now I know how much you loved them but we need to say goodbye to Seabiscuit and Gatsby if we want good examples here.

  • Du siehst aus, als könntest du Schlaf gebrauchen.
  • You look like you could use some sleep.
  • Thomas tut so, als gehört ihm das Hotel.
  • Thomas acts as if he owned the hotel.

Those of you who have read the article about ob are already familiar with als ob. Als ob means as if, but in the examples above you can skip the ob-part. You don’t have to.

  • Thomas tut so, als ob ihm das Hotel gehört.

That would be correct too and it means the same but without ob sounds better and more elegant especially if you put the verb in conditional form.  And as we are at it, you can also use wenn in these phrasings… in spoken German.

  • Thomas tut so, als wenn ihm das Hotel gehört.

What’s interesting is that this als, the as if als, is not annoying the verb enough to make it go to its not so secret hang out at the end of the phrase. Only if als comes as a double team with ob or wenn you it moves. It is important to know that. If your phrase starts with als alone and the verb is at the end, people will understand this als as the past-als and they probably won’t understand what you mean.

some exception…nally fun facts about als

So the first thing I want to mention is the als does NOT mean as in sense of because. 

  • As I had already eaten, I just ordered a salad.

Back then the knight used to say als in these cases but because the past-als meaning is just too dominating, because-als is barely understandable today … except for some exceptional exception you are hereby exempt from.
If your as is somewhere in between reason and time, you need to decide what is more important and translate accordingly.

  • As I was at the Supermarket I bought you some milk.

This could be either als or weil/da but I’d say the temporal aspect is really not interesting after all so no work for als here

Then, there is one construction where als actually translates to but. This is the case when but can be replaced by other than. So it is actually connected to the comparing-als.

  • Mit meinem neuen Handy habe ich nichts als Ärger.
  • I have nothing but trouble with my new phone.
  • Der Film war alles andere als spannend.
  • The movie was everything other than suspenseful. (lit.)
  • The movie was all but suspenseful.

Espcially combinations of als and andere/s/m/n/r would be translated using but.
And the last thing that should be mentioned is the the too… to construction, in past.

  • The car was too fast to be able to read the license plate.

You could use a um… zu here but at times it is also done with als dass. This als is a comparing als but you need to do some mind yoga to agree with that :).

  • Das  Auto war zu schnell um das Nummernschild zu lesen.
  • Das Auto war zu schnell als dass man das Nummernschild hätte lesen können.

You are probably all staring at the 3 verbs at the end of the second sentence asking yourself how the fuck you are supposed to do that…. well, don’t worry. You don’t need to use this construction actively. I just wanted to mention it for completion.

And completed we have. This was our Word of the Day als and I have to say … that wasn’t too much grammar after all. We definitely had worse here. Just as a reminder, the 3 main situations in which you need als are:

  • alswhen/as (speaking about the past) – verb moves
  • alsthan (comparing things)
  • alsas (as if) assigning roles or features – verb does not move when als is alone.

If you have any questions or suggestion or even hate mail, just drop me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

29 responses to “Word of the Day – “als”

  1. Das war mehr interessant als ich gedacht hätte.

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  2. Vielen Dank!

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  3. I was impressed with your discussion of the use of “als”. I have been studying german for years and never really understood how to properly use “als” as a conjunction. Thanks.

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    • Can one really use an um… Zu statment like that car example you had, wouldnt that actualy translate to “the car is driving too fast in order to read the license plate.

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      • Hey Sorry for the delay with the response but I had to really check the background of the question…
        I did have a discussion about that very car-example in the comments of the um… zu article (here is the link… http://yourdailygerman.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/use-of-zu-and-um-zu/ )

        In German you can definitely use um zu and people will understand it as “to be able to”. It is ambiguous but context is enough to avoid confusion. I think many people aren’t even aware that this is a weird, unclear phrasing and they do talk like that. However, als dass is by far the better choice, especially in writing

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  4. Dear Emanuel. Thanks again for such a well explained article! However, I have one doubt about the use of “Als” for the past. How about a Past that never happened? For example if i want to say “If I had studied…” would it be “Als ich gelernt hätte,” or “Wenn ich gelernt hätte,”? I thought it was the second one since it sounded like a condition but now I’m having doubts. I would really appreciate your answer! Keep it up with the amazing Blog!

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  5. Hi! That’s an excellent explanation, per usual. :D
    Quick question, though…when you’re using “als” to compare things, what case comes after it? Is it like, “Find irgendwer zu rennen, wer schneller als ich ist,” or “Find irgendwer zu rennen, wer schneller als mich ist.” ? That little thing confuses me so much! :P

    Thanks!

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    • Good question :)… so in combination with the verb “sein” it will be nominative (I hope always ;).
      You can think of the als-sentence in your example as this:

      Er ist schneller als ich bin.

      “Sein” is by far the most common verb to make comparisons. However others are possible too… mainly in combination with “lieber”…

      – Ich trinke liber den Kaffee als den Tee.

      So in fact, I think the case is ruled by the verb and not by “als”.
      Hope that helps…

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  6. Thanks a lot for the elaborate explanation.

    Also, could you explain the usage of ‘Als’ in the following case: Als Nachtisch, habe ich eis. Zum Nachtisch, habe ich eis.
    Are we using the 3rd meaning of Als here?

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  7. Thank you this was really helpful

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  8. This is a great blog. I really appreciate how deep your explanations are – this is much better than my Intro to German class which only told me it can mean when or as.

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  9. Great post. One minor point about the use of ‘als’ in the third sense.

    When we write ‘Thomas tut so, als gehört ihm das Hotel’, what we are really dealing with here is an omitted-‘wenn’ clause. In omitted ‘wenn’ clauses, the verb assumes first position just like in English. “Had he gone to England . . .” can be: ‘Wenn er nach England gefahren wäre,” or “Wäre er mach England gefahren.” In the third sense that you speak of, the ‘als gehört ihm das Hotel’ is a clause of the second kind (which I know as the ‘omitted-“wenn”‘ clause) and is primarily used in the literary context.

    Your explanation is perfectly useful, helpful, and correct — but I thought that I’d chime in with this bit of explanation in case anyone is wondering (as I did when I first ran across what seems at first to be an extremely unusual word order for a subordinated clause) why this is an exception to the general rule of word order for subordinated clauses.

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  10. Even though I’m really lazy I will nevertheless try to correct you a bit…

    Mein Pferd mag Hafer lieber als Pommes.
    My horse likes oat better than fries.

    I don’t know what English you are trying to focus on on this website, but I’ll assume it’s american. In american English we would say;
    My _ likes oats (plural, singular sounds foreign)

    Great site, keep up die gute Werk ! :)

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    • Yes, American is the one I know best :) Thanks as always for the correction and I have one for you too this time…

      – … gute Arbeit

      “Werk” can also mean “work” but it is a bit old fashioned and sounds odd in most contexts

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  11. Thank you a great deal for this great explanation. However I read all the comments yet found no one interested in that monster-like structure:

    Das Auto war zu schnell als dass man das Nummernschild hätte lesen können.

    It confuses me for a long while when I read German novels. I did some research on my own. So the rule should be pretty simple, i.e. when there is “double infinitive”, then we shall place haben (and alike) in front of the double infinitive.

    However it makes no sense to me how people twist their logic when actually applying this rule during talks! I think you have to deliberately suppress your
    mind from forming a correct sentence and then insert “haben” or “hatten” in-between. It is really hard for me to say it loud leisurely. After all the hardness in getting used to how we put verbs in the end of a sentence, now again this….

    Could you elaborate this a bit or simply gives me some tips of how you construct these sentence in your mind in your daily life?

    Another question somehow related to double infinitives. Forgive me but I searched all your posts but found nowhere else to ask. How can “Ich hätte es wissen müssen” translate into “I should have known it”? I thought it should be “Ich hätte es wissen sollen”. It”s said “müssen” refer to stronger obligation in a sense, however it seems to me that it suggests the meaning “I would must have known it” instead of “should”. Could you enlighten me a bit on this?

    Really appreciate your help. I actually employ the same thinking pattern as you present here when I learn German. I think I share the same logic which translates German literally to English to trace back its original meaning. And I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on German prefixes which contributes the most to my confusions.:)

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    • Haha… yeah these constructions are a bit challenging. I think it is mainly a rhythmic pattern that a native speaker is trained to. It just “feels” right. Maybe it’s like a drummer who plays a decently complicated break… it’s not the usual rhythm but when you get it right, it feels all the more fulfilling :).
      However, even native speakers screw up, especially when they have to do it with “werden”.

      – …, dass ich werde gehen müssen.
      – …, dass ich gehen werde müssen.
      – …, dass ich gehen müssen werde.

      I have heard all 3, and said all 3. My guess would be that this is so rare that the pattern is just not fixed enough. With “haben” or “sein” it is common enough.
      As for training… you need to get the pattern into your head so you could maybe collect a few sentence and then read them out loud multiple times and pay attention to the flow. Thus you train your muscles and your hearing and your brain and you at least increase your chances that it comes out right, when you need it.
      Then, after a week of training you could take a sentence and read it with the “normal” (wrong) structure and see how that feels. And if you feel so much as a slight an itch … you’re on your way.
      Constructing is not really what you want to do… a drummer doesn’t really “plan” the break. It is more of a feeling.

      As for

      – Ich hätte es wissen müssen.

      You’re right, it would literally be “I would must have known”. For some reason, English has no conditional of the verb “must” but German does.

      – Ich hätte es wissen sollen.

      This means that I had the obligation to know it, because someone told me so (sollen)

      – I was told to know it but I didn’t.

      With “müssen” it is an obligation as well, but it can be for various reasons…

      – You must know that. It’s crucial/ It’s so obvious/You were there, when it was told.

      So, it is actually “should” that has shifted the meaning toward a general obligation while “sollen” has stayed true to the whole “someone told me”-thing.
      Hope that helps :)

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      • The first part of your answer gives the most valuable advice above all. Indeed there is no way to understand a concept and be immediately able to apply it. Have to at lease immense myself for a while and try to get used to this anti-logical thing^^ Also the exceptions you mentioned with “werden” shed light on some ambiguous spots in German colloquial language.

        And as for

        – Ich hätte es wissen müssen.

        In recent days I developed some new thoughts on it, which is also quite in accordance with your excellent elaboration.

        I think all modal verbs can not only express its respective modality(obligation, permission), but also can be used to express subjective judgment or conjecture. And sometimes to my surprise, this very same functionality of modal verbs seems ubiquitous, even identical between English, German, Japanese and my native language Chinese. What I find interesting is that people won’t differentiate their uses and interchangeably use the identical words. E.g,

        – You must be thirty.
        – You must wash your hands before coming in.

        – It should be raining tomorrow.
        – He should be out of the business!

        In Chinese and Japanese we also combine this two meanings(inference and obligation) in modal verbs, appearing almost like a conspiracy to me, as to rebuild babel tower by having the same peculiarity between language systems that ought to be of no connections…

        However exactly this Polysemie gives me a clue that might indicate how it developed to its current meaning.

        – Ich muss es wissen. (Here I used the subjective modality instead of the objective obligation, i.e, I am 100% sure I know it.)

        When we apply the Konjunktiv II transformation to this sentence, we get

        – Ich hätte es wissen müssen. (The translation should be, “How nice it would be, if I had 100% sure known it.” The contradiction between “How nice it would be” and “It is in fact not nice at all” is the essence of Konjunktiv II.)

        So it makes perfect sense to me now, because when we say “I should have known it”, we actually mean that we wish we could have known it all, known it with certainty, known it 100% for sure. In this sense, as in German the obligatory meaning of “sollen” is not so strong as “müssen”, we could not say “Ich hätte es wissen sollen”, because that otherwise suggests we didn’t want to know it ahead with 100% certainty, which is obviously not what we meant in the first place.

        I had read somewhere that regarding on this subjective conjecture of modal verbs, “müssen” express 100% certainty, “können” maybe 75%, “dürfen” maybe 50% and so on. (“sollen” is “according to”, not purely subjective, but still means “safe but not sure”.)

        I thought it is pure nonsense at that time, now it came to me that it might not be as useless as it appeared to be. The truth in it, is just that except that modal verbs differ in their meanings or modalities, they are however comparable or essentially the same thing in this probabilistic context. That would suggest, grammatically “Ich hätte es wissen müssen” is right, “Ich hätte es wissen können” is also right, not to mention “Ich hätte es wissen sollen”. They only differ in their confidence when uttering this sentence. But the meaning of “Ich hätte es wissen müssen” should fit us the best, because we hope that we get things not only right, but ALL (of it) right.

        And indeed I totally agree what you said on the generalisation of “should”. To me it is the other way around, that is the degradation of “must” in English that it cannot be used as flexibly as “müssen” to construct a probabilistic statement in a English conjunctive version.

        I hope it was not too lousy an elaboration to fail you.:D

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh not lousy at all :)… I had to read it twice to fully grasp it… or I think I did at least.
          It is indeed curious that the modals are used for the same things in two languages that are clearly not in any way related to Indo-European. I’m not a fan of Chomsky and the “Urgrammatik” but maybe there is some underlying logic and if you verbalize one thing (for instance obligation) this word will inevitably gravitate toward the other use as well. It would be nice to know how it is for the Arabian or African languages and if there is the same phenomenon.
          I think, I have also read this probability thing once, I don’t remember where but I think there is some to it.
          I feel like “können” and “dürfen” are hard to classify though…

          . Die Pizza dürfte fertig sein
          – Die Pizza könnte fertig sein.

          Here, the first one is actually much more likely than the second. The second is at about 50% while the first feels like an 90%… pretty much the same as “müsste” or “sollte” in that context. I would definitely go to the kitchen to check on it :)
          One thing though about

          – Ich hätte es wissen müssen.

          To me it doesn’t really sound like a judgement in sense of nice/not nice… it is more an assessment of probability.

          – Thomas did drink the beer I left in the fridge. Ich hätte es wissen müssen.

          The chances for me to have known that in advance were incredibly high because he ALWAYS does that. I didn’t know it anyway. So the certainty is not about how “fully” I know something but about with what probability there was for me to know it.
          Don’t know if that made sense but how is it in Chinese… does

          – Ich hätte es wissen müssen?

          really carry a statement about how dissatisfied you are with your not knowing it or is that just inferred by context (which is the case in German).

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          • Thanks for further discussion. I did not deliberately emphasise “fully” concept, sorry for the confusion:D It was unnecessary generalisation, and still it was my intension to stress that the probability of knowing be high, exactly as you said in the reply. I would say we arrived at the same conclusion.

            In Chinese regret, self-complaining, or sometimes joking are meant also not through that statement alone, but through context.

            Great fun discussing with you:) Will often be back for your updates to come!

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          • Great fun indeed :) It’s really great to have someone around here who knows about languages that comes from a totally different background, so I and the bulk of the readers get a look “über den Tellerrand”, as we say… and it’s even greater to have someone who knows about grammar and linguistics and all that. Ich freu’ mich auf zukünftigen Gedankenaustausch (gee, that sounds sooo formal :)

            Liked by 1 person

  12. When I initially commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are
    added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get 4 emails with the exact
    same comment. Is there an easy method you can remove
    me from that service? Many thanks!

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    • The hosting software (WordPress.com) takes care of all the lists for me. I can see the addresses but I can’t manually edit the lists. There should be a little note at the bottom of each mail that says something along the lines of “stop following” or “unsubscribe”… let me know if you can’t find anything.

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