mögen, gern, gefallen – What is the difference

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. Everyone does it everyday, because everyone likes it (except haters who, naturally, gonna hate) and it rhymes with viking. What activity am I talking about? Exactly…  hiking. Hiking is great fun, even more so in the very hot summer. Everyone likes hiking.  Hiking already has like 1,100,031 likes on Facebook. Likings for hiking have been hiking up much to hiking suppliers likin…. ok obviously we’ll talk about liking today. Liking in German. And what is liking in German?

"To silently and skeptically approve of the quality and/or
 efficiency of something or someone."...

this is what would be written on Wikipedia… if…. they would stop deleting my contribution that is.
But seriously… there are 3 main translations for the English word to like and recently a reader asked about the differences between them (thanks Paola). And since she is certainly not the only one to wonder when to use which I figured this calls for a

German is Easy – What is the Difference – Special

And here are the subjects of our investigation:

While only one of them, mögen, literally translates to to like, all 3 are used in phrasing that would be done with to like in English…

Now, of course there are overlaps between all 3 but they are not always interchangeable…

  • Ich mag gerne Pizzaessen. (sounds childish)
  • Ög moog nut brå (sounds Swedish)
  • Ich Berlin gern. (sounds super duper wrong… and it is)

so we’ll take on the words one by one, have a quick look at where they’re coming from and see what they are used for and after a dreadful 3500 words I will sum up everything with a few concise sentences that could have spared you the rest had I just said those. Sounds good? No? Well at least it sounds honest :)…

Using mögen

Mögen is a German modal verb and the literal translation of the English to like.

Now, mögen is actually related to the English modal verb may and both are related to the German word die Macht which means power. Seems weird at first but in English it is visible too

  • He might be mighty...

Anyway… so  mögen and may come from something that meant “to be able to, to have the power to” and that means they were kind of  close to the meaning of  can… especially may still is.

  • This may be true.
  • This can be true.

At least to me, the difference between those 2 sentences is rather small. Now… mögen is a modal verb in German because it originally was the same as may. And it still is used that way, too.

But today, this meaning is way less important than the to like one… and that evolved a few hundred years ago…. evolution triggered by people being negative.

  • Ich mag das nicht.
  • I may that not (lit.)
  • I can’t do that. (which could also be “Ich vermag das nicht.” in todays German)

changed and became

  • I don’t like that.

Far fetched? Maybe. But again, at least the beginnings of the shift are visible in English as well… the word dismay expresses dislike and it comes from may nonetheless.
Anyway… so mögen is the German to may but it first and foremost means to like.
Now let’s talk about the usage. In a way mögen is the little sister of to love. It expresses how you feel toward something or someone. So of course it works great for people and things.

It also works for facts. By facts I mean pieces of information that need sentence or sentence like structure of their own to be expressed.

Now, of course everyone is like “Why is there an es only in one of the examples?”… uh… oh…. uh… that wasn’t exactly the question I expected. But it’s a really good question, actually. Someone should probably look that up…
But seriously… I don’t think there is a simple rule to that. It might have something to do with the length of the fact. The only thing I can say for sure is that the es is kind of mandatory if you have a zu-construction.

In these sentences you either need the es or a rather obvious

pause after “mag” to make it work. All right. So, mögen can be connected to nouns (things and persons) and to facts. The one thing it cannot really be connected to directly are activities ie. verbs.

In many languages this works just fine. But not in German. At least not yet, that is. People say things like that from time to time but I think it would be marked in a test because officially you’d be supposed to say

One reason why a direct connection without the zu doesn’t really work (yet) might be the may-origin of mögen.

Okay… so we shouldn’t connect the verbs directly .. at least not in writing. But what about this:

  • I like sleeping all day.

Is there something like this in German so we don’t have to bother with the zu-construct and the stupid es we have to use for that? Well, the sleeping in the English sentence functions as a noun and as we’ve learned nouns can be connected to mögen. The thing is… the ing-form in English can be a lot of things

  • I like sleeping (noun)
  • My cat is eating (verb)
  • The movie is interesting (adjective)

So naturally the differences become kind of blurry. German is much more… German with that. Of course you can also make verbs into nouns in German, but that will show. A noun will get an article and a gender and a capital letter. Das Schlafen is not just sleeping. It is be THE sleeping. And that makes it a little bit clunky… even more so if there is additional information about the noun.

  • Ich mag das den ganzen Tag Schlafen.

So … I hope you get the idea… what? Oh you think it is complicated? Well, then check out about when to say “I like to verb” and “I like verbing” in English and tell me if that is any easier…
All right. Here’s one more example

  • I like visiting my horse.

So let’s recap… mögen can be connected with things and persons or with facts that are phrased as a side sentence or with a zu-construct. You shouldn’t connect it with “nounified” verbs, because those sound clunky and you shouldn’t connect it directly with verbs because as of yet, it is officially wrong. People do it anyway but it often sounds a bit childish. And there is no need, after all…. because when it comes to liking activities, gern is by far the better pick.

Using gern

Gern is turbo-common in German.

And as if it weren’t common enough, marketing people saturate their texts with by placing it in positions even more abstract, implausible and counterproductive than the whole Kama Sutra.

So what is this gern. It comes from the Indo-European root *gher which meant to like something or to want to have something. Are there English words with that root. Sure, there are. For instance greed (die Gier in German), yearn or charisma. And at least for yearn and greed it isn’t too far fetched. I like it, I want it, I want it all for myself… my precious.
The German gern used to mean something like eagerly or zealously … remember the origin…  if you like or want something, if you yearn for something you will work gern to get it.
Today’s gern still describes how you do something… but the meaning has shifted a little bit and the best translation is maybe with pleasure. Just the usage is completely different.

And there we are… this is what gern is used for. It is an adverb that describes an activity and you could exchange it with other adverb like often or reluctantly.

  • Ich schlafe gern/often/reluctantly.

Of course they all mean different things but grammatically they work the same. Having gern in your sentence changes it from a statement about what you are doing to a statement on how you feel about doing that in general…

  • Ich esse Pizza.
  • I am eating pizza.

So… gern is used whenever you want to express that you generally like an activity. Now, mind you… it expresses the same as to like but it NOT a literal translation of it. German just uses a completely different structure here, a structure that allows us to use verbs as verbs without having to make them into clunky, capitalized, gendered German nouns. That is what makes gern so great and useful.

If you want to say that you don’t like something you can just put a nicht in front of gern.

But there is another way…a softer way. The word ungern… also used a LOT in daily talk.

Ungern sounds really diplomatic and soft. It leaves a chance that you may be swayed while still expressing that you’d rather not do it. An alternative to ungern is the combination nicht so gern… the so softens the negative nicht enough. But let’s do an example with ungern.

Hmm… if only the last example had some pun potential… I really could use a joke right now… I feel like it does but I can’t put my finger on it right now…
anyway… that is gern.
You use it when you want to say that you generally like activities. It expresses the same idea as to like but the structure and grammar is COMPLETELY different. Putting gern into a sentence changes the whole meaning from “I do that” to “I like doing that” and I am sure that it is hard in the beginning to catch on to that little word, especially when someone uses it in a question… dialogues like this one happen every day :)

  • “Wohnst du gern in Berlin?”
    “Ja, ich wohne in Berlin…”
    “Uh… ja, ich weiß… aber wohnst du GERNE hier?”
    “Ohhhhhh… that is like do you like living here, right? Yeah I think we had that in German class…”

Now, before we move on let’s quickly ask and immediately answer 2 questions. One: is there a difference between gern and gerne?
No.
Two: Does gern work for things and persons? By itself, not at all …

  • Ich dich gern…. nope

That means nothing because there is no verb in it. But you can combine it with haben and then it works for people… not really for your fridge or a place though.

I don’t really know if there is a difference between this and the mögen version… I think with haben it sounds a little less mature but also a bit warmer .. maybe because “Ich mag dich” is also what people say when they are about to break up… you know.. THIS sentence:

All right. And now that you’re single again, walking down the street and going to bars with friends is a totally different thing… and you’ll certainly use the last option for to like a lot…

Using gefallen

Gefallen… depending on what is your mother tongue this verb can be either really simple or really really frustrating for you. But it is important and you can not do without it. What does it mean? Well… that’s the point. It doesn’t really translate to English. It is I like with the grammatical roles reversed. Let’s look at this. First English

  • I like the movie.

Grammatically, I is the subject and movie is the object. I do the action (here: to like)  and the movie is what I do it to. And as far as meaning goes… movie is the thing that I feel affection for.

Grammatically, the movie is the subject now. Movie does the action. And I am the object, so I am done something to. But still the MEANING is about the same… I feel affection of some kind for movie. It is NOT this:

  • The movie likes me.

Sure, grammatically the situation is the same… but the meaning is reversed.Now the movie feels affection for me.  So … what could we put into the blank? One option is to please.

  • The movie pleases me.

This illustrates how gefallen works. But we have to be careful. The words do have some common ground but to please is almost NEVER translated as gefallen and vice versa.
All the Romance languages have a direct translation with the same grammar. And those words are in fact related to the word to please. But in English a word with the same meaning AND the same grammar doesn’t exist.
Now, where does gefallen come from? In fact, it is nothing but the ge-form of the verb fallen which means to fall.

  • Die Würfel sind gefallen.
  • The dice have fallen (lit.)
  • The die is cast.

And as random as that may sound… this is the origin of the verb gefallen.  Just imagine some Germanic tribe people playing dice in their hut.

  • “Tripple six… that has fallen well for me.
  • “Dreifach 6… das ist mir wohl gefallen.

This is still a quite literal use because dice do actually fall. Then, a few centuries later a white knight rides by a tower when he suddenly hears a cry…

  • “Help, help”
    “What’s that?”
    “I’m over here in the tower. I am a prisoness.”
    “What? A princess? Sounds like she’s in need for some rescuing… now, that fell well for me.”
  • “Hilfe, Hilfe.”
    “Was war das?”
    “Ich bin hier drüben im Turm. Ich bin eine Gefangene.”
    “Oh … eine Prinzessin. Klingt, als müsste sie ein bisschen gerettet werden. Na, das ist gefallen mir wohl.”

So gefallen has broadened and now refers to your fate in general, be it at a dice game or elsewhere. And then, again a few centuries later, some king listens to some piano piece played by a young guy named Goethe. After Goethe has finished, the king has this to say…

  • “Hmmm… that piece of music fells to me, indeed.”

Now, confused looks everywhere… wasn’t there something crucial missing? People start whispering…

  • “What does he mean? How did it fall? What is fells, is that a word?”
    “Pshhhh… the king liked it. He just doesn’t bother with qualifiers. Now say that it fells to you too or you risk beheading.”

And so a new verb was borne. Gefallen changed and shifted from the original meaning  some fate or lot falls to you to you LIKE what has come to you.
And there we are today… when you use gefallen you’re mainly making a statement about whether or not you like something but you’re using the grammar of “it pleases me”.

And now let’s talk about the usage. And for that it is important that we keep the original roles in mind. The thing or person that gefallen you does something to you. So gefallen is way less about your inner world than mögen.
When you use mögen you are making a statement about your feelings and your feelings only. You are saying absolutely nothing about the object.
With gefallen you at least partially describe the object or person. Take for instance a picture.

The picture can be ungodly ugly. But you feel something for it. You like it.

Here, there is at least some implication that the picture is pleasing to you in a way.  Someone else might still find it ugly but to you it is not. It is nice, pretty or whatever. Same for a song.

Gefallen is saying more about the song than is mögen. Mögen really is just about you while gefallen is making a little implication of the song being pleasing to you.
Gefallen is used to talk about looks and other appearances of people or things. Think of the woman that is sitting at the bar… and your friend says this to you…

He cannot mögen her because he doesn’t even know her. But he can like  her looks, attitude, hair-style, body language or whatever. So gefallen is more superficial than mögen. Mögen is a feeling, gefallen more of a quick judgment based on appearance.

So…  gefallen is used a lot in context with seeing  or  hearing. It doesn’t really work for smells or touch.

I don’t know why but the version with gefallen sounds incredibly odd to me. So… think of gefallen as connected to your eyes, ears or your conscious in some way but not to your nose, your tongue or your fingers. Mögen works just fine for all of them.
And here comes another really important point… gefallen is a temporarily limited thing… or at least to an extend. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at this:

  • I liked my girlfriend a lot.
  • I liked the movie a lot.

The first sentence implies that I don’t like her anymore. In the second one, all I am saying is that I liked the movie but I am not saying that I dislike it now. So context does a lot of work here. In German, mögen ALWAYS works like the first sentence. When you put it in past you’re saying that you liked it but you DON’T anymore…

For gefallen, it is the other way around. You can and should use it in past tense. When you use it in present that usually means that the thing you like is right there… remember, it works kind of like to please. So if something or someone is to please you, that implies presence.

This is saying nothing about how you are feeling right now… actually people would assume that you still like it. With that phrasing you’re just saying that, when you watched it, the movie was pleasing to you if you will. And you can’t really say this at the bar after movie night.

That only makes sense if you’re watching the movie right at that moment. If you want to express general affection for the movie you’d use mögen… in present tense.

Now, this “rule” is not super strict. You will hear people using gefallen in present although the thing or person is not present right now. Especially in context of people that does make some sense though since it implies that you will see them again.

The second version leaves it open. So it is not like the same example with mögen where using past tense would imply that you don’t really anymore.
So… this sort of behavior with regard to tenses is one huge difference between mögen and gefallen.
Now… speaking of differences…  is there a difference between activities and things/persons… like there was for gern and mögen? Well,  gefallen doesn’t really work with activities… maybe even less so than mögen.

  • Mir gefällt, den ganzen Tag zu schlafen.

This sounds just weird. Maybe it is not wrong but people just don’t say that.
And as far as facts go… yeah … you can do it.

And to be  honest… this is an example where there is little to no difference to the same sentence with mögen. There is definitely an overlap between mögen and gefallen and at times either phrasing is fine. But just try to remember…  mögen talks about your feelings, gefallen talks about your judgment of something and makes an implication that the thing is pleasing in a way.

  • I like you.

This would make no sense as

Why not? Because you want to talk about how YOU feel and not about what effect the OTHER person has on you.

  • I like your looks/style.

This is what the German gefallen sentence sounds like.
Can you mögen something that doesn’t gefallen you? I think yes, although I can’t give you an example.

So… let’s wrap this up at this point. We have talked about the 3 different ways to say “I like…” in German. The first one, mögen, is pretty much straightforward to like and you express your feelings with that. The feelings can be toward a living being, a thing or a fact. The only thing for which mögen doesn’t work that well is an activity. You can do it but then you need to make a verb into a noun and is not the best German. So if you want to express your feelings towards an activity, towards doing something, then you’d use the second option… the gern-phrasing.
And then finally we have gefallen. It has this weird role reversal to pay attention to. It is interchangeable with mögen in many occasions but it others it is not. It is best to think of gefallen as making a judgment about the appearance of something or someone.
And that’s it. That was our German blah of the bla what is the diff blah blah blah … If you have any question… go right ahead and leave me a comment. I like reading them :). I hope you liked it and that you maybe got to like German a little more with another confusion out of the way. Now there were 3 likes in the last 2 sentences… can you tell which one is which :)

Further reading:

The verb 2 – the German modal verbs and other things