“einkaufen gehen” – why is the no “zu”


Hello everyone,

and welcome back to your weekly fix of German – the good, strong stuff. And today, I actually got a nice little dose of grammar for you, because we’ll take a look at:


Now you’re like “Wit-no-zouz? What is that? I have never heard that before.”
Well, that’s no wonder, because Wit-no-zouz is a really advanced linguistic concept that you usually only come across when you’re at absolute the cutting edge of linguistic research. Which is where I am and I’m gonna share some of that
“Yeah yeah, come on Emanuel, you made it up, right?”
Uh… yup. I made it up. It’s short for

Why is there nozu or um zu?”

and I didn’t really know how else to call it. I think the official name is free final infinitive or something, but I like my name better.
Because it is what pretty much all learners ask themselves at some point, usually after learning about zu and um zu.
We’ve briefly touched on it in the article about the use of zu and um zu, and there are many comments about it scattered throughout the site, but I figured it’s definitely worth a proper look, so let’s dive right in :)

So, the thing that has many learners confused at some point are sentences like this one:

And what usually confuses learners about this is if I am actually really doing Yoga. And the second question people ask themselves is why there isn’t at least a zu in there.

  • Ich gehein den Park Yoga zu machen… why wrong?!

And it’s a good question because the rule (book 3, chapter 47, rule 77 b II, section 12.1) says that, just like in English, only modal verbs connect their second verb directly, while the rest needs to or in German, zu or um zu.

  • I‘m trying to sleep.
  • Ich versuche zu schlafen.

So what gives, with the yoga example? Gehenisn’t a modal verb and yet there’s no zu. Is that just the inevitable exception to the rule?
And the answer is of course yes. Technically, it is an exception.
But it’s not a glitchy phrasing that just happened to be idiomatic. There’s actually a system there.

The question that matters

Take these two sentences:

  1. Thomas goes to the bar.
  2. Thomas quickly goes after work, because he is thirsty.

The second one, on the surface, should have more value, because we get three pieces of information about the going: the why and the how AND the when. And yet, it sounds odd and incomplete, while the first one, even though it only contains one piece of information, feels good and rounded.
And the reason is that the first one contains the “most interesting” or “most defining” piece of information for to go – the “where?”.
And for to go the connection is pretty strong, so if we don’t have this bit of info, at least implicitly, the sentence feels weird.
Now, if you’ve read my article on “zu” and “um zu” (link below), you might remember that the zu-element generally gives an answer to “what?”.

And now based on what we’ve just learned… is a zu-element the first choice to give information about gehen?

The answer is of course no!
Because the verb gehenstrongly needs a “where”, while a zu-element gives us a “what?”. In fact, a what-element doesn’t really match up with gehen at all. You can simply try it in English by actually making a question:

  • What are you going?

That’s not a proper question!
It would work fine with where and when and how and why and with whom and many other questions… but asking what makes no sense.
So you see that a zu-element is not only not the first choice… it’s actually not really a choice at all.
Now let’s take the example from the beginning again.

We now know why a zuwould be wrong here and that it’s actually a quite fundamental reason, not just some random “Yeah, because languages are weird”-thing.
But that’s only half the story. I mean, the where? in that example is the park. So what function does the Yoga machen have?

Yes, verbs are locations now

Well, doing yoga is the REASON for my going to the park – the purpose or the why.
So it would actually be a candidate for an um-zu-construction because those generally give us a purpose, a why.

And that is a perfectly fine, idiomatic construction.
But it also sounds a tiny little bit stiff.
Instead, what happens is that German tends to use the activity, the verb directly as a sort of pseudo-where.

If we do say the park bit, then the activity is just kind of an add on, but we can actually leave it out. Then, the Yoga machen gives us the where? that’s so important for the verb gehen.
An activity as a location… sounds weird but it actually also works in English:

And it doesn’t only work for to go.

  • Wherewere you last night?!”
    “Uh… Doing Yoga. Acro-Yoga….”

When Maria asks Thomas where he was, she wouldn’t be satisfied if he just shared a location pin in Google maps, because what she REALLY wants to know is what he did.
You see, talking about our whereabouts in terms of what we did makes perfect sense.
English tends to use its -ing-forms for that purpose and in German… well, THAT’S what the Wit-no-Zouz phrasings are for – those phrasings that make you wonder why is there no zu or um zu :)

Phrasings like these are incredibly common in German, primarily with the verbs gehen and sein but you can also find them for kommen and fahren.
And I hope you could see that it’s not just a random grammar glitch or colloquial laziness, but that it actually makes a lot of sense that they DON’T have zu.
Of course you can also think of the whole thing as “just” an exception, but I’d really recommend thinking about it as a distinct category…. verbs used as the where?.

Either way, I hope I could shed some light on the matter and also give you some little insights into the inner workings of language.
As always, if you want to check how much you remember, you can take the little quizz I have prepared for you. And of course, if you have any questions about this just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


Further reading:



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