German Prefix Verbs Explained – “einstellen”

einstellungHello everyone,

and a very warm welcome to our German Word of the Day. Why very warm you ask? Because, I like you all so much… and because it is SUMMER, it’s warm outside and I had the waitress put ice cubes in my beer…  Yes… I do that. I am that kind of person. I totally water down the oh so tasty German beer just for the sake of freshness… and now to take a first sip….
….sooooo refreshing. Seriously… you should try it some time.
So… it looks like it’s going to be a great article today, and it’d better be because we are going to look at the meaning of:



Now some of you may be asking themselves why they should read stuff of a guy who wastes his introduction for pointless banter and who openly admits that he is drinking alcohol while writing.
To those of you I say: fair enough. Go ahead and use a dictionary … here is einstellen at and here at… … …
So… everybody back? Great. Let’s start then.

The core of einstellen

Einstellen is one of those verbs that seem to have a million meanings. But it is not so bad after all… wait till we talk about anstellen. That one is a real monster. 
can be boiled down to 2 main concepts and with a little mind bending even down to one. To get to this kernel of einstellen, let’s first look at the parts. The word consists of the prefix ein and the basic verb stellen. Ein when together with a verb usually carries the idea (and only the idea) of in(to)… .so it has nothing to do with the ein as in a.  Other example with ein would be einschlafen (to fall asleep) or einfallen, which was already a Word of the Day here.
The basic verb stellen …  well … in German there are basically 2 main ways to position stuff – stellen and legen. Stuff can be anything from solid physical object to entirely abstract things like … hmmm … uhm … an imaginary chair. Legen is to position something in a horizontal or at least comfortable, “low energy” position… a lot of times it translates to to lay… but not all the time of course. Stellen on the other hand is to position something in an upright or tense position… sort of… this is not the catch all explanation but the best I have. So for example I  stelle  my glass on the table. I could also legen it on the table but then the (still refreshingly cold) beer would damage my laptop. Other things you stellen in German are questions and an alarm.

In these examples, nothing is literally put in an upright position but you could justify the use of stellen by saying that there is some kind of some tension in both these cases. The question seeks an answer and the alarm will go off with a lot of noise. Legen would be way to cozy here… I hope you can follow me so far . So… Possible translations for stellen are to put, to set and to pose.
Based on these 2 parts, einstellen should mean something with the idea of  to put into something.  And all we have to do now, is to see what we can do with this :). Piece of cake.

Meanings of “einstellen”

The first and most important meaning of einstellen is best described (not translated) by the word to adjust… . Let’s look at this in real live.

Whenever you adjust something so that it is “in tune” with something after, what you do in German is einstellen.
Interestingly, this can be also used for people.

So if you einstellen yourself, you set your mind in a certain way. What is important to realize is that you need to say what you tune, so in this case you must say yourself. Otherwise it could be very well your alarm, that you set. Saying the myself, himself, etc make it clear… oh as we talk grammar already let’s not forget the preposition you need: auf… just like ich warte auf, you stellst dich ein auf
This einstellen is used quite a lot, but what’s even more important is the corresponding noun… die Einstellung. If you are talking about a technical device, die Einstellungen are the settings. Check with your cell phone for example. But also people have Einstellungen. Germans are like really complicated machines here… (oh the stereotype)… we have a LOT of EinstellungenEinstellungen about a certain question, Einstellungen towards other people but also general Einstellungen about life.

As you can see, there is not really one translation for Einstellung attitude is quite close I would say, but still it doesn’t feel quite right in some situations. Think of Einstellung as the setting of something or someone and learn this word… it is used a lot in German.
So to wrap this up some sentence that our chancellor Merkel has been saying for a while…

God, did you feel that too? … this sudden whiff of bore… must have been this example with politics… well, that won’t happen again anytime soon. Now let’s look at the next meaning of einstellen but first I need to get me a new beer…

The next meaning of einstellen has a very limited range. It is simply to employ…  At first it might feel like it has nothing to do with the first meaning of einstellen but remember: the very core of the word, the main idea was to put into… if you employ someone you sort of put him or her into your company… or on your payroll if you will.

There really isn’t much to say here except maybe this: another possible translation for to employ is anstellen, but I don’t want to talk about the differences here because… you know… that whiff of bore from earlier was kind of intense. Imagine that as a tornado.

The third meaning of einstellen again feels like it has nothing to do with the one before… it is kind of like to show up.

Now to show up doesn’t REALLY nail it, as this einstellen has a slow edge to itself… guests “trickle in” one by one. So if you just get to the train station, einstellen wouldn’t really fit.
And does it fit the core of einstellen? Yes it does. Why? Because, showing up someplace means to “put your body” there…
This einstellen however is not that much used… so as long as you understand it, it’s enough.

So.. now we have already reached the meaning of einstellen that is REALLY out there… and this meaning is… to stop. Damn.
Einstellen can mean to stop but it is a very special part of to stop only. First of all, einstellen is NOT the stop of stopping a moving object. You cannot einstellen a car or a thieve.  Think of einstellen as to cease or  to knock of. You can only  einstellen activities. But is there a difference between einstellen and aufhören (read up on aufhören here)?

Difference between einstellen and aufhören

Well there sure is and it sort of lies in the grammar. Aufhören goes very well with verbs so most of the time it is used in a zu-construction. Einstellen on the other hand goes along with things /nouns. It is not so easy to illustrate that in English but we’ll try nevertheless.

  • I stop smoking.

Now what is smoking here? A dress of course…. badum tish…
Is it a verb or a noun based off of a verb? As far as I am concerned the answer is not important because it depends on the perspective. It will become obvious what I mean once we look at the German translations.

Both mean the same pretty much but in the first sentence we have rauchen as a verb while in the second it is a noun or a thing – the action of smoking. It is not possible to exchange aufhören and einstellen without altering the rest.

  • Ich stelle ein, zu rauchen.
  • Ich höre das Rauchen auf.

Both these sentences are wrong. So einstellen and aufhören have the same idea, but they differ in construction. You can ONLY einstellen things… nothing else. So you have to make your verb a thing first. This makes a sentence with einstellen pretty stiff in comparison to a phrase with aufhören. Why… because the latter has 2 verbs, and verbs make the language feel alive.
Aufhören is BY FAR the more used. Einstellen is actually really limited to certain situations. One of them you might have heard on a plane.

They could very well also say:

Why do they use einstellen? Well… during all that welcome speech on the plane they tell you to fasten your seatbelt, put your seat in an upright position, shut of electronic devices and so forth… so basically they tell you to do things with stuff. A phrasing using zu with 2 verbs, like aufhören would be,  would totally stick out there and ruin the flow. And einstellen sounds a bit more official I guess.
2 other prominent examples with einstellen are these:

Especially the first one is really stupid. If you are not aware of the meaning there is absolutely NO reason why you wouldn’t think that it actually means  start fire or adjust fire or set fire.
Anyway…bottom line: einstellen as to stop is really not very useful in every day life. It is enough to know that it can mean that.

But does this meaning of einstellen actually match the core we had? Remember… to put into… Well if you are REALLY open minded it does.
See… first of you have to think of to keep as from of foresighted from of putting… if you don’t put something out (which is to keep), you don’t have to put it back in. So to keep is equal to to put back and to put back is a special form of to put into, which was our core. So… now when you cease fire,you keep the bullets IN your gun. When you cancel a show, you keep it IN your network or the writers minds. If you stop smoking, you keep the nicotine IN the cigarette, and the cigarette IN the pack… and yet you are tense so stellen is totally adequate there… and tadah… there you go. Einstellen as to stop totally fits the core meaning… and I see we have a call here, Matthiew from New York, hi Matthiew, how are you doing:
“Hey Emanuel… look … I like your show a lot and so far this one was quite
interesting too although there weren’t as many jokes as usual BUT…. this last
thing you said was ABSOLUTELY RETARDED!”

Uhm… uh… what do you mean?
“Oh please… this whole explanation why einstellen as to stop is the same  like
 einstellen as to set… Do you seriously believe this nonsense… I mean come on!… ‘you’re keeping the smokes in the pack blah blah blah’…  what the
hell were you thinking… are you drunk?”

Uhm… well a little bit, but that has nothing to do w…
“Dude, do you even realize what bullshit you just dumped on air… ‘keeping
something is a foresighted form of putting it back’… for Christ’s sake … you really
have to cut back on the beer man. People trust you and believe the stuff you say
 Uhm … uh.. well uhm…
 “No man… I am really disappointed in you… I think your Einstellung (attitude/mind set)
is totally wrong and if you go on like that the interNet-work will
your show sooner than you can einstellen (prepare/ adjust/set) yourself for it.”
Look Matthiew, I … uhm…
“No man… don’t say nothing… listen to this again, when you’re sober… for
shame Emanuel, for shame!!… (hangs up)”

Wow… I don’t really know what to say. See that’s what happens when you are live… ok… so… what now?… uhm… yeah… the grammar… einstellen is a separable verb and builds its past with haben.

To prevent confusion I need to say this: when you einstellen in the sense of your personal settings you often use it as an adjective…  you say that you ARE prepared for something. This is done with sein….

It does look an awful lot like past but if a lady says that to you, it is present… very present… and to end this article with schmaltz, here is the famous Marlene Dietrich… enjoy

If you have questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment and I promise you, I will only moderately consume beer from now on :)
Hope you liked it and see you next time.

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