Word of the Day- “halt”

Hello everyone,

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


Many of you may have heard this before in movies that involve Nazis. The Billy the super-spy of the allied forces is trying to infiltrate some Nazi army base to steal important documents. Disguised as a Nazi-General he walks through the camp, trying to not draw attention to himself. All goes well and he finally reaches the building and starts opening the door but then someone behind him suddenly yells „Halt!“. Slowly Billy turns around, trying to look German. Maybe he can talk his way out of that. Four German soldiers are pointing their guns at him. Within tens of milliseconds Billy ponders all his options and then the decision was made.  Maybe it was audacious, maybe it was crazy, but that was just how Billy works best. But… let’s get back to halt.

halten – the verb

What the soldiers want Billy to do is to stop. Halt comes from the verb halten and halten is clearly related to both to hold or to halt but it also means to stop.

  • Der Bus hält an der Ampel.
  • The bus stops at the streetlight.
  • Kannst du meine Tasche einen Moment halten.
  • Can you hold my purse for a moment.
  • Hold still!
  • Halt still!

I don’t want to get too much into details on halten vs. to hold. The overlap is large but there are differences. Hold is used in a lot of expression in English and most of those do not translate with halten. Examples for such expression would be hold it down, hold dearly, hold up.
On the other hand the German halten has a meaning which is not to hold or to stop. This meaning is incredibly common though so we should mention them here. It basically expression your feelings or thoughts about something or someone.

  • Ich halte den Plan für Schwachsinn.
  • I think this plan is nonsense.
  • Ich habe Maria für eine gute Klavierspielerin gehalten, aber jetzt weiß ich es besser.
  • I thought Maria to be a good piano-player but now I know better.

So the whole construction is halten für, followed by what you think it is. A second way to use halten to express opinion is by giving a measure as to “how much” of something you “hold”. Yes, that does sounds really strange. The less you hold of something in German, the less you like it.

  • Ich halte viel von Thomas.

That can mean that you think he is a great worker, a great person, a great piano player… it expresses positive feeling but it is not really emotional.

  • Ich halte viel von meiner Freundin.

is not quite the same as

  • Ich mag meine Freundin.

although both may be translated as

  • I like my girlfriend.

Anyways… here is an example with a negative feeling.

  • Ich halte wenig von Stefans Idee und ich halte gar nichts von Marias Idee.
  • I don’t like Stefans idea very much and I think Marias idea totally blows.

So the structure for this is halten followed by a vague measure like viel, einiges, wenig, garnichts followed by von or davon. So… let’s move on to… What? You WANT an example with davon? Fine.

  • “Was hältst du davon, wenn wir heute in die Oper gehen, Schatz?”
  • “What do you think about going to the opera tonight, honey?”
    “Nothing good.”

So… this is the verb halten. Sure there is more to say, but  about halt, there is even morer… or is it mucher? I am confused… both feel right to me…. hmmm anyways…  let’s talk about halt.
First, there is the noun der Halt. If you’ve ever been to Germany you might have heard it in public transportation:

  • Nächster Halt : Alexanderplatz.
  • Next stop : Alexanderplatz.

Now, we’ve learned that halten can mean either something like stop or something like hold, which by the way have a common core… something like “keep from moving”… anyways. Der Halt is as broad in meaning as the verb and can thus also mean things in the area of support.

  • Der Kletterer hat sicheren Halt.
  • The climber has a firm hold/grip.
  • Die Beziehung gibt ihm Halt.
  • The relationship gives him support/hold.

So this is der Halt with a capital h… and then there is this halt:

  • “Wenn du nicht aufhörst Computer zu spielen, dann gehe ich.”
    “Dann geh halt!”
  • “If you don’t stop playing computer I will leave.”
    “Then go … stop… holdWTF ????

halt – a coloring particle

Yes. Halt is another one OF those wor… oh sorry… wrong emphasis… I meant of THOSE words…. those particles, ever so hard to translate. It is one of those words that are used to color and extend your sentences and sometimes also to buy time while the brain tries to get things organized.
This halt is quite common. It is maybe not as powerful as doch or eben I’d say it comes close and whatever it means… it has nothing to do with the  halten :).

I think if you want to describe what halt does, or what color it adds in one word it would be give-in-afier, a compromise-afier, an acceptifier  … halt kind of expresses “well, things are as they are and we can’t change it so we’ll accept it and live with it”

  • “Mist, ich wollte heute zum Zahnarzt aber der war zu, … naja… dann gehe ich halt morgen.”
  • “Damn, I wanted to go to the dentist today but it was closed… oh well… I’ll just go tomorrow then.

So… in this example I can’t go today and I am giving in to going the next day. Now, why have I made both, just and then, bold? Isn’t then the translation of the dann in the German sentence? Well yes and no… when I think of the “color” of halt in English, I usually think a then independently of whether the German sentence has a dann or not. In fact choosing the second best option, which halt often is used for, usually has a then-feel to it.

  • “I would like to have a coffee, please.”
    “We do not serve coffee here…”
    “Well a tea (then).”

The then here is not so much about time… at least not exclusively about time. It also expresses the giving in, the accepting… at least I feel that way. And that is what halt does.

  • “Ich hätte gerne einen Kaffee.”
    “Bei uns gibt es keinen Kaffee…”
    “Dann halt Tee…”

Dann and halt will often occur in combination. Dann alone is pretty neutral…. adding halt makes it clear that you go for an alternative… and depending on pronunciation it can sound anything from totally fine with it to annoyed. Now, could dann be left out in the example above? The answer is no, because dann is a full grown “time”-information. Dann can answer a question alone so it qualifies as a full part of a sentence… halt doesn’t. It is always kind of appendix to the verb. But that doesn’t mean that you will always have halt and dann together… they just go together very well because they kind of express the same idea. Here is an example without dann.

  • “Schatz, ich lade unsere Mutter zum Abendessen ein.”
    Mach halt.
  • “Honey, I will invite my mom for diner.”
    Well… go ahead

Mach halt is approving but also expressing that the person is NOT exactly the biggest fan of the idea. There is a bit of “If you have to.” in Mach halt but it can also be an I don’t care/ same to me.
This is also an example where the translation just, that most dictionaries propose totally fails. Sometimes just is a good translation for halt but not here.
Just would sound way to positive here in my opinion.

  • Just go ahead.”

It would take a clear indication of annoyance in the intonation to express the same quality  of (dis)approval of inviting mom over for diner with the just-sentence. Halt already contains that little f that … “ugh… fine”.
Anyways… although nowhere near as encouraging as just, halt is not negative by default.

  • “Mein Professor fand mein Referat voll Scheiße, das ist so ärgerlich.”
    “Du musst dich halt nächstes mal besser vorbereiten.”
  • “My professor hated my presentation, that is so annoying.”
    “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be better prepared next time.

So here halt is not negative and just is an adequate translation.
Bottom line… halt always expresses  that a less than perfect reality has to be accepted… be it because it can’t be changed or because a conflict can be settled. And, backed by intonation, it can convey how the speaker feels about that reality ranging from total indifference to annoyed approval for the sake of compromise.
Halt does also sound very casual and makes thing sound easy… in that regard it is very similar to just, although just is stronger.

  • “Was soll ich machen wenn ich enen Grizzly treffe?”
    “Dann musst du ihn halt besiegen.”
  • “What am I supposed to do, if I meet a grizzly?”
    Well, then you’ll just have to defeat it.”

Saying halt here has the same ironic downplaying effect as just… it is really not taking the situation and worries seriously. Oh and how does that fit in with the definition of halt as an give-in-afier? I mean what’s the alternative here in the grizzly example? Well, of course the first choice would be NOT meeting the bear at all :).
Alright… we’re almost done, but what about a sentence like this one.

  • “Wie war deine Klausur?”
    “Hmm keine Ahnung… war halt irgendwie komisch. Eigentlich nicht schwer aber ich habe kein gutes Gefühl.”
  • “How was your exam?”
    “Hmm I don’t know… it was just like weird. It wasn’t really difficult but I have a bad feeling about it.”

This halt is little more than a filler. And it is a description of a thing so it is kind of hard to see the alternative here, halt approves of. The way I see it, this halt expresses that you lack better words. You know what you’re saying or how you’re saying it is not quite capturing your feelings but for a lack of a better wording you say what you say and halt kind of expresses that this is not the most precise information ever. You lack a better way to express yourself so you halt opt for the not so perfect alternative. This really is purely based on feeling and other Germans may heavily disagree with me. What’s certain though is that the halt of the last example doesn’t mean much at all so if my explanation makes sense to you, fine if not, dann halt not ;). And here a final example… family in a car. Mom is in the drivers seat, dad is in a hurry, kid is in despair because he needs to pee.

  • Kid: “Mama, ich muss mal.”
    Mom: “Ich weiß, wir sind gleich da.”
    Kid:”Aber ich muss voll doll, wirklich.”
    Dad: “Jetzt reiß dich zusammen, ich muss pünktlich zum Termin kommen und wir sind schon jetzt fast zu spät.”
    Kid:”Ich mach mir gleich in die Hose…”
    Dad: “Mach halt!
    Mom:”Oh Schatz, nur, dass du es weißt… wenn er sich wirklich in die Hose macht, dann bist du der, der die dann wäscht.”
    Dad:”OK OK, dann halt halt an!”
  • Kid:”Ma’, I need to pee.”
    Mom:”We’re almost there.”
    Kid:”But I have to pee REALLY bad, I swear.”
    Dad:”Now pull yourself together, will you! I have to be on time for my appointment and we’re late already.”
    Kid:”I think I’ll pee my pants.”
    Dad:”Well go ahead.
    Mom:”Oh honey, FYI.. if he REALLY pees his pants, you’re the one to wash ’em.”
    Dad:”OK OK fine… then stop.”

Alright, I think we’re done here for today. There are numerous words with halt in them… haltlos, erhalten, Haltung just to name some. A really long word with halt in it is das Mindesthaltbarkeitsdatum. It is part of the daily life and if you do your annually fridge purge you will look for specifically this word on … say… the yogurt. Why? Because it is the expiration date.  Mindesthaltbarkeitsdatum translated literally would be least-tenability/ “holdability”-date. It is the date to which you can keep your food without having it suffer any decay in quality. It’ll be still edible after that… sometimes for a week or longer, just the company that produced it won’t guarantee that there is no … chunks in the milk. The abbreviation of Mindesthaltbarkeitsdatum is MHD  and there has been a debate this summer, whether it should be removed from the package because it makes people throw away food that is still completely fine. An alternative, that you find on ground beef for instance is the Verbrauchsdatum which indicates by which date the stuff had better be used. The Verbrauchsdatum is to be taken seriously. Stuff really starts to become dangerous when this is exceeded. So the MHD is just a guarantee of quality, the VD is an information about when you shouldn’t eat something anymore.

Wow… I did get carried away a little here. SO folks… this was our word of the day halt, which as a coloring word is a give-in-afier, a verbal shrug. If you have questions or suggestions, please leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.