Using “Je… desto” in German

Written By: Emanuel Updated: July 23, 2023

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Week.

Suppose you want to express how some ‘quantity’ depends on some other ‘quantity’.
In English, this is done by the phrase the … the. 

  • The more I study, the wiser I become.
  • The bigger the better.

In German, we also have a two word structure like that but the parts are completely different because in German we use:

je … desto …

 

Today, we’ll take a look at this phrasing and see how to use it, and we’ll also talk about umso a bit and whether or not you need that one.
So… let’s jump right in.

And we’ll start with a look at the parts.

Je is a bit hard to define as a word. As a standalone, it can mean ‘a‘ in sense of ‘per’, and it can mean ever, in the sense of at any point.

  • Die Äpfel kosten 10 Euro je Kilo. (saying “pro” is more common in daily life)
  • The apples are 12 Dollars a kilo.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Has grammar ever been fun?
  • Hat Grammatik je/jemals Spaß gemacht?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But what’s more important is that it’s part of important words like jemand (somebody),  jeder (everybody) or jetzt (now).

Maybe think of it as just a very generic general pointer… or don’t think about it at all. That’s probably the wise choice, to be honest. The word is just really weird and there’s no real insight to be gained :).

Anyway, the second part, desto, used to be a special form of an article… something like thestiu or something. But it does NOT have a meaning by itself anymore and you’ll ONLY see it that one, you will only see it in  je… desto to express the the-the-relation.
And now it’s time for examples

  • The more I study, the wiser I become.
  • Je mehr ich studiere, desto weiser werde ich.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • The more I sleep the more tired I am.
  • Je mehr ich schlafe, desto müder bin ich.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Je mehr ich über mich rede, desto gelangweilter wird mein Date.
  • The more I talk about myself, the more bored my date becomes.

On first glance, it looks like it’s pretty much like English, just with je desto instead of the the.  

But when you look a little closer, you’ll see that there’s actually a big difference – the word order.

Word order with “Je … desto…”

Let’s take the last example again and I’ll mark the parts that are different:

  • Je mehr ich über mich rede, desto gelangweilter wird mein Date.
  • The more I talk about myself, the more bored my date becomes.

Obviously, there are changes in both parts of the sentence.

The first part, the one with je, is essentially what I call a side sentence. The je basically works just like dass or weil and kicks the verb all the way to the end.
Here’s a normal sentence:

  • Ich denke viel über den Film nach.
  • I think a lot about the movie.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And now here it is again, but as a je-statement:

  • Je mehr ich über den Film nachdenke, desto
  • The more I think about the movie, the
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

You could replace je with weil, which would of course change the meaning, but the structure would be exactly the same.
Cool.
Now, let’s talk about the part with desto.

  • Je mehr ich über den Film nachdenke, desto weniger verstehe ich ihn.
  • The more I think about the movie, the less I understand it.

The change here is that subject and verb have switched places (compared to English). And that makes perfect sense once we see the entire je-desto structure as “position 1” of a main sentence.

  • [Langsam] verstehe ich den Film.
  • [Wegen deiner Erklärung] verstehe ich den Film
  • [Je mehr…., desto weniger ] verstehe ich den Film.

The verb in a main sentence is always in the second slot, and the je-desto part takes the first slot, so to speak. Sure, it’s long, but it’s one “concept”, one “comparison”. It’s one piece of info about “how much” I understand the movie.

  • “How much do you understand the movie?”
    “Less and less the more I think about it.”

The whole the the structure works as answer to one question, so it’s one “unit”. And that’s why it fills one slot in a German sentence.

So, in a nutshell:

  • The je-part: a side sentence, with all verbs at the end
  • The desto-part: a main sentence, with the verb coming after the desto-segment.

It definitely takes a bit of getting used to, but even if you mess it up a bit, people will still understand so don’t let this hold you back from starting to use je desto. Better one more fail than one fewer attempt.

Cool.
So now that we know how to use je desto, let’s say a few words about the variation with umso.

Using “umso”

Umso not something you hear on the daily, but you’ll come across it sooner or later. It’s only used in these kinds of comparisons and the interesting part is that it can be used for BOTH sides. So you can umso for  je AND for desto.

  • Je früher ich aufstehe, umso länger ist mein Tag.
  • The earlier I get up, the longer my day is.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Umso mehr ich nachdenke umso weniger gefällt mir die Idee.
  • The more I think about it, the less I like the idea.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

What’s not idiomatic though is combination  umso… desto. Don’t ask me why but it just sounds wrong to me.

Now, some of you might be like “Hmmm, I’ll just use umso… umso. I have to learn just one word that way.”
But I would recommend against it.
First of all, it’s just less idiomatic than je… desto. But the bigger issue is the pronunciation.
Most of you will very likely pronounce umso quite similar to um zu, which means ‘in order to‘ and that’s REALLY confusing for a native speaker. If you can nail the pronunciation, then go for it, otherwise I would stay away and stick with  je… desto. 

All right.
Now, originally, the article ended right here. But in the comments, one question has been coming up multiple times, so I decided to add a section about it here.
And that question was about je desto and the cases.

Which case to use after “je … desto …”

If you’ve got a few months of German under your belt, you probably know that sometimes the case you need to use depends on a preposition. So it’s no wonder that people asked which case comes after je… desto. 
The answer is… every case :). Not at the same time, of course. That would be case-ception.
What I mean is that je and desto don’t care about cases because they’re not prepositions. The case entirely depends on the function of the element in the sentence.

  • Je mehr guten Wein (acc) ich trinke, desto mehr billiger Wein (nom) wird mir angeboten.
  • The more good wine I drink, the more cheap wine is offered to me.

    (this example doesn’t make all that much sense… I just wanted to show the cases, don’t think to hard about it :)

  • Je mehr Geld (nom.) in meiner Tasche ist, desto mehr schönen Frauen (dat.) kaufe ich Blumen.
  • The more money there is in my pocket, the more beautiful women I buy flowers.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Not sure, if that second one is proper English, but I hope you can see that je desto really have no influence on the case.
Cool.
So that’s it for today. This was our look at the very very hyper useful combination je… desto... and you definitely should learn and use it.
If you want to see if you remember the main takeaways, just take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And if you have any questions about any of this just leave me a comment.
Hope you enjoyed it and see you next time.

further reading:

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