Word of the Day – “lassen”

lassen-meaning-germanHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll, finally… at long last :),  have a look at the meaning of



Lassen is very important verb and it is just as confusing for many learners. Sometimes it’s to let, sometimes it’s to leave sometimes and sometimes is used for some kind of passive or something. Oh and then there are the prefix versions of lassen, for example the infamous verlassen which means to leave – except when YOU are trying to  use it in a sentence. Then it’s usually wrong.
So… we have lots to talk about. We’ll start with lassen and we’ll see that all the meanings actually boil down to one very simple idea. Then we’ll look at two peculiar uses of lassen and talk about the most important prefix versions  and at the end of all that we’ll have a masters degree in Lassenology…. and maybe a slight headache :).
So… are you ready to dive in and find out just what is up with lassen? Then let’s goooo.

Lassen is the German brother of English to let. They both come from the super-mega-hyper-I can’t believe how ancient it actually is Indo-European root *lē(i)-.  The original meaning was something like to let go, to slacken but maybe an image can capture it better…  think of letting the air out of a balloon. Pffffffffrrrrrrrrrrt… and you’re left with a flabby piece of rubber.
This root can be found  in many languages. In English for example, we have late and last  which are based on the idea of weak or slow travelling… low energy travelling if you will.  Lax and lazy mean that we don’t  invest much energy in it and  relaxing is all about removing tension  from a system. And tension is just a form of energy.
The core of all these is  little or no energy…. and that is all we need to explain  lassen. That’s a great claim actually :)

Lassen – because it literally takes no energy to explain it

Now,  lassen is a verb and “no energy” is not really an activity, so let’s modify the core a bit and say:

 to  not invest energy into something. 

All the meanings are based on that. And we’ll get from one meaning to the next just by making one little tiny shift in perspective… so let’s take the tour…

lassen – the tour

The simplest use or interpretation of investing no energy into something  is to not do something. So lassen is something of an opposite to machen.

By the way… a variation of the last one is

The es makes it sound less determined and harsh. You’d use the first if you kid was messing with your phone for example and the second if you’re friend, who recently broke up, ponders calling the ex again and you think it’s a waste of time (and energy).
There’s even a third variation which is super common in spoken German…

This is the weakest of the three and I think the closet match is actually a very casual

  • No, thanks.  or just No.

You wouldn’t use it with a waiter who asks you if you’d like anything else… that would come across a bit arrogant. But you could definitely use it with a friend who suggest something that you don’t want to do.

All right.
On to the next aspect. I said earlier that it would be just a tiny step so here it is … not doing something also means that we’re not  changing the something. We’re not changing the status quo…. or in other words: we’re  leaving things as they are.

The last two examples might raise a question. We have random verbs in their dictionary form (infinitive)….stehen and rumliegen… and there’s neither  zu nor um zu. That is rare and the question we could ask is: is lassen a modal verb? My informed, highly competent answer to that is …. “Kind of, I guess.”.
Okay seriously, the answer is no, but it’s only “no”  because of how modal verbs are defined in German and we don’t have to worry about that. I just wanted to bring that up because this lassen behaves just like it’s English brother to let does. And that brings us to the next aspect of lassen…  which is again just a very tiny step away.
In a way, we can see not changing something  as not doing something against something. And that is pretty much the same as  to allow for something to be or to happen or simply  to let. Tadah. Here we have it. To let has lost most of the aspects of lassen and has focused almost completely on the permission idea.

These were pretty straight forward but there are some more abstract or odd uses, too.

Now, the last example could also be seen as an aspect of it’s own. … a doing nothing as in not taking it away. And there are several such phrasings.

All right.
Quick recap of what lassen can mean:  we had plain not doing something, then leaving something  ( not taking away or  not changing ) and we had to let ( not doing something against it). And I hope you could see just how close they all really are.
But there’s yet another perspective. Location: random kitchen in a shared flat. Time: dinner party, the next morning:

“John…. feel free to help with the dishes.” 
“‘preciate,dude!” (heads for X-box)
“Hey uhm… that’s actually not how I meant it.”

This wasn’t about freedom of choice. This was a demand in disguise. Many phrasings that talk about permission or opportunity can be used that way (may, could)  and so it’s no surprise that lassen can do it, too.

Based on what we’ve learned so far this sentence means

  • The boss lets his secretary come in on weekends.

But most people would understand the sentence as follows

  • The boss makes/has his secretary come in on weekends.

The reason why people understand it that way is … context. It’s just more likely that he has the secretary come than the secretary being so keen on working the weekends.
Here’s another example:

Again, this can be either and what people understand depends on stereotypes and all that. More examples:

So… lassen can turn from letting someone do something to have someone do something without any change to the structure.
Now, we’ll look a little closer it this  demand-lassen in a second but first let’s finish our tour real quick. There is one last meaning, one last aspect and that is… invitation.

Technically, this is an appeal for permission. Or if we see permission as a demand then it is an appeal for activity. But people used even if there wasn’t really any need to ask for something and so a request to not invest energy against something became a request to invest energy for something… just like a double minus is plus

Oh, and do you remember that lassen could be used as kind of an opposite to machen? Well… what would you say would be the translation of

  • Let’s not do it /leave it.

Exactly… a double lassen.

We really do say that :).
All right.
So this was our little tour around lassen and I hope you could see that we didn’t have to move very much to get from one to the other. From doing nothing to not changing (to leave)  to not taking away (to leave)  to permitting (let) to demanding  to inviting… quite impressive. And a very convincing argument in a  “You can’t do nothing all day”-discussion :).
But even though doing nothing is so cool, we won’t do it and instead talk about two phrasings that are a bit peculiar.

lassen – two weird phrasings

Both phrasings fit in perfectly with what we’ve just learned and we could have just used them as examples. But they’re also a bit special which is why we’ll look a little closer.
The most prominent example for the first phrasing is probably this:

This lassen is kind of a mix between the demand-lassen and the permission-lassen. Kind of like this:

I doubt that dad is so eager on doing the homework that he really ask for permission. And it’s as unlikely that the kid just said “Dad, do my homework or no HBO for you.”. The kid made him do it in a gentle manner… by asking him. Well actually probably by nagging him but anyway…. this lassen is a somewhat soft form of having someone do something and it is used a lot in context of services that we pay for.
Now, what makes this lassen  a bit special is the grammar. In the example with the homework we had two direct objects…. one for the letting (dad) and one for the doing (homework). And in German they come right after one another.

  • Das Kind lässt Papa die Hausaufgaben machen.

Now, what’s special about lassen is that we can just skip one of the direct objects… or even both.

We have to use different phrasings in English but in German it’s always the same. Of course, that lässt Raum for confusion. … I mean “leaves room”.

This can be two things

  • Ich lasse das Kind [          ] malen.
  • I let the kid paint [something].
  • Ich lasse [           ] das Kind malen.
  • I let [someone] paint the kid.

and the only way to tell which one it is apart from context is an emphasis…. on  malen in the first version on Kind in the second.
But anyway… so lassen is often used in sense of getting a service of some kind. And I think it sounds a tiny bit less demanding than the “have someone do” phrasing.

All right.
Now let’s get to the second structure, a structure which in German course jargon is sometimes called “Passiversatzform für Passiv mit Modalverb ‘können'” which roughly translates to  “term that no German has ever heard of… seriously”.
Here’s an example

This is the allow-meaning of lassen and the literal translation is this:

  • The door doesn’t allow for itself to be opened.

And because a door is of course not sentient this is just the same as

  • The door can’t be opened.

Here, we can see why it’s called Passiversatzform…. because it is just another way to say

Just for the record though… Passiversatzform is just a name and is only used for students of German. I bet you that none of your friends will know what that is. It is NOT a some super special grammatical feature that only German has. Other languages have similar phrasings. They just didn’t think they needed a special name. So don’t let the name intimidate you. After all it’s just a handy structure that happens to express the same as a passive… at times. The edges are super blurry…

I mean… where does can’t be done end and lets you do start? All these sentence are the exact same phrasing but would they all be called Passelaffufforms? No. And that’s why I don’t really like the name.
This sich lassen phrasing is really  just the plain straight-forward allow-meaning of lassen combined with a verb that has a self reference… and only that when used with a thing, like for example a door, the whole notion of permission makes no sense and it’s about possibility instead. If we need really need to have a -form then I’d much rather have  a Passmeabeerform. I’d certainly use that in after class. But anyways… here’s the basic structure

  • Etwas lässt sich verben.
  • Someone allows for itself to be verbed. (lit)
  • Something can be verbed.

It is used both in written and in spoken German and there are a few quite common examples…

I probably forgot some so if you have another cool one, please share it :).
All right.
Now that we have a pretty good grasp of lassen and we’re ready to face… the swarm. Dun dunn dunnn.
I can already see it in the distance. A dark menacing cloud. Prefixes. Many, many prefixes. But…. the cloud’s not here yet so… uhm…  I guess we’ll have to wait for part 2 :).
So.. hopefully  lassen is a little more clear now. It all more or less boils down to doing nothing.And that’s true for the relatives in other languages too, by the way. The German lassen is just comparetervele… more broaderer.
If you have any questions about lassen so far or if you want to try out some examples just leave  me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.