and welcome to the second part of our German Word of the Day
In part one, we learned about lassen in general. Today, we’ll look at all the swarm of prefix-versions and not only that. We’ll also take a look at the past tense of lassen. Originally my plan was to pretend as if there wasn’t anything to say but… well… there is and I figured you deserve the truth. The very very annoying truth. But before we get to all new stuff that let’s do a little recap of the old stuff:
Lassen is related to to let but also to lazy and lax and at its heart it means to do nothing. We’ve found out that doing nothing is actually quite productive. It can mean not changing something (to leave as it is), to not take away something (to leave it here) and to not prevent something/to let something happen. From giving permission it is not very far to making a demand (to have someone do something) and last but not least just like to let, lassen is used for inviting statements like “Let’s leave it.” which would be this in German:
- Lasst es uns lassen.
Yeah, I know we already had that example. It’s called a recap, so no new examples.
Now let’s dive right into part 2…. with a look at the past.
Dude, where’s my ge-form
So, here’s the past as we know it in a nutshell… for each and every verb there are two options to build the past, the spoken past and the written past.Which one is used for a verb depends mainly on convention. The written past is just a form of the verb itself and, for the useful verbs, it often includes a vowel change. For lassen that would be ließ
- Er ließ das Fenster auf.
- He left the window open.
The spoken past of lassen is built with haben, which make sense because it’s not a movement, and the ge-form is gelassen.
- Du hast das Fenster aufgelassen.
- You left the window open.
By and large, the spoken past is more common for lassen and the written past would actually super strange in the second example… ließest, ließst… I don’t even know. Anyway…. so far lassen was just our average Joe verb. Nothing special.
Now, in part 1 we’ve seen that lassen often comes together with another verb, and without any zu or um zu…. kinda sorta modalishesque.
- Ich lasse dich schlafen.
- I let you sleep.
And what’s the past of this? If we just use the rules we’ve learned we’ll get this:
- Ich habe dich schlafen gelassen.
Beeeeeeeehp. That’s wrong. Here’s the correct form
- Ich habe dich schlafen lassen.
- I let you sleep. (damn, English! You REALLY depend on context here, don’t you :)
It’s the infinitive lassen instead of ge-form gelassen. The official jargon term for that is “Ersatzinfinitiv (substitute infinitive) and this pheromone doesn’t only occur with lassen but also with the modal verbs (können, wollen, and so on) and a few others like sehen or hören…. oh… make that phenomenon.
Anyways… so infinitive instead of ge-form. And there’s no neat, logical reason for it and linguists have struggled to explain it. It’s likely that it has something to do with the meaning and function the ge-prefix once had (if you want to learn more about that, there’s a book coming out soon with a little more background on that SPOILER).) But whatever the original reason may be… it’s pretty it’s right because it sounds right. If you use the ge-form you’ll be understand, it just sounds odd, or wrong, mainly because of the different rhythm. So try to get a feel for the specific flow
- Ich habe mir die Haare schnei–den lass-en.
(vs. schnei– den- ge–lass-en.
(the blue ones have an emphasis)
Oh … and of course there are exceptions to that “exceptionuous” form.
- Ich habe das Glas fallen (ge)lassen.
- I dropped the glass.
- Ich habe mein Portemonaie auf dem Tisch liegen (ge)lassen.
- I left my wallet on the table.
In these example, both ways are used. The ge-less version is probably better, but the other doesn’t really sound wrong either. And there might be even a super slight difference in meaning, but maybe that’s just me. Anyway… here are some examples:
- “Did you really paint your room pink.”
“Nah, I didn’t do it after all.”
- “Hast du wirklich dein Zimmer pink gestrichen?”
“Nee, ich hab’s dann doch sein lassen.”
- Wir haben uns gestern schick Sushi kommen lassen.
- We ordered ourselves some fancy Sushi yesterday.
- Warum hast du die Marmelade offen stehen lassen?
- Why did you leave open the jam?
Now, it’s time to talk about the prefixes…. after we’ve talked about the second, even more annoying thing about lassen in the past.
- Ich habe Maria schlafen lassen.
This is a normal main sentence. Now let’s make that into a side sentence, one of the ones with the verb at the end.
This is what a students thinks happens:
- Maria ist dankbar, dass ich sie schlafen lassen habe.
(habe moves to the end)
This is what really happens:
- Maria ist dankbar, dass ich sie habe schlafen lassen.
It is a niche rule of German sentence structure, which is not limited to Ersatzinfinitiv by the way, was introduces because German verb order was too easy and the official grammar name for this is Confusative… okay, of course that’s not the name. I don’t know if it has a name, actually. The helper-verb goes IN FRONT of the bulk of verbs at the end but AFTER all the rest.
- …, dass ich werde kommen können.
- …, that I‘ll be able to come.
- … weil, ich ihn gestern so lange habe warten lassen.
- … , because I let him wait for so long yesterday
Doing this at high speed can cause brain damage. Seriously. This is tough for natives, too and you can hear blunders every day because it takes an incredible amount of concentration and awareness to process this switcheroo in time before the mouth blabbers out stuff in the … ahem… “normal” order. Here’s how a conversation might go between two naked speakers… I mean native
- “Danke, dass du mich schlafen lassen hast.”
“Warte mal, sollte das nicht ‘schlafen hast lassen‘ sein?”
“Hmm… egal… schlafen gelassen haben gesein.”
“Ah ja, genau”
Even correcting someone else takes some brain power and everyone understands. This structure has defeated us all, so getting it wrong is a good way to blend in ;). Nah… kidding… the correct version does sound super smooth and elegant to a native ear while the others are “bumpy”. But you’ll be understood.
All right. So this was our short look at the annoying past of lassen. Don’t forget… all this only applies if there is a second verb involved. A stand alone lassen is just normal.
- Rapunzel hat ihr Haar runtergelassen.
- Rapunzel let down her hair.
- Rapunzel hat ihr Haar runterhängen lassen.
- Rapunzel let her hair hang down.
Cool. Now, after this confusing structure stuff let’s get to confusing meanings…
Lassy Potter and the goblet of prefix
For a verb as versatile as lassen the prefix-versions are surprisingly straight forward in that the change in meaning they cause is pretty obvious.
First of, there’s a big group of separable prefixes that talk about the how or where…. like… how something that we’re not changing is or where or how we leave something or where we let someone go…
- Ich lasse das Radio an / aus.
- I leave the radio on/off.
- Ich habe das Fenster aufgelassen/zugelassen.
- I left open/closed the window.
- Ich lasse die Katze rein/raus/rauf/runter/vorbei.
- I let the cat in /out /up/down/past me.
There are a few more, and sometimes, like for example with weglassen, two aspects of lassen can apply.
- Ich lasse bei der Sauce die Butter weg.
- I’m making the sauce without butter. (I’ll leave out the butter)
- Mein Chef hat mich nicht weggelassen.
- My boss wouldn’t let me leave.
But all those should be pretty clear from context.
The second group is a little more abstract … but still, it’s nothing too crazy. Zulassen, besides its literal meaning of leaving closed can also express that you let something happen. You let it come to you, if that makes sense.
- Das werde ich nicht zulassen.
- I won’t let that happen/I won’t allow that
(also used in context of approval of technical equipment)
Unterlassen is a formal version for to not do something, stop doing something. The idea behind you “leave it under” with under expressing the idea of not there… I guess.
- Ich möchte Sie bitten, solche Anzüglichkeiten in Zukunft zu unterlassen.
- I have to ask you to forbear /refrain from such innuendo in the future.
It only has this abstract meaning as to let down would be runterlassen.
Next, we have überlassen. It doesn’t have a local meaning either and the über expresses pretty much the same as the over in to hand over. Überlassen means to leave something to someone. That can be a decision as well as something physical and it can be in exchange for money or not.
- Das überlasse ich dir.
- I’ll leave that up to you.
- Thomas überlässt der alten Dame den Platz/sein Auto für 100 Euro.
- Thomas leaves his seat for the lady/ sells her his car for 100 Euro.
- Hier ist nichts dem Zufall überlassen.
- Nothing is left to chance here.
Niederlassen can be a slightly poetic word for to sit down but it’s also used in sense of to settle or to make a home for both people and companies.
- Es gibt auf dem Land zu wenig niedergelassene Ärzte.
- There are too few resident physicians in the country side.
And then, there is hinterlassen, which can literally mean to let someone go to the rear, but the more common use is the one we know from answering machines.
- Ich bin zur Zeit nicht zu erreichen. Bitte hinterlassen Sie eine Nachricht nach dem Piep. Ich rufe dann zurück.
- I’m not available at the moment. Please leave (behind) a message after the tone. I’ll get back as soon as I can.
And I see we have a call here, Maggie from Motherwell in Scotland, welcome to the show…
“Hey Emanuel, I was just wondering aboot which of these are separable… I mean über, unter and hinter.”
Oh great question… über and unter are both inseparable and for hinter it depends… if you have the local meaning then it’ll be with a ge-, for the voice mail version it’s without.
“So it would be ich habe eine Nachricht hinterlassen, right??”
“Awesome, thank you so much.”
You’re welcome, and inseparable was actually a good cue because the third group are the “real” inseparable ones. And those too are surprisingly easy.
Belassen which is just a technical, formal sounding variation of lassen in sense of not changing.
- Wir (be)lassen es dabei.
- We’ll leave it at that.
Entlassen is basically to let go out and it’s often used in context of… a job.
- Der Konzern droht mit Massenentlassungen.
- The company threatens mass lay-off .
Erlassen is a bit tricky because it can mean two things.
- Das Parlament erlässt ein Gesetz.
- The parliament passes a law.
- Ganz Deutschland spart – MediaMarkt erlässt bis Freitag die Mehrwertsteuer.
- All of the US saves big time – Best Buy waives the VAT. Only till Friday.
The first one puts something into place, the second (usually used in context of debt or fees) takes something away. But they do make sense. In both cases, er– adds the notion of completion, in the first case the parliaments lets the law out so it’s in effect, in the second we let go of the charge till it’s gone. A moderately fun side fact is that the “er-” kind of reverses the meaning lassen alone would have here.
- Das Parlament lässt ein Gesetz. (not really idiomatic)
- The parliament doesn’t bother with a law.
- MediaMarkt lässt die Mehrwertsteuer.
- Best Buy leaves the VAT (in place).
A somewhat common adjective based on the let go till it’s gone-erlassen is unerlässlich which is basically a formal word for a must-have.
- Schutzkleidung ist unerlässlich.
- Protective gear is indispensable/vital.
Generally, erlassen is not really something you’ll need in daily life, especially not the law-erlassen. So … let’s leave it on the passive pile.
Now, there’s also zerlassen but this is only used in sense of melting butter in a pan, and then there’s one prefix left… ver. God damn ver. Verlassen definitely deserves a closer look. And as we’re at it let’s also talk a bit about to leave… because it has been a translation in like half of the examples and maybe it would be good to put lassen, verlassen and to leave in perspective.
Leaving Las Verlass
Man… these title get dumber and dumber.
So… We’ve learned in part 1 that leaving is not related to lassen. It is actually related to bleiben. That sounds like an odd relation ship since bleiben means to stay all the while “I’m leaving” very much didn’t sound like she was gonna sta… I mean doesn’t sound like staying.
Now, the original meaning of leaving was actually indeed to remain and also let remain. This still totally shows in all these examples we had… like leave it on the table. But slowly a second perspective evolved… frrrrruiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiishhhhhhhhhhhh…….. pling… … we’re at a little tavern in England 1200 years ago and there are some really really drunk Anglo-Saxons …
“But … but… I don’t have any left”
“What say thou… NO MORE ALE?!?!?!”
“Oh no, now they’ll harry my home.”
“Hell yeah, we will… but then again, we need ale for a
proper harrying. This makes no sense here. Let’s go somewhere else, folks.”
“Oh thank god, they are leaving (letting remain) my home.”
Get it? Letting something remain slowly took on the meaning of walking away from it. And then, because English is very liberal about verbs having objects, people started saying
- I’m leaving.
and context would do the rest.
So, leaving is at it’s core about not changing something and the leaving as in going away is just an odd side meaning that came in later.
For verlassen it was kind of similar. Originally, ver- added a very general idea of away to the letting and for a while verlassen had all kinds of meanings. But then it settled on walking away and that’s why it MIGHT be a translation for to leave. It’s MUCH much more narrow than to leave though and there are quite a few differences in use. First of, verlassen MUST have an object. So you can only verlassen someone or something, you cannot just verlassen.
- Honey, I’m leaving.
- Schatz, ich verlasse. … is super wrong
Let’s repeat that because it is a super common mistake… you cannot just say
- Ich verlassse.
Everyone would be like “WHOOOO?”. In this context, you’d use losgehen or some other alternative for to head out.
- Schatz, ich geh los/ich mach mich auf./Ich mach mal los.
Another difference is tone. Verlassen sounds rather formal or serious.
- Das Haus ist verlassen.
- The building is abandoned.
- We left the bar at 2.
- Wir haben die Bar um 2 verlassen.
The building isn’t just temporarily empty… it is abandoned. And the second example sounds a bit like it’s taken from a police report. People just don’t use verlassen in sense of merely going out of a rooms that much . I mean, they do, but in somewhat formal or contexts.
- Please log off when you leave your computer.
- Bitte loggen Sie sich aus, wenn Sie Ihren Computer verlassen.
A third difference is that verlassen is very strongly focused on the going away while leaving is super super broad and even if just implies going away that’s simply not enough.
- The mother leaves her child with a lullaby.
Of course, the mother leaves the room after singing but the focus of leaving is more about the child that remains there with the song.
- Die Mutter verlässt das Kind mit einem Schlaflied.
This sounds super-odd… on several levels. It sounds a bit like the mother abandons her child, it sounds formal and cold and it sounds like she’s taking the Schlaflied with her. In this particular example I would probably say something like this
- Die Mutter singt ihrem Kind noch ein Gute-Nacht-Lied vor.
The noch kind of implies that she’s going to leave the room after.
Anyway, so verlassen wouldn’t really be a word you need much in daily life… if it wasn’t for the side meaning. Of course… there has to be a side meaning. You can count on that :)
- Man kann sich drauf verlassen, dass es immer eine zweite Bedeutung gibt.
- You can rely on the fact that there will always be a second meaning.
Sich verlassen auf means to trust, to rely, to count on something. And that actually makes sense. Like… there’s your best friend and you leave yourself with him while your gone. Of course you can’t really leave yourself but I hope you can see the idea of trust in this phrasing which is the core of this verb… not so much in sense of believing what someone says but about actual actions.
- Du kannst dich auf mich verlassen.
- You can count on me.
- Das hat ein Nachspiel, darauf kannst du dich verlassen.
- That will have consequences, you can be sure of that.
- Ich muss mich 1000 prozentig auf meine Mitarbeiter verlassen können.
- I have to be able to trust my employees 1000 percent.
This phrasing is super common and there’s are even two adjectives based on it.
- Thomas ist sehr verlässlich/zuverlässig.
- Thomas is very reliable.
There is a difference in tone but I can’t really put it into words. Zuverlässig is used more often and also in context of machines.
- Die Waschmaschine ist sehr zuverlässig.
Whatever that actually means… I guess that it always washes clean and doesn’t break easily :).
And zuverlässig is also the word the opposite is based on
- Maria ist sehr unzuverlässig. /Auf Maria kann man sich nicht verlassen.
- Maria is not very reliable.
I think this is it…maybe one quick last word about left. The translation of course depends on context and on which lassen word is used in German.
- Thomas und Maria sind sich nicht einig, wer wen verlassen hat.
- Thomas und Maria are in disagreement about who left whom.
- I left the door open.
- Ich habe die Tür offen gelassen.
But left is often used as a sort of adjective.
- She’s right. One beer’s left.
Of course, this comes from the verb to leave but it doesn’t matter who left the beer. It just matters that it’s there. And the lassen words put too much focus in the person who “does” the leaving. So the actual translation for these remaning-lefts is not with lassen.
- Sie ist rechts, ein Bier ist links.
Wait… uh… forget what you just saw.
- Sie hat recht, ein Bier ist noch da/übrig.
That’s the one. Da or übrig, those are the proper translations… or just noch, which can also imply left.
- Is there soup left.
- Ist noch Suppe da/übrig?
- I 30 minutes left when I handed in the test.
- Ich hatte noch 30 Minuten, als ich den Test abgegeben habe.
And… that’s it. Hoooray. Now you can print M. A. “Lassen” on your cards and flash them in your teachers face next time they correct you.
But seriously, it was very long again, so sorry for that. I hope it was helpful though. As always if you have any questions about lassen and what we’ve learned today or if you want to try out some examples just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.