Word of the Day -“lassen”- 2

lassen-verlassen-meaning-geHello everyone,

and welcome to the second part of our German Word of the Day



In part one, we learned that that core idea of lassen is essentially, not putting in energy,  not doing something. And this idea is then modified in various ways like not changing something or not preventing something. 
If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here

lassen – part one

Today, we’ll look at all the swarm of prefix-versions and not only that. We’ll also say a few words about 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. Which like many truths these days is pretty harsh and sobering.
Oh man… please 2020, let us have a normal fall, okay.
“Did you say fallout? No pr…”
I SAID FALL! AUTUMN… gee, this year.
Anyway, let’s jump right in.

And we’ll start right of with the past.

Using “lassen” in past tense

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

The spoken past of lassen is built with haben, which make sense because it’s not a movement, and the ge-form is gelassen.

By and large, the spoken past is more common for lassen and the written past would actually super strange in the second example.Like…  ließest, ließst… I don’t even know how to spell it. Anyway, so… so far lassen looks like an average Joe verb. Nothing special.
The tricky part comes in when we combine it with another verb. Which is something that happens quite freaking often with lassen.

Based on the rules we know, the past form should be this:

  • Ich habe dich schlafen gelassen.

But it’s not. The proper form is this:

We’re using the infinitive, the dictionary form, instead of the ge-form. The official jargon term for that is “Ersatzinfinitiv” (substitute infinitive) and this phenomenon doesn’t only occur with lassen but also with the modal verbs and a few others like sehen or hören.
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 (which I’ll talk more about in the book I am preparing to keep working on).
But whatever the original reason may be, today it’s basically right because it sounds right. It’s a rhythm thing, you know.
If you use the ge-form you’ll be understand, it just sounds odd, or wrong, because of the different rhythm.
So try to get a feel for the specific flow….

Anyway… here are some examples:

Oh … and what would we be without exceptions, of course. There’s a few instances where both versions sound okay.

But let’s not get hung up on these and instead talk about the prefix versions of lassen… right after we’ve talked about the second, even more annoying thing about  lassen in the past. And that has to do with word order.

Take this example:

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.
What students think happens, because of the rules:

  • Maria ist dankbar, dass ich sie schlafen lassen habe.
    (habe moves to the end)

What actually happens, because German:

This word order is a niche rule of German sentence structure: The helper-verb goes IN FRONT of the bulk of verbs at the end but AFTER all the rest.  And it’s not limited to lassen or the past either.

  • …, 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 too high a pace can result in a complete train wreck of a sentence and it doesn’t only happen to learners either. Doing this on the fly during a conversation is a challenge even for natives, and you can hear blunders every day. It just takes  because it takes an incredible amount of concentration and awareness to process this switcheroo in time before the mouth blabbers out stuff in the “normal” order. Here’s how a conversation might go between two native speakers

  • “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”
    (both laughing)

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 ;).
If you get it correct though during a conversation… man… you’ll know instantly because it feels super smooth and it’ll be one of the most satisfying moments of your life.
All right.
So this was our short look at the specials we need to keep in mind when using lassen in combo with another verb in past tense.
Here are the two “systems” back to back again.

And now, let’s move on to the prefix version of lassen.
Hooray :)

Lassy Potter and the goblet of prefix

And the prefix-versions of lassen are actually surprisingly straight forward because the core ideas we learned last time don’t really change much – namely the idea of not changing (aka to leave) and the idea of not preventing (aka to let).

First of, there’s a big group of prefix versions that add a generic notion of  how  or where to these. Like… not changing HOW something is, thus “allowing a state”…

… or “allowing” a location. This is where we find all the what I call r-versions, because those are usually straight forward about location.

…or sometimes both in one verb…

But of course, not all the prefix uses of lassen are THAT obvious.

There are more abstract or figurative uses.
Zulassen for example. 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.

Or überlassen which is about leaving something to someone. Think of handing “over”, if you need a logical connection :). It can be a decision as well as something physical and it can be in exchange for money or not.

And another nice one is hinterlassen, which is about leaving behind, but ONLY  in a context of messages or heritage.

And I see we have a call here, Maggie from Motherwell in Scotland, welcome to the show…
“Hey Emanuel, quick question… from the examples for überlassen it looks like it’s non-separable, right?”
Oh yeah, it is, I forgot to point that out explicitly. And the same goes for hinterlassen, that’s also non-separable.
“Ah… so it would be ‘Ich habe eine Nachricht hinterlassen.’ right??”
“Great, thanks a lot.”
Thank you for pointing that out.
I often forget that hinter and über can be both – separable and inseparable – and that I have to tell you guys, because it’s pretty much impossible to guess.

Anyway, what’s clearly non-separable is the prefix ent- and the verb entlassen which originally was about letting someone “out” into freedom. It’s still used that way in context of prisoners, but the more common use these days is the sense of … letting go from work. Which can be a prison, too, so I guess it makes sense.

  • Trotz der Corona-Krise versucht die Firma, keine Mitarbeiter zu entlassen.
  • Despite the corona crisis, the company tries to not fire/lay off employees.

Then, there’s also belassen, which is just a technical, formal sounding variation of lassen in sense of not changing/leaving.

And there’s erlassen which is also about “leaving out” in some way, but it actually has two meanings.

In the first example, erlassen “leaves” a law “out” into the public, in the second one it “leaves” a cost “out” from a bill.
And if you’re now like “Wait, so does that mean that er- means a notion of out?” then the answer is of course … kind of. But we’ll talk more about that in my book. You know, the one that I’ll be completing any year now. The Winds of Winter of German learning books.

Anyway, all of these prefix versions are kind of useful, but the most useful one of all of them is… verlassen. And that one actually deserves a closer look. And as we’re at it, we’ll 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.

(sich) verlassen

We’ve seen to leave as a translation for lassen quite a lot, but the idea was always about not changing something. However, to leave can also express the idea of not staying.
And the question is, what does one have to do with the other.
Well, to leave is actually related to German bleiben and the original meaning  was to remain. And also let remain. That’s the leaving we’ve seen so far, like leaving something on the table or something.
But slowly, slowly a second perspective evolved.
activates time machine
“But time travel is impossibl..”
time machine go brrrrr

And we’re at a little tavern in England 1200 years ago with some really really drunk Anglo-Saxons …

 “MORE ALE!!!”
“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 wait… harrying is not fun without ale.  This makes no sense here. Let’s go somewhere else, folks.” 
“Oh thank God, they are leaving (letting remain) my home.”

Get it? The connection between letting remain (leaving) and the idea of walking away (leaving) is simply letting something be by walking away. Tadah.
And while in English to leave has both meanings now, German split them up across two verbs, because that’s the German way. And so lassen took the notion of letting remain (not changing) while the idea of walking away to verlassen.

So, verlassen is actually what we need if we want to say leaving in sense of going away.
However, there are a few quite important differences.
First of – and this is gonna be a big one to get used to  – verlassen MUST have an object.
In English, you can just leave. In German, you MUST leave someone or something.

  • Honey, I’m leaving.
  • Schatz, ich verlasse.   … is super wrong

It sounds SUPER incomplete and weird to a German native speaker.
Let’s repeat that because it is a super common mistake… you cannot just say this:

  • Ich verlassse.

In this context, you’d use losgehen or some other alternative for to head out.

Another quite important difference is tone.
Verlassen sounds kind of formal or serious.

Here, we have serious and formal contexts, so verlassen works well, but in the following example.. not so much.

The first example is a good match because it’s a formal work note, but the second one is NOT a good translation. The English version sounds normal, the German one sounds like it’s taken from a police report. People just don’t use verlassen in everyday contexts that much. Again, losgehen or something else with los are the idiomatic choices here.

But before you think that verlassen isn’t all that common after all… there is of course a side meaning. You can rely on that ;). Or in German…

Yup, verlassen with a self reference (full phrasing: sich verlassen  auf + Acc)  means  to rely on, to count on something. And it actually makes sense, if we look at the literal translation: sich auf jemanden verlassen literally means “leaving onself on someone“. You let your fate “rest” with the other person, or a thing. Your fate is left “lying” there, if you will. I mean… rely is technically NOT related to to lie, but it’s a good mnemonic.
Anyway, let’s look at a few examples.


This phrasing really is quite common and there are also adjectives based on it.


And I think that’s pretty much it for today.
Well… maybe a little not about how to translate the word left.
I mean of course the form of the verb to leave, not the left side.
First up, we have left as in the past form of to leave. And there, it depends on the context.

But left is often used as a sort of adjective.

  • There’s one beer left.

And even though the idea is of course remaining, being left behind, this will often NOT be translated with a form of lassen or verlassen.
Instead, noch da or übrig, those are the proper translations. Or even just noch.

And… that’s actually it.
This completes our look at the meaning of lassen, its prefix versions and its grammar quirks and because I haven’t finished the quiz for this part yet, you  now officially have an  M. A. in the field of  “Lassen”. You can print it on your cards and flash them in your teachers face next time they correct you :).

Seriously though, I hope it was helpful and you have a better understanding of lassen now. 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.

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