The meanings of German “so”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. Today we’ll have a look at the meaning of one of the shortest words ever



(sorry for the noisy audio)

Of course, German so and English so are related. They’re both super common, they both have very similar meanings they’re often translations. But even more often, they’re not. It’s like they’re translations in 30% of the cases. That’s lower than the guessing rate of 50% and if logic class has taught me anything, then it’s that if you just guess, you’ll always use so corre… wait… I… I’m not sure if that’s how it works.
Well… I guess we really have to go over it together and see how to use the German so.
Here are the quick links so you can jump around

  1. The core idea of German “so”
  2. “so” – the intensifier
  3. German “also”, English “also” – NOT the same
  4. “so” in comparisons
  5. Common expressions with “so” (so so, geht so, so!,…)

And now let’s dive right in with a look at the very core of the word… 

The core idea of “so”

And that is actually pretty easy to pin down – at its heart, so is the answer to one of the basic questions.
By basic questions, I mean those questions those questions that usually come to mind when you talk about question words: when, where, who, what, why and how.
And for each of those questions, there is a generic answer that is basically just a verbal pointer, that can either refer to something established in conversation or we just use it to accompany a hand gesture.
Here’s the pair for the question where:

  • Wo?            Da!
  • Where?    There!

There itself means nothing. It is the most generic answer you could give to where?.
And so is this for how. How is the question that asks for manner or style and while in English, the generic answer is that way or like that, in German you just say so.

  • Wie?       So!
  • How?    That way/like that!

And that’s not only valid for German. It’s the core notion of so and we can also find it in English. At least in Star Trek TNG…

“Gentlemen. Situation is serious. Crunch factor is near zero!!! Ideas?”
“Captain, we could realign the Warp Coils and then use the backup relays to induce a plasma shock into the secondary grid. That way we could manually override the controls and emit a short yet powerful Tyrion burst midships. With that we might just be able to toast this bread.”
“Make it so!”

Can see how so just points back to the “how” that the engineer just layed out? It’s really the same dynamic as where – there.

“Gentlemen! The now toasted toast can’t stay on the bridge! That is against Starfleet regulations. Ideas?”
“Captain, I could put it on a plate in 10 Forward.”
“Sounds good. Put it there.”

And if you’re now like “Star Trek TNG is so old. Do we also have so in Fortnite?” then don’t worry. There are other examples where we can see the old so shine through in English.

  • “I think so, too.”

So refers to a way of thinking that another person just laid out.
Now, English tends to use like that or that way in these kinds of contexts and so would sound quite old fashioned. But in German, using so is the way to go.
Here are some examples…

  • “Damn, this can…  it won’t open… this can opener isn’t working. It’s more like a can’t opener…”
    “Wait, you have to hold it like this/this way.”
  • “Mann, diese Dose… geht nicht auf.  Der Dosenöffner funktioniert nicht… … (lost in translation)”
    “Wart’ mal, du musst ihn SOOO halten.”
  • Oh, that’s how you met my mother.
  • Oh, so hast du meine Mutter kennengelernt.
  • Stop shouting like that!
  • Schrei nicht so!

And just to make sure, let me point out that you CAN’T say “Wie das” or “diesen Weg”. It might be understood, but it sounds pretty bad.
So yeah… make it so, all the time. More examples :)

  • That’s not how it works.
  • Das lĂ€uft/funktioniert so nicht.
  • Cool, let’s do it that way.
  • Cool, so machen wir das.
  • Sorry if what I said hurt you. I didn’t mean it (like that).
  • Tut mir leid, wenn ich dich mit dem, was ich gesagt hab’, verletzt hab’… es war nicht so gemeint.

So that’s the core notion of so, in German anyway. And we’ve seen that there are already pretty big differences in how stuff is translated.
But so is used in a variety of contexts in both languages… with more differences, of course. So what we’ll do now is go over them together.
And we’ll start with so as a sort of intensifier.

“So” – the intensifier

German so is pretty true to the original idea, and so it’s no wonder that it is used to kind of quantifying adjectives. Like… how fast, how soon, how much?
English replies by using that…  that fast, that soon, that much.
And German does it with so. ALWAYS. And using das would be REALLY REALLY confusing and probably not understandable. 

  • I can’t run that fast.
  • Ich kann nicht das schnell rennen…. WHAT???
  • Ich kann nicht so schnell rennen… achsooooo!
  • “Wie groß ist Thomas?”
    SO groß.”
  • “How tall is Thomas?”
    THAT tall.”(making a hand gesture)
  • I saw this theater play you had recommended and I have to say that it really wasn’t all that great.
  • Ich war in dem TheaterstĂŒck, das du mir empfohlen hast, und ich muss sagen, es war echt nicht so toll.
  • I try not to eat so/that much meat.
  • Ich versuche nicht so viel Fleisch zu essen.
    (The second difference is that English often uses its so in sense of very… as an intensifier.)

In the last example, English actually does use so also. That’s because English so does work when the idea is just generally intensify something. So here, German and English so actually are translations for once. Hooray.

  • Deutsch ist sooooo schwer.
  • German is sooo hard.

Now, we’ve just seen in the last example that both languages use so to intensify adjectives.
But you can actually also intensify nouns. In English, we do that with such a

  • I’m an idiot.
  • I’m such an idiot.

And now guess how this is done in German.
Exactly… it uses the beautiful word pfratzlich.
Nah… kidding. Of course, German uses so.

  • Ich bin so ein idiot.
  • Berlin is such a nice city.
  • Berlin ist so eine schöne Stadt.

Now, in case you’re wondering if such and so are related, the you’re onto something. They are. Such actually used to be a combination of so and like, in its original sense of form, body. And German actually also has this combination: solch(e/r/…). It means the same, but in daily life, it sounds a bit too high brow and so is definitely more common. Also, it’s easier to pronounce for many of you, I imagine…

  • Mein neuer Kollege ist so ein Schleimer…. schlimm..
  • My new colleague is such a suck up…. awful.
  • Die Leute auf Arbeit sind solche Schleimer…. echt schlimm.
  • The people at work are all such suck ups… really awful.

All right.
So far we’ve seen examples for how German uses so while English doesn’t.
The next difference is the other way around, so English uses so but German doesn’t.
Again, it’s about intensifying something, but instead of adjectives or nouns, we’re now intensifying verbs.
And one way to do that in colloquial English is using so. Or sooooooo.

  • I sooo want to go to that concert.
  • I sooo have to clean my room.

And that DOESN’T work in German. And the reason is that the German so is much more connected to its core notion of being an answer to how.

  • Ich will SOOO zum Konzert gehen.

If you say this, a German will understand that you want to go to the concert in in that way/manner.
The proper way translation for that kind of English so is the German word

  • Ich will unbedingt zu dem Konzert gehen.
  • Ich muss unbedingt mein Zimmer aufrĂ€umen.

And there’s actually another really important use of English so where German so is NOT a translation. And that brings us right to the difference between English also and German also

German “also” vs. English “also”

if we look at the examples we had so far, it seems like so is much more common in German than it is in English. But that’s actually not the case, because the English so has taken on a second idea over the years – the idea of consequence.

  • Thomas was tired. So he went to bed.

And that actually kind of makes sense. I mean a lot of things we do are a result of how we are or feel. A leap in meaning, no doubt, but not a big one.
The German so however does NOT carry that idea and it’s NOT a translation for this consequential English so.

  • Thomas war mĂŒde. So ging er ins Bett.

This is NOT a translation for the sentence above because Germans will understand this so as a classic answer to how, not why.

  • Thomas was tired. He went to bed like that/in that condition.
  • Thomas went to bed tired. (as opposed to, say, hungry)

So what’s the proper translation in German? Well, we can say deshalb or deswegen. But what also works is the German word also. Because it can’t ever be confusing enough, right :).

  • Thomas war mĂŒde. Also ging er ins Bett.

And now what do you think… is this German also a translation for the English also.
If you said “yes” then you’re either super optimistic or you just didn’t pay attentions :).
The answer is of course a big fat red NO!
German also and English also are as false a pair of friends as you can imagine.
The English also is pretty much a synonym for too or as well. Which makes sense if we think of it as “all that way“.
But the German also does NOT mean that. The translation you need is auch.
The German also is the counterpart of the English consequential so.

  • Thomas was tired. Maria also. So they went to bed.
  • Thomas war mĂŒde. Maria auch. Also sind sie ins Bett gegangen.

Oh and German also can also be used like this English “paragraph”-so… I don’t really know what to call it, so I’ll just give you an example.

  • So…. I’ll recap.
  • Also… ich fasse mal zusammen.

It’s nowhere near as common in that context as the English so, though.
I mean, just look at this article – I say “So this, so that” all the time. And that would be pretty bad style in German because the notion of consequence is much stronger for German also.
And just to make sure… also the German so DOESN’T work that way. So if you see it at the beginning of a sentence, it means that way.

  • So geht das nicht.
  • It doesn’t work that way.

Geez, I’m even getting confused just writing about it. It must be AWFUL for you guys. And speaking of awful… have you seen the Witcher yet? Were you as disappointed as I was? And are you looking forward to the Lord of the Rings show on Amazon as much as I am? And are you as tired of so as I am?
Actually, grab a beer, head to the comments below and let’s talk about TV series….
Nah kidding… we’re actually not done yet. We absolutely need to talk about another REALLY important thing… so in comparisons.
But before, let’s actually do a little quiz to recap what we’ve learned so far :)

And now, let’s get ready for part two.

“So wie” – “so” in comparisons

German so is one of the tools you need to make comparisons. Because the German counterpart for “as … as” is “so… wie”.

  • Thomas ist so groß wie David.
  • Thomas is as tall as David.
  • Die Pasta hier ist fast so lecker wie die von Mama.
  • The pasta here is almost as tasty as mom’s.

And this  actually ties in perfectly with what we’ve learned about so up to now.

  • The coffee is that large. (hand gesture)
  • Der Kaffee ist so groß.

This is what we already know… so as a generic answer to how.
And this is the so in comparisons:

  • The coffee is as large as a beer.
  • Der Kaffee ist so groß wie ein Bier.

The so basically points to the “tallness” of the beer. So German so is actually pretty consistent. And it gets even more consistent. Because sowie is also used to compare things or beings, which is done by like in English (and not as … as) .

  • I want to be like Buddha, but with muscles.
  • Ich will so sein wie Buddha, aber mit Muskeln.

  • Thomas is nicht so wie sein Bruder.
  • Thomas is not like his brother.

German actually applied for the Most Consistent Language Award once, with this so. And it was like soooo close to winning.
Nah, kidding. It wasn’t close at all.
Germany was kicked out during the qualifier already when the jury found out about all the common idiomatic phrasings with so. Because those are about as consistent as my taking a shower. Yup, I said it. And I’m not ashamed of it. Smelly maybe, but ashamed, nope!
Seriously though, the expressions are pretty useful, so let’s take a look before we wrap up.

Common expressions with “so”

And we’ll start with an English one, actually – if so.
And if so does absolutely NOT translate to wenn so or ob so,but to wenn ja.

  • Hast du heute geduscht? Wenn ja, dann schreib einen Comment mit #teamsauber, so dass Emanuel Druck kriegt.
  • Have you taken a shower today? If so, then leave a comment with #teamclean, so Emanuel gets pressure.

What CAN be translated to so, however, is if by itself, in the sense of in case.
This sounds quite theatrical though, and people don’t use it in daily life. I just wanted to mention it because you might see it in a book. So if you see a so that just won’t make sense as “like that“, then it’s probably if.

  • So du der wahre Besitzer des magsichen Elfenbogens bist, wird der Drachengreif dir gehorchen.
  • If you’re the rightful owner of the magic bow of the elves, the dragon griffin will obey you.

Next up, we have a really really common use and that is… so as a stand alone. Germans LOOOOOVE this one.

  • So!

The notion it expresses is conclusion/completion. You can use it when you finish some work for example…

  • So! Fertig!
  • All right. Done.

…or if you just want to metaphorically close a situation and move on…

  • So! Sollen wir los?
  • All right! Should we head out?
  • So! Jetzt reicht’s. Ich gehe.
  • Okay! That’s it.I’m leaving.

It fits in many situations and I’m sure you’ll hear Germans use it a lot.

From the single so on to the double team so so, which is also a fairly common expression.

  • So, so.

This expresses skepticism about something someone tells you. I don’t see any logic to this meaning but hey… logic comes from the phrase not being there, right?
That… that’d be a perfect time for you to say so so, by the way.
Anyway, example…

  • So, so. Der Hund hat also deine Hausaufgaben gefressen, huh?
  • Uh-huuuuuh. So … the “dog” ate you homework, huh?

I’d keep this between friends or family, though, because it can easily sound a little condescending.

Next up, we have a couple of common German ways to express the middle ground between good and bad without sounding too negative while still clearly communicating that there is a lot to be desired. Yeah, German “precision”… I know.
Anyway, I’m talking about Geht so. and so lala.

  • “Na, wie geht’s”/ “Und, wie schmeckt’s?”
    Geht so!
  • “So, how’s it going?/ And, how’s the food?”
    It’s … *okay*.”
  • “Na, wie war der Film?”
    “So lala.
  • “So, how was the movie?”

And actually, I just remembered there’s a third way…

  • “Na, wie lĂ€ufts bei deinem neuen Job?”
    “Ach… mal so, mal so.”
  • “So… how’s it going with your new job?”
    “Pff… sometimes like this, sometimes like that.“(lit.)

Because German can never have enough ways to express “meh!”.
And the last example leads us right to the next expression, in which so is used to indicate two sides.

  • “Schatz, ich habe heute Kaffee ĂŒber deinen Laptop gekippt und jetzt fĂ€hrt der nicht mehr hoch.”
    “Macht nichts… ich wollte mir so oder so /sowieso einen neuen kaufen.
  • “Honey, I spilled coffee over your laptop today and now it won’t boot anymore.”
    “No problem… I was going to buy one one way or the other/anyway.

Sowieso means anyway, but it is only a specific anyway. But I actually have a separate article on how to translate anyway, so I’ll give you the link below.
Now, when we speak about common phrasings with so, of course, we also need to mention the super common abbreviation usw. which stands for und so weiter.

  • Und so weiter und so fort.
  • And so on and so forth.

And then there is a really really handy combination oder so, which translates to a very general or something( like that).

  • He was tired or something.
  • Er war mĂŒde oder so(was).
  • Wir treffen uns dann nĂ€chste Woche oder so… ist noch nicht ganz sicher.
  • We’ll meet next week or something around those days… it’s not fixed yet.

Oh and let’s also not forget about one of the most famous German words of them all. No, not Achtung.
I’m talking about

  • Ach soooooo.

Literally, that means oh like THAT. But people use it whenever they understand some fact, that they haven’t understood before.

  • “Du kommst also nicht zu meiner Party?”
    Doch, doch, ich komme… aber erst spĂ€t.”
    Ach soooooo….
  • “So you won’t come to my party?”
    Oh no, no, I WILL come… just … late.
    Ohhhhh, I see… “

Phew… those were quite a few phrasings already, but there is one last one that’s more common then all of them combined. At least when you listen to teenagers and early twens. Because so one of German’s most common filler words… kind of the German version of like… although it’s not as bad.

  • Und er dann voll so “Neee, kein Bock!” und ich so “Oh komm, komm ma’ mit” und er dann so “Na gut” und denn war’n wir so im Kino soo und der Film war auch voll gut und so aber er war auf einmal so voll komisch so… weiß ich nich’ … so voll so schlecht drauf und so. Und ich hab’ mich dann so voll schuldig gefĂŒhlt…
  • And he was like “Naahhh, don’t wanne” and I was like “Come on, come with me please” and then he was like “fine” and then we were like at the movies  and the flic was like all like … cool and stuff but he was like all of a sudden like totally like being weird or something… I don’t know…  like kinda like really pissed  … and I was  feeling like really guilty..

Sure, this may have been a little over the top… but people do use this filler so a LOT.
And it’s actually kind of interesting that German and English both use a word that is about how, manner when they need to buy some time.
Maybe it’s a subconscious awareness that what we say only approximates what we want to express, but just kind of like it.
But that’s just speculation.
Anyway… we are done for today. Yeaaaay.

This was our German word of the Day so. Its original meaning was like that/in that manner and in German it has pretty much stayed the course. If you want to recap the second part, just take the little quiz I have prepared    will prepare soon.
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

further reading:

How to translate “anyway”

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