The meaning of “als”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: June 9, 2022

2 meanings of alsHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
This time we will look at the meaning of:


Als is one of these preposition-conjunction-congestion-stuff-things, as linguists call them, when they’re drunk.
So we’re in for some heavy grammar. But not to worry for I have participated in a workshop last weekend:

 “Exciting writing – how to engage.”.

And that was well worth the 2 grand I paid for it.
I learned a lot and I will put t to the test today. Psyched yet? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawesome guys… let’s dive right in then.

Als is like one of THE MOST useful words… EVER. The German Wikipedia has this list of the most used words in German.
The first 30 words in this list account for 31,8 percent of all words and 50 % of all written German consists of only 207 words.
And do you know where als is on that list? It ranks at number 21!! #wow #jawdrop

And no wonder it is so common.

Als has three distinct main translations: as, when and than.
But with these small words it’s often better to not think of translations but instead in terms of ideas or function.
And als is used for the following three things:

  • als helps us speak about the past
  • als helps us make (unequal) comparisons
  • als  helps us with assignments

Not homework assignments, though. That’d be tremendous. Like “Yo, could you do my German homework?” 
And als is just like “Sure thing! I got you!”
Anyway, what we’ll do now is go over them one by one and see how exactly to use als and which pitfalls to avoid.

als – speaking in past

Let’s say you want to tell at what point in time something happened in the past. Of course, there are plenty of ways to do that but they all can be divided into two categories. The first one is to “indicate” the point in time directly, like in these two examples:

  • When did you buy this Bentley? Last Monday
  • When did my friend call? 2 hours ago.

And the other option is to tell when something happened is by saying what else was happening. Like here:

  • When did you decide to quit your job? When I woke up this morning.

And THATS’ what German als is used for, and that’s what makes it a translation for when.

  • Als ich bei Aldi war, habe ich meine Ex-Freundin getroffen.
  • I met my ex-girlfriend when I was at Aldi.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Du hast mich angerufen, als ich gerade gehen wollte.
  • You called me just as I was about to leave.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Using wenn here would absolutely NOT be correct.
“Wait, so wenn is never correct in the past?”
Well, there’s of course an exception.
Als only refers to singular instances. That can be the one moment you came home, but it can also be an extended but singular period. Like your being 18 or your living abroad.

  • When I was 18 ….
  • Wenn ich 18 war… (W to the r to the ong)
  • Als ich 18 war …


But if we’re talking abot reoccurring events, so if in English we have something like whenever , then als does NOT work. Then we’d actually need wenn, usually in combination with immer.  Actually, let’s look at the two back to back, that’ll really make it clear.

  • Wenn ich in Berlin war, habe ich immer viel gegessen.
  • Als ich in Berlin war habe ich immer viel gegessen.

The first sentence tells us what always happened on my visits. In the second one, however, the als pinpoints one visit of many and so the sentence kind of sounds like I ate a lot with every meal … during THAT ONE STAY.
So yeah… als is THE translation for when whenever you talk about singular events in the past. Not for the future, not for some weird conditional, not for habits. Just singular occurences.
That’s really the main takeaway.

Quick word on the grammar, before we move on… you’ve probably noticed that als is that it is one of those words that don’t get along with the verb very well. Like the verb really prefers to hang out with the rest of itself at the end of the phrase rather than to sit in the vicinity of als.

  • Ich habe in Paris gewohnt. Damals habe ich oft Wein getrunken.
  • Als ich in Paris gewohnt habe, habe ich oft Wein getrunken.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • I lived in Paris. Back then I often drank wine.
  • When I lived in Paris, I often drank wine.

And that’s it for als and time. Let’s now get to its next function – comparisons.

als – comparing things

Als is also THE word we need to compare things. But ONLY if we focus on inequality. You see, there are two approaches to comaring stuff:

  1. saying that A is or is not as X as B
  2. say that A is or is not more X than B

In case one, we’re making a statement about whether A and B equal or not. In case two, we’re talking about whether they’re unequal or not. And als is used for case two. Als means THAN, not AS.
Let me look for an example… uhm… I need to get to the mall to get new ones soon… damn the only category left is “Horse riding center”… anyway, we gotta put up with this… here you go.

  • “My horse can gallop as fast as yours.”
    “No way, my horse is like twice as fast as yours.”

There is as in the sentence but there won’t be als in the German sentence. I don’t want to get into that right now, I’ll just link you my lesson on comparisons in German below if you want to dive deeper.
Today, let’s focus on als. And I’ll say it again… als means than.
That actually rhymed :).
Anyway, examples.

  • Ponies sind süßer als Katzen.
  • Ponies are cuter than cats. (no, they’re not)
  •  Mein Pferd mag Hafer lieber als Pommes.
  • My horse likes oats better than fries.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Die Mähne von meinem Pferd ist viel schöner als die von deinem.
  • The mane of my horse is more beautiful than the one of yours.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Reiten ist schwerer als ich dachte.
  • Riding is harder than I thought.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Now, two important notes before we move on:
First, this als does not affect the word order… it basically just replaces than.
And then I also want to stress that the word denn, despite its sound, is NOT a proper transation for than… any more. It used to be, and you can certainly find it in old books but nowadays it doesn’t work anymore. Als does the job alone. They had to cut costs in the comparing department, I guess. Having two words in the payroll is just too expensive. Damn globalization. Anyway… on we move.

als – the third meaning

And I really have no idea which headline to use. The third meaning or function of als is to help virtually assign a role, profession, function or general character to a person or a thing. Sounds complicated but the good news is that in English, this job is usually done by as.

  • Als kleines Mädchen war ich ein ganz großer Pferdefan.
  • As a little girl I was a big big fan of horses.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Als Tierarzt muss man sehr viel über Pferde wissen.
  • As  a vet you need to know a lot about horses.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Du kannst diese Decke als Sattel benutzen.
  • You can use this blanket as a saddle.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Can you see, what I mean by assigning a role or function?
But that’s not all. This als is actually also used with numbers in a context of a sequence

  • Als erstes füttere ich mein Pferd.
  • Als zweites kämme ich seine Mähne.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • First, I feed my horse.
  • Then (secondly) I comb its mane.

And there’s still more. It’s also used in a broad sense of assign characteristics.
Now, I know how much you loved the horse-examples, but we need some more realistic ones here.

  • Du siehst aus, als könntest du Schlaf gebrauchen.
  • You look like you could use some sleep.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas tut so, als gehöre ihm das Hotel.
  • Thomas acts as if he owned the hotel.
    (the “gehöre” being the conjunctive 1 of  the verb, which we kinda sorta need here because… reasons)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Those of you who have read the article about ob are already familiar with als ob. Als ob also means as if. It’s kind of up to you, if you want to skip the ob or not.

  • Thomas tut so, als gehöre ihm das Hotel.
  • Thomas tut so, als ob ihm das Hotel gehört.

Both versions are correct. But you have to note that in the first one, the one with only als, we HAVEN’T changed the word order. The verb is NOT at the end. If it were, it would sound a bit like a statement about the past. But if you’re now like “Awesome, I’ll always use that one then.” then please also note this weird form of the verb… it’s called Conjunctive One or something, but it’s NOTHING you want or need before you reach C1 level. But technically you do need this if you want to skip the ob.
So yeah… I’d actually say going with als ob is the better choice.
So these were the three things we need als for, talking about (a singular instance in) the past, making (unequal) comparisons and assigning “roles”.
Before we wrap up though, let’s go over a few minor things relating to als. Nothing groundbreaking really, just a bit of trivia, if you will :)

some exception…nally fun facts about als

So the first thing I want to point out is that als does NOT mean as in sense of because.

  • As I had already eaten, I just ordered a salad.

Back hundreds of years ago, als was used in these cases but because the past-als meaning is just too dominating, because-als is barely understandable today.
Sometimes,as is somewhere in between reason and time. Then you need to decide what is more important and translate accordingly.

  • As I was at the Supermarket I bought you some milk.

This could be either als or weil/da but I’d say the temporal aspect is really not interesting after all so no work for als here
Another thing that’s worth noting is that there is one construction where als actually translates to but. This is the case when but can be replaced by other than. So it is actually connected to the comparing-als.

  • Mit meinem neuen Handy habe ich nichts als Ärger.
  • I have nothing but trouble with my new phone.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Film war alles andere als spannend.
  • The movie was everything other than suspenseful. (lit.)
  • The movie was anything but suspenseful.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And the last thing that should be mentioned is the combination “als dass” which, at least in past tense, is a fancy sounding translation for the “too X to verb” – construction. Here’s what I mean:

  • The car was too fast to be able to read the license plate.

We could use an um… zu here but at times it is also done with als dass. This als is a comparing als but you need to do some mind yoga to agree with that :).

  • Das  Auto war zu schnell, um das Nummernschild zu lesen.
  • Das Auto war zu schnell, als dass man das Nummernschild hätte lesen können.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

I know, I know… you are probably all staring at the three verbs at the end of the second sentence asking yourself how  you are supposed to do that…. well, don’t worry. You don’t need to use this construction actively. I just wanted to mention it for completeness.

And completed we have. This was our Word of the Day als and I have to say … that wasn’t too much grammar after all. We definitely had worse here. Just as a reminder, the three main situations in which you need als are:

  • alswhen/as (speaking about the past) – verb moves
  • alsthan (comparing things)
  • alsas (as if) assigning roles or features – verb does not move when als is alone.

If you want to check how much you remember, just take the little quiz I have prepared for you. And of course, if you have any questions or suggestion or even hate mail, just drop me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.


further reading:

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