Word of the Day – “als”

2 meanings of alsHello everyone,

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

als

 

Als is one of these preposition-conjunction-congestion-stuff-things. 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 32.000 $ I payed 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 freakventl… uhm…. 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 twenty-flippin’-one!!! #wow #jawdrop
And no wonder als is so common.
It has three distinct main translations: as, when and than. If we do that for als we get the following:

  • it helps us speak about the past
  • it helps us make (unequal) comparisons
  • it helps us with… uh… I actually don’t know how to say it, but you’ll see

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.

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.

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.

Cool.
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.

  • 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.

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.

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

  • 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.

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.
Cool.
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

Cool.
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.

Espcially combinations of als and andere/s/m/n/r would be translated using all but.

And the last thing that should be mentioned is the combination “als dass” which, at least in past tense, is a fancysounding 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 :).

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:

for members :)

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Ron Magnuson
Ron Magnuson

Das war mehr interessant als ich gedacht hätte.

Ron Magnuson
Ron Magnuson

Vielen Dank!

Jerry
Jerry

I was impressed with your discussion of the use of “als”. I have been studying german for years and never really understood how to properly use “als” as a conjunction. Thanks.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Can one really use an um… Zu statment like that car example you had, wouldnt that actualy translate to “the car is driving too fast in order to read the license plate.

Luis
Luis

Dear Emanuel. Thanks again for such a well explained article! However, I have one doubt about the use of “Als” for the past. How about a Past that never happened? For example if i want to say “If I had studied…” would it be “Als ich gelernt hätte,” or “Wenn ich gelernt hätte,”? I thought it was the second one since it sounded like a condition but now I’m having doubts. I would really appreciate your answer! Keep it up with the amazing Blog!

Paul Smith
Paul Smith

Hi! That’s an excellent explanation, per usual. :D
Quick question, though…when you’re using “als” to compare things, what case comes after it? Is it like, “Find irgendwer zu rennen, wer schneller als ich ist,” or “Find irgendwer zu rennen, wer schneller als mich ist.” ? That little thing confuses me so much! :P

Thanks!

Vivaswan
Vivaswan

Thanks a lot for the elaborate explanation.

Also, could you explain the usage of ‘Als’ in the following case: Als Nachtisch, habe ich eis. Zum Nachtisch, habe ich eis.
Are we using the 3rd meaning of Als here?

Maame
Maame

Thank you this was really helpful

Katelyn
Katelyn

This is a great blog. I really appreciate how deep your explanations are – this is much better than my Intro to German class which only told me it can mean when or as.

Kevin
Kevin

Great post. One minor point about the use of ‘als’ in the third sense.

When we write ‘Thomas tut so, als gehört ihm das Hotel’, what we are really dealing with here is an omitted-‘wenn’ clause. In omitted ‘wenn’ clauses, the verb assumes first position just like in English. “Had he gone to England . . .” can be: ‘Wenn er nach England gefahren wäre,” or “Wäre er mach England gefahren.” In the third sense that you speak of, the ‘als gehört ihm das Hotel’ is a clause of the second kind (which I know as the ‘omitted-“wenn”‘ clause) and is primarily used in the literary context.

Your explanation is perfectly useful, helpful, and correct — but I thought that I’d chime in with this bit of explanation in case anyone is wondering (as I did when I first ran across what seems at first to be an extremely unusual word order for a subordinated clause) why this is an exception to the general rule of word order for subordinated clauses.

The Smileyman
The Smileyman

Even though I’m really lazy I will nevertheless try to correct you a bit…

Mein Pferd mag Hafer lieber als Pommes.
My horse likes oat better than fries.

I don’t know what English you are trying to focus on on this website, but I’ll assume it’s american. In american English we would say;
My _ likes oats (plural, singular sounds foreign)

Great site, keep up die gute Werk ! :)

xaqkami

Thank you a great deal for this great explanation. However I read all the comments yet found no one interested in that monster-like structure:

Das Auto war zu schnell als dass man das Nummernschild hätte lesen können.

It confuses me for a long while when I read German novels. I did some research on my own. So the rule should be pretty simple, i.e. when there is “double infinitive”, then we shall place haben (and alike) in front of the double infinitive.

However it makes no sense to me how people twist their logic when actually applying this rule during talks! I think you have to deliberately suppress your
mind from forming a correct sentence and then insert “haben” or “hatten” in-between. It is really hard for me to say it loud leisurely. After all the hardness in getting used to how we put verbs in the end of a sentence, now again this….

Could you elaborate this a bit or simply gives me some tips of how you construct these sentence in your mind in your daily life?

Another question somehow related to double infinitives. Forgive me but I searched all your posts but found nowhere else to ask. How can “Ich hätte es wissen müssen” translate into “I should have known it”? I thought it should be “Ich hätte es wissen sollen”. It”s said “müssen” refer to stronger obligation in a sense, however it seems to me that it suggests the meaning “I would must have known it” instead of “should”. Could you enlighten me a bit on this?

Really appreciate your help. I actually employ the same thinking pattern as you present here when I learn German. I think I share the same logic which translates German literally to English to trace back its original meaning. And I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on German prefixes which contributes the most to my confusions.:)

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Deon
Deon

I just wanted to mention it for completion.

I think it should be for completeness. Or even ‘s sake.
Awesome blog.

keinekatze
keinekatze

Is there anything to account for a “wie…als” construction instead of a “so…wie” construction? I’ve heard the former twice recently — once from a non-native speaker, but once from a native Baden-Württemberger, who said that one city is “wie alt als” another (unfortunately I was so distracted by the grammar that I’ve forgotten the history lesson :/ ). Is this an acceptable but “less correct” construction? Dialekt? Ein Fehler???

keinekatze
keinekatze

Genau, ich meinte wie “Ich bin wie groß als du.” Ich bin in Baden-Württemberg, also ist es Dialekt vielleicht.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hallo!

Bin gerade auf Deinen tollen Betrag hier gestoßen. Klasse Sache, Deine Initiative.
Da ich leider nur Muttersprachler bin und nicht Deutsch lehren kann, bin ich mir bei meiner kleinen Anmerkung nicht sicher; allerdings fällt mir eine Ungereimtheit auf:

Bei der dritten Bedeutung von “als” gibst Du folgendes Beispiel.

deu.: Thomas tut so, als gehört ihm das Hotel.
eng.: Thomas acts as if he owned the hotel.

Meiner bescheidenen Meinung nach müsste die deutsche Variante mit dem Konjunktiv I gebildet werden. Demnach müsste es heißen:

Thomas tut so, als gehöre ihm das Hotel.

Wie ich oben erwähnte, kann ich mein Gefühl leider mit keiner Regel belegen; ich halte es lediglich für die sicherlich bessere und hoffentlich richtige Wahl.

Gerne könnt Ihr mich verbessern!!
LG

Ronald
Ronald

Thanks for the post, but I saw this sentence, “Die Mähne von meinem Pferd ist viel schöner als die von deinem,” and wondered why you used the dative case here instead of the genitive. Is using the genitive incorrect in this situation? Assuming it isn’t, would this be correct?: “Die Maehne meines Pferdes ist viel schoener als die deines.”

Michael
Michael

Hello,

I am fairly new to learning German and was introduced to Als yesterday. I then found your blog as I wanted to learn more about the rules for its use. One area that is either not covered here (or I missed it) or my German text is incorrect (Menschen) is that Als is to be used for the past when describing a single incident, but Wenn is to be used to describe frequent occurences. For example, “(Immer) wenn ich bei meiner Oma war, gab es Kartofflen.”, “Paul hat mit Touristen Englisch gesprochen, wenn er sie am Strand getroffen hat.” or “Jedes Mal, wenn Paul eine E-Mail von Marie bekommen hat, hat er auf Deutsch geantwortet.” I then asked my teacher what happens if something occurs sometimes or maybe only twice in the past (instead of frequently or always) and she explained to use Wenn. Could you please clarify this for me? Thank you.

Simon
Simon

When using “als” in comparison does the second object take the dative case? For example is this correct: Die Katze ist süßer als dem Pony.
Also i’d just like to say thanks for writing this blog, it is being very helpful as I have been learning the German language!

Neil Morgan

I’m trying to get to grips with “sowohl A als auch B”. What form does ‘als’ take here?