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 (pron. uls)


Als is one of these preposition-conjunction-congestion-stuff-things. So it sounds like we’re in for some grammar. But you need not 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… 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 freekvuntl… 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!!! Oh god… it’s just soooooooooo cool.
And no wonder als is so common. It has 3 possible translations: as, when and than. And the main source of confusion for learners is when. That’s where people make the most mistakes so I will talk about the difference between wenn and als today… but just a bit as I will write an article about the possible translations for if and when at some point.  I just want to cover all options – ob, wenn, als, wann and falls– before as a Word of the Day so the posts won’t get too long.

Anyway, so als can mean as, when and than but instead of thinking in translations we should think in meaning, ideas, functions. Als helps you tell your friends what you did,  share opinions with your friends and it does a third thing  I can’t think of a catchy head line but it does of course involve friends. Share this on Facebook by the way… you know, with your friends.

als – speaking in past

Als is THE word you need if you want to specify a point in time in the past by saying what happened. Now everyone is going to say “Whaaaaaaaaaat?”. What I mean is this. You can answer the question when? in various ways. You can either “name” the point in time. Last Monday would be an example for that.

  • When did you buy this Bentley? Last Monday

The next option is to indicate the time by giving the amount of time that has passed since then. An example for that would be:

  • When did my friend call? 2 hours ago.

The third option is to define the time by saying what happened then.

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

You decided it at the point in time when you were waking up. In English there are 2 possible words to introduce such a phrase: when and as. In German there is ONLY als.

Note that wenn is absolutely not correct here. Wenn only works in future or conditional that is fictional context and it sounds really strange if you use it in past. I am not even sure as to whether you would be understood so try to hammer that into your brains… when in past is als and not wenn.

One more thing to know about als is that it is one of those words that don’t get along with the verb very well so introducing als will alter your word order. 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.

als – comparing things

Als is also THE word you need if you want to compare things…  when they are  NOT equal. Why do I write NOT in capital letters? Because in English it is exactly the other way around. 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 version. “But didn’t you say that als is the one to go for, different pace of the horses provided?”. Good point. It was probably not the best wording. Anyway let’s look at an example that will translate to als.

So whenever you compare things using than the translation is als in German. Let’s go back to the pony yard for 3 more examples.

2 important notes. First, this als does not affect the word order… it basically just replaces than and 2nd, 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. Damn globalization. Anyway… on we go to..

als – the third meaning

I really have now idea which headline to use… I’ll try to phrase it. So als is also used when you virtually assign a role, profession function or general character to a person or a thing. In English this is usually done by as.

This als is also used with numbers.

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

But the power of this als goes beyond that as it can also be used for fictional statements that assign some role or feature to someone… at least you could see it that way. Now I know how much you loved them but we need to say goodbye to Seabiscuit and Gatsby if we want good examples here.

Those of you who have read the article about ob are already familiar with als ob. Als ob means as if, but in the examples above you can skip the ob-part. You don’t have to.

That would be correct too and it means the same but without ob sounds better and more elegant especially if you put the verb in conditional form.  And as we are at it, you can also use wenn in these phrasings… in spoken German.

What’s interesting is that this als, the as if als, is not annoying the verb enough to make it go to its not so secret hang out at the end of the phrase. Only if als comes as a double team with ob or wenn you it moves. It is important to know that. If your phrase starts with als alone and the verb is at the end, people will understand this als as the past-als and they probably won’t understand what you mean.

some exception…nally fun facts about als

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

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

Back then the knight used to say als in these cases but because the past-als meaning is just too dominating, because-als is barely understandable today … except for some exceptional exception you are hereby exempt from.
If your as is somewhere in between reason and time, 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

Then, 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 but.
And the last thing that should be mentioned is the the too… to construction, in past.

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

You could use a 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 :).

You are probably all staring at the 3 verbs at the end of the second sentence asking yourself how the fuck 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 3 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 have any questions or suggestion or even hate mail, just drop me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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