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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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?