Word of the Day – “nutzen” (and “benutzen”)

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of The Day, this time with a look at the meaning of

nutzen

 

Which as most of you probably know means to use. And most of you have probably wondered at some point what the difference is to benutzen. Because that also means to use.
Oh and let’s not forget about verwenden, which ALSO means to use.
Today, we’ll learn what the difference between these three and when to use which, and we’ll also check out a few other really useful related words. AND we’ll take a look at the origin of nutzen, because when I found out , I was like floored!
I was like: “Yo, etymology… where does nutzen come from.”
And etymology was like: “It’s related to THIS German word.”
And I was like: “Bruh!”

So, are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s freaking go!

Some family ties

The English to use is one of the many (many many) words English has imported from Latin. Together with words like utility and utilize it comes from the old Latin verb “usare”. And that meant pretty much the same as to use means today, so it hasn’t really changed.
The original English word for the idea of using was the verb to brook, by the way, but to use pushed it out almost completely, and most non-native speakers of English won’t even know this exists.
At least, I didn’t.
The reason I am even mentioning this brook are its German brothers – brauchen and gebrauchen. Brauchen has shifted from using to needing, but gebrauchen still does mean to use.
So yes, that means German has essentially four verbs for to use.
So you get to learn four German words for just one English one – a four for one value pack.
Isn’t that AWESOME?


Gebrauchen
is the least common one of four and you’ll mostly see it in noun-form. Like when you buy a bottled smoothie for instance, it’ll say on the package:

  • Vor Gebrauch schütteln.
  • Shake before use.

But we’ve actually talked about brauchen and gebrauchen in detail in separate articles, so I’ll leave the link below, if you want to check this out.
Let’s now turn to our actual word of the day nutzen.

And this one actually doesn’t appear to have any relatives in modern English. It does have a couple of relatives in German though. One is Genosse, which quite literally is a “co-nutzer”… a co-user. Someone who uses the same stuff as you. No wonder Genosse ended up being the word for comrade in Communism™. Because… OUR stuff!
Anyway, you might have never heard of Genosse before, but I’m almost 100% sure you’ve heard the other relative of nutzen… it is the German word for to enjoy. And no… not arbeiten. I mean the other one – genießen.

Might seem like a random connection at first glance, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Lots of using we do also brings enjoyment. Like using the couch. Or using the beer opener. Or using the bathroom.
And in fact, the noun der Genuss doesn’t only make the connection a bit more visible (nutzen – Genuss). In the context of food it actually captures both ideas in one.

  • Der Genuss von Alkohol am Arbeitsplatz ist verboten.

This does not mean that only the enjoyment of alcohol is forbidden and you’re allowed to drink so long as you don’t enjoy it. No, the proper translation for Genuss here is use or consumption.

  • The use/consumption of alcohol at the workplace is forbidden.

This blend between using and liking it actually goes all the way back to the Indo-European root *neud- , which was also about using something you’ve been striving towards. Like, think of a mammoth hunt. You hunt, hunt, hunt, and then you get to eat yummy mammoth and use the fur and the bones for clothing and weapons
And while genießen focused on the enjoyment aspect, nutzen went all in on using.
Now, there’s actually a few things to say about genießen but I think I’ll actually do a short separate post about that one.
Cool.
So now that we know the origin of nu...
“Wait, that’s it?”
Yeah, why?
“Like… Didn’t you say in the intro that you were ‘FLOORED’ when you found out about the origin of nutzen? This wasn’t all that mind-blowing.”
Oh, I… I was totally hyping it up.
“Oh….”
But what we’ll do now is REALLY amazing. Because now, we’ll talk about the difference between nutzen, benutzen and verwenden. And I think I found a pretty good way to explain that.

nutzen, benutzen, verwenden – the difference

But let me tell you one thing right away, there are definitely instances where you can use either one of the three. Also, which one gets used in a certain context may well vary from speaker to speaker and from region to region.
That said, here’s how the three words are different.

** benutzen **

Benutzen originally was a more direct version of nutzen. And it still pretty much is. It is the least “fancy” of the three. It sounds direct and hands-on and usually refers to one particular situation. And it can have a vibe of using up to it. Like… benutzen is the one that you’d use to create wear-and-tear.

  • Maria benutzt ihr Handy um ihr Bier aufzumachen.
  • Maria uses her phone to open her beer.
  • Marias Handy fühlt sich von ihr benutzt.
  • Maria’s phone feels used by her.

** nutzen **

Nutzen sounds a little more distinguished than benutzen and it leans a little bit toward the idea of benefiting from something – pretty in line with its origin, which had an aspect of “enjoyment”. In fact, benefit from is kind of a good test.
You can use nutzen for object but you can also use it for time or opportunities.

  • Ich nutze meinen Balkon jeden Tag.
  • I use my balcony every day.
  • Maria hat die Chance genutzt.
  • Maria seized/used the chance.
  • Thomas hat seine Mittagspause dazu genutzt, seine Achseln zu wachsen.
  • Thomas used his lunch break to wax his armpits.

** verwenden **

Verwenden is related to winding, and the logic behind its meaning is turning something toward a purpose. It sounds more distinguished and less hands-on than benutzen and it lacks this vibe of “wear and tear”. But it also doesn’t have this vibe of benefiting that nutzen has. I think the best way to capture that one is to think of it in terms of to apply something or to employ something. A face lotion for instance, or a spice in a dish are great example where verwenden is most idiomatic (though the others are NOT WRONG).

  • Ich verwende das Wort nicht so oft.
  • I don’t use this word that often.
  • Verwenden Sie die Lotion morgens und abends.
  • Use the lotions in the morning and in the evenings.
  • Maria will wissen, wofür Thomas sein Taschengeld verwendet.
  • Maria wants to know what Thomas is using his allowance/pocket money for.

I tried to pick examples that are kind of iconic for each verb, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t use the other options. The ones I used are just the most natural and idiomatic.
But to get an even better feel for the different vibes, let’s see all three verbs back to back in the same sentence.
We’ll use the following completely fictional example.

  • Thomas uses the shower every day.

And here are the three options.

  • Thomas nutzt jeden Tag die Dusche.
  • Thomas benutzt jeden Tag die Dusche.
  • Thomas verwendet jeden Tag die Dusche.

The first one, the one with nutzen, sounds a little like the shower is kind of a perk and Thomas makes use of this benefit every day.
The second one is the most natural (at least to me) and it just means that he uses it.
And the third one sounds a bit strange to my ears. Like, he’s employing the shower to do something else. Like for cooking or cleaning his teeth or whatever.
Can you see the subtle differences?
Let’s do another one, this time for a very similar, also completely fictional sentence:

  • Thomas nutzt jeden Tag Deo.
  • Thomas benutzt jeden Tag Deo.
  • Thomas verwendet jeden Tag Deo.

This example is actually one where all three options work pretty well. The first one sounds a little like marketing jargon to me, and third one sounds like someone is trying to sound a bit high register. So I would say that benutzen is once again the most natural and idiomatic option.
Cool.
Now, of course you’re not automatically always going to pick the right one, just because we did a few examples. These things take time. But I hope you got an impression of the different aspects and this can slowly grow into proper, solid sprachgefühl.
Here are the key features again, as a sort of rough guide.

  • nutzen -> leans toward benefiting
  • benutzen -> hands-on everyday use, can imply “wear and tear”
  • verwenden – > employing something, applying something to a task, more “fancy” than benutzen.

We’ll do a bit of practice with these in the exercise, but before we get to that, let’s go over the related words of nutzen.
Because there are quite some useful ones to be found, and also one common mistake :)

Some useful nutzen-words

Using stuff is a pretty important part of every day life, and so naturally, there are plenty of nouns and adjectives with (be)nutzen in them.

  • Die App ist nicht sehr nutzerfreundlich.
  • The app isn’t very user-friendly.
  • Facebook weiß sehr viel über seine Nutzer.
  • Facebook knows a lot about its users.
  • Natürlich habe ich die Nutzungsbedingungen gelesen.
  • Of course, I have read the terms of service/terms of use.
  • Einhörner sind eigennützige Wesen.
  • Unicorns are self-serving/egoistic creatures.
  • Ich habe meinen Benutzernamen vergessen.
  • I forgot my username.
    (there is NO reason why it’s not “Nutzername”… it just is, what it is)

But as you can see, there are no big meaning twists and we don’t need to do any mind bending, and there’s no need for much explaining.
The only one that kind of needs a little more attention is nützlich.
Most of you probably know this as useful.

  • Dieses Wort ist sehr nützlich.
  • This word is very useful.
  • Mein Professor hat mir ein paar nützliche Tipps gegeben.
  • My professor gave me a few useful tips.

And it totally does mean that. But learners tend to use nützlich way too much.
The thing is, is that nützlich sounds a bit dry and technical and in the last two decades, Germans have come to prefer the word hilfreich.
As you can see in the Google ngram, a feature that lets you see how common a word is, hilfreich has overtaken nützlich by a LOT (and it’s even more drastic when combined with nicht)

Google ngram viewer

And sure, hilfreich also means helpful, so we could argue that of course it’s more common. But what’s really interesting is that in English, it’s the other way around and useful is way more common than helpful … like… three times more common.

 

And if you nerd out and look at the numbers on the left, you can also see that useful is like almost ten times more common in English than nützlich is in German.
And to give you another piece of evidence, here’s an article I found about meditation and in the title it says hilfreich and then in the excerpt it uses nutzlos (useless) as the DIRECT opposite

  • Visualisieren beim Meditieren ist nutzlos.
  • Visualizing while meditating is useless.

Ist Visualisierung in der Meditation hilfreich?

It’s an interesting article, by the way. I really think the visualization stuff that Western style meditation tends to do is off base. Not saying visualizing stuff can’t be hilfreich. But when you do it, you’re NOT meditating.

Anyway, long story short… if you want to sound more idiomatic, then STOP using nützlich so much.
Either use hilfreich, or even just cool or super. Or do a side sentence.

  • Die App ist echt hilfreich/cool/super.
  • Die App hilft mir sehr.

All that sounds better than…

  • Die App ist nützlich für mich.

Cool.
Now, we’re almost done, but there is of course one thing missing… everyone’s favorite thing:

Prefix versions

And luckily, there’s only a couple that are worth noting.
The first one is abnutzen and that basically refers to the wearing down that happens when you use something for a while.

  • Die Couch sieht abgenutzt aus.
  • The couch looks worn down.

And the second one is ausnutzen. The aus here is similar to the one in austrinken, so it is about using fully, and its actual meaning is kind of a using that borders on exploitation.

  • Die Eichhörnchen nutzen die Alkoholsucht der Einhörner aus.
  • The squirrels exploit the alcoholism of the unicorns.
    (We could use nutzen here, as well. That would sound less negative)
  • Das Team fühlt sich vom Chef ausgenutzt.
  • The team feels taken advantage of/exploited by the boss.
    (We could use benutzen, but that would sound less intentional and more physical.)

And last but not least, we have not a prefix version, but a vowel version… nützen.
And nützen basically means to bring use or benefit, to help, but it is ONLY used for objects or circumstance. So a situation can nützen you, but you cannot nützen someone else.

  • Die Spannungen zwischen den Eichhörnchen und den Elfen nützen vor allem den Einhörnern.
  • The tensions between the squirrels and the elves mainly benefit the unicorns.
  • “Dienstag hätte ich Zeit.”
    “Das nützt mir nichts. Mein Umzug ist Montag.”
  • “I’d be free on Tuesday.”
    “That doesn’t help me/that’s of no use to me. My moving is on Monday.”

Depending on region, people might also use nutzen here, so you can do that, too, if you have trouble with the üüüüüü. But then you really need to get the Dative for the person right, otherwise it will be confusing.
Or pro tip: just use helfen ;).
Cool.
So I think that’s actually it for today.

This was our look at the family of nutzen and the difference between nutzen, benutzen and verwenden.
Here it is again, as a reminder… nah, just kidding. I have this note-feature now, so you can take your own notes and make your own summary. That’s members-only though and prices will go up soon, so cop yourself an account, if you don’t have one. It’s a nützliche feature. Or should I say hilfreich ;).

If you want to check how much you remember and if you have a feel for when to use which word in German, just take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And as usual, if you have any questions or suggestions about any of this, just leave me a comment.
I hope you enjoyed it, have a great week and I’ll see you next time.

** vocab **

nutzen = to use (Sounds more high register than “benutzen” and has a vibe of benefiting)

die Nutzungsbedingungen = the terms of service

Der Nutzer = the user (“-in” for a woman, sounds way more formal in English.)

nützlich = useful (NOT as common as English. “hilfreich” is often the better pick)
nutzlos = useless
unnütz = unnecessary

benutzen = to use (Sounds hands-on and can express an idea of using up or consuming)
benutzt = used
der Benutzername = the user name (“Nutzername” just isn’t as idiomatic)

eigennützig = self serving, egotistical

verwenden = to use (Sounds a bit higher register than “benutzen” and is best captured by the idea of applying or employing something for a task. Works great for intangible “goods”.)

gebrauchen = to use (Not very common as a verb, but the related words are in use)
gebraucht = used, second-hand
Gebrauchsanweisung = the user manual

abnutzen = to wear down (Through using, mainly for furniture.)

ausnutzen = to use, to seize, to take advantage of (for opportunities); to take advantage of, to use (In a negative sense of using people)

nützen = to be of use, to benefit, to make a difference (Only in third person for objects or circumstance being useful)

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moiself
moiself
2 months ago

As a German, I agree with your differentiation of the different “vibes”.
The etymology is interesting, I had not thought about the connection of “genießen” and “nutzen” before. Two related words came to my mind: “Nießbrauch” and “Nutznießer”. Both are a bit stuffy, but still completely valid legal terms. If you were to translate the parts one by one, you would get “use-use” and “use-user” ;-)

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 months ago

Danke an alle die Sponsoren, die Studenten wie ich dabei helfen, diese schöne Sprache zu lernen. Ich bin froh, teil dieser Gemeinschaft zu sein :D

palancaster@seanet.com
palancaster@seanet.com
2 months ago

Zwar war das sehr hilfreich. I have spent hours wondering about the subtle differences between those verbs. Thanks for the “helpful” clarification.

Anonymous
Anonymous
3 months ago

a good article, just one very small error in the first speech where Maria uses her phone to open her beer and then she has a sex change : )

blingsetter
blingsetter
3 months ago

The difference between nutzen and benutzen was explained to me as benutzen being used with concrete objects whereas nutzen is used more with abstract concepts. How does that sit with you?

BillLever
BillLever
3 months ago

Thanks for every one of your postings. These American ears bristle at the British English overuse/abuse of certain words. “Useful” (instead of “helpful”) and “brilliant” (instead of any better adjective) are two hyper-used words I never need to hear in a British accent again. “Little James was ‘useful’ because he took out the garbage”…. ugh. “it was a ‘brilliant’ display of… blah, blah, blah”….ugh.

Anonymous
Anonymous
3 months ago
Reply to  BillLever

Brilliant comment Bill. ‍♂️ Oh no I’ve done it again. My irritating English brain. ‍♂️ Nobody is going to find this useful. Oh no I can hear myself saying it in my English accent as well.

Michael
Michael
3 months ago
Reply to  BillLever

We British could make do without hearing your adverb loss—but there we have it. ;-)

Ertac
Ertac
3 months ago

I cannot tell how grateful I am!!! I was so confused with all these words last day and looked up on some articles in the internet. I was not satisfied by any of them and now I now which one to use at given situation. Thank you so much!!!!

Swdenis
Swdenis
3 months ago

Im Beispiel mit ‘Spannungen zwischen Eichhörnchen und Elfen nützen vor allem den Einhörnern’ hast du ‘Der Spannungen’ statt ‘Die Spannungen’ geschrieben. Das Audiobeispiel ist doch korrekt.

Ebaa
Ebaa
3 months ago

Super Artikel. Sehr hilfreich. Das ist das erste Mal das ich die Unterschiede zwischen disease Wörter verstehen.
Vielen Dank Emanuel

Elizabeth K Hilprecht
Elizabeth K Hilprecht
3 months ago

Etwas stimmt nicht: On the matching the nuances questions, my device would only match one set of nuances and not the other two, rendering my answers incorrect.

buzzkeeto
buzzkeeto
3 months ago

I am missing the ‘Done’ button and the gratification and satisfaction of the smiley face.

Elsa
Elsa
3 months ago

Hello:
Let’s start with typos:
It context of food (in the context of food)
do a short separate post about (do a short separate post about them)
definitely instances where you can use either one (there are definitely instances where you can use either one)
armpits is just one word. Did you actually use Thomas’ lunchbreak to wax his armpits? Coz that’s what you said in the translation :)
are great example (are great examples)
Thomas benutzt jeden die Dusche (Tag is missing – extra points for the typo in German!)
user-friendly
username (it just is coz it is)
Visualizing while meditation (Visualizing while meditating)
there of course one thing missing (there is of course one thing missing)
for when to use which word for to use in German (for when to use which word in German)
benutzen = tu use (benutzen = to use)
emplying something for a task (employing something for a task)

Hope that was hilfreich :)

This article was very useful, I’ve always stuggled with these variations on to use…

I have two questions:
Does the word unnützlich exist or is it always unnütz and could you put that into a sentence as an example?

Which is more idiomatic for second-hand stuff, benutzt or gebraucht, for instance, “Ich habe ein benutztes/gebrauchtes Auto gekauft”?

Bis bald!

Opie
Opie
3 months ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

I consider myself pretty observant when it comes to typos, but I didn’t catch those at all! (Is that because you’ve already corrected them?) However, I did notice a few others:
– at the drawing, it should be “using ‘to use’ in German IS like…”;
– in the hypothetical dialogue, it should be “wait…THAT’S it?”
– above NUTZEN, BENUTZEN, AND VERWENDEN – THE DIFFERENCE, you need to put a period at the end of the sentence that comes before “I think I found….”
– below the first ngram: “and in the title IT says…..then in the excerpt IT uses….”
– below the article about meditation, it should be “Long story SHORT”
– below PREFIX VERSIONS, it should be “…and there’RE only a couple….”

I always feel badly when noting an English error/typo, since your English is so idiomatic, conversational, and well-inflected.

Opie
Opie
3 months ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Interesting – there’re IS a thing, but I googled there’s vs there’re and found that, while there’re IS the plural of there’s, as you say, “…(i)n speaking and in some informal writing, we use there’s even when it refers to more than one. This use could be considered incorrect in formal writing or in an examination…” [per one site]. I’m of the age that still uses whom….But – even if couple CAN be singular, your sentence reads “And luckily, there’s only a couple that are worth noting.” You’re using couple as plural (“…a couple that are…”). So there’re would be correct if only for consistency. Nonetheless, in a world of Covid and imminent WWIII in (the) Ukraine, I am not going to worry too much about this fine point of English grammar!

Opie
Opie
3 months ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

I don’t think there’s an audible difference between there and there’re (or their or they’re either!). And, yes, non-contracted (?) contractions are always okay. So there!
I’m always in awe of those who can learn (especially after childhood) to speak (and write!) English as well as you do. Both of my parents were sent out of Germany/Austria by their parents in 1938. My mother spent the War years in England and learned “The King’s” English; my father came directly to the US. Both (understandably) consciously tried to forget their German and spoke English better than some native-born Americans. But, as a result, I am now learning German as a retiree, and it’s tough going! I truly appreciate your efforts in clarifying aspects of the language, so clearly and wittily (I think that’s a word!)!

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
3 months ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

They sound slightly different to me. The second “r/er” sound is quick, soft, and a little lower pitched. Kind of like you relax a little and just tack on the thought of an “r”. But sometimes it all blends together and sounds like a longer “r”.

I was clicking through Youglish and found this example that I thought was interesting for the pronunciation (the content is a matter of perspective). Around 42:02, he says “there’re actually” and then changes it to “they’re actually”. It’s a small difference, but it’s there (to me anyway).

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
3 months ago
Reply to  coleussanctus

43:02, sorry. Sausage fingers.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
3 months ago

I had a question about “ausnutzen” too. I was watching figure skating earlier and the announcer said

Wichtig ist eben nur, dass die komplette Eisfläche ausgenutzt wird.

Would “nutzen” work here? Or maybe the “aus” part is important for the idea of taking up the whole surface (spreading out over the whole thing?).

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
3 months ago

Brook, that’s an interesting one to play mind yoga with. It’s only used in the sense of “not tolerate” and it’s about as rare as…vegan unicorns? Anyway, the dialogue in my head was like this:

  • I will brook no impertinence.
  • (Super slangy translation) I don’t need no lip from you.
  • (and not a huge jump to) That won’t do me any good / I’ve got no use for that.

It’s funny though, those examples are on opposite ends of the formal-ness spectrum (no impertinence, no lip) and they both use “no” instead of “any”. I always thought of “no + noun” as a formal thing before.

pmccann
pmccann
3 months ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

I think you’d need to add in an “any” (“I don’t need any lip from you”), or at least it sounds much more natural to my ears that way. I certainly wouldn’t call it formal, it’s more like something my father would have said when one of his horrible children was being even “mouthier” than usual. That would have been in the 1970s/1980s: I don’t really hear it being used much nowadays. More’s the pity, it’s nice and concise, and has just the right amount of *acidity*…

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
3 months ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Yeah, it sounds sort of….formal in unformal. But it loses most of the punch when you try to say it out loud. That extra “no” makes it roll off the tongue and gives you this nice rhythm – don’t NEED no LIP from YOU.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
3 months ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

xD

Anonymous
Anonymous
3 months ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Love Pink floyd!

peterlobl
3 months ago

Widerstand ist hilfreich.

Lydia
Lydia
3 months ago

Your Daily German ist sehr hilfreich, um die Deutsche Sprache zu genießen!

pmccann
pmccann
3 months ago

Lovely article: just having that notion of “turning something towards something else” for “verwenden” helps a lot with the feel of when to use it.

I’m always a bit wary of using the Ngram viewer for this sort of thing, mostly because it’s sucking everything in from written texts, which don’t always correspond too well to the frequencies of the spoken language. But it’s utterly irresistible, of course! After reading your article I tried “nutzen, benutzen, verwenden”, and was a bit surprised to see “nutzen” used twice as frequently as “benutzen”, with “verwenden” pretty much in the middle of the other two options. My naïve guess at the ranking would have had “benutzen” up top, followed by “verwenden”, and then “nutzen”. So much the worse for naïve guesses, I (naïvely) guess…

Using the query “nutzen_INF, benutzen_INF, verwenden_INF” (which separates out the different inflections of the verbs, and similar constructions) is more fun: you see that “verwendet” is the clear winner amongst all the inflected versions of the three verbs. Being (one version of!) the past participle, *as well as* the third person singular form is a little bit of a boost, I guess (even if not so much in written texts…), but “benutzt” also gets that boost. Anyway, I’m just rambling, as per usual, so I’ll sign off here ;-)

Sarthak
Sarthak
3 months ago

Want To Thank Team spirit to Sponsor my ID , I will try my best to use this opprtunity to learn german and hope to meet you guys and thank personally

blingsetter
blingsetter
3 months ago
Reply to  Sarthak

Correction: I want to thank Team Spirit for sponsoring my ID…