When to use “zu” or “um zu”

Winnie and friends have found the rule for zu and um zuHello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of the most bestest German grammar course on the entire freaking planet.
Today we will look at one particular part of the grammar that seems to be random to a lot of students and is yet incredibly easy to master if properly explained… which I will do today. Seriously… it’s… it’s terrific work.Grea
Just like the haircut I gave to my girlfriend last week. When she saw it, she said that she’s really happy now with the stay at home corona stuff because no one has to see this disas…  wait, that’s not really praise, actually, is it.
Anyway, the question we are going to look at is:

When do I use “zu” and when “um zu”? 

And that also includes the question on when to use neither, because that’s a common mistake too.
So today, we’ll find out what these phrasings are, when to use which and how to use them.

If you just want the most important things as a quick fix, check out the video I made with Easy German.

Zu or Um zu – Yourdailygerman and Easy German :)

But if you want to dive a bit deeper, have more examples, learn about the exceptions and the sentence structure and do a little test,  then follow me :). Let’s go…

And we’ll start with some basic background

Some basic background

Gee… thanks headline, I just said that! When have headlines become such attention seekers.
Anyway… so, a boring simple sentence consists of an action (represented by the verb), a subject, which is the entity “doing” the action, and some other blocks of information that give answers to various questions like why, where or when or for what purpose. 

  • I called Maria today.

This sentence has the action to call, the entity doing the calling is I, and then the sentence contains answers to the questions “Who do I call?” (Maria)  and “When did I call Maria?” (today).

So far so basic. Now, sometimes, the additional information involves another action. For instance, the reason for my call might be that it’s her birthday and I want to congratulate her.
Now, one way to integrate that information into the main sentence is to use what  grammar bores books call a  Santa Clause… uhm I meant… subordinate clause.

  • I called  Maria today, because I want to congratulate her on her birthday.

But another really common way to kind of “connect” two actions is called an infinitive clause.

  • I called Maria today to congratulate on her birthday.

An infinitive is basically the form a verb has in the dictionary. It’s basically just the plain action without being personalized for a subject.  These phrasings can be pretty slick and efficient, and many languages have them.
But, surprise, surprise, every language has its own take on them.
English has two ways to connect an infinitive to another verb. Modal verbs can do it directly…

  • I can call you tomorrow.

and the rest needs a to…

  • I want to call you tomorrow.

German three ways… with zu, with um zu and directly. So let’s now go them one at a time and see when to use them. And we’ll start with the direct way. or in other words… when to use neither “zu” nor “um zu”

When to use nothing

Just like in English, German modal verbs also take other verbs directly, so without zu or um zu.

  • I am able to swim.
  • Ich kann schwimmen.
  • I must go now.
  • Ich muss jetzt gehen.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Du sollst nicht stehlen.

There’s a slight hiccup though, because English and German modal verbs are not entirely the same different. The English to want is NOT a modal verb, the German wollen however, is.

  • I want to go to the farmers market.
  • Ich will auf den Markt gehen.

And often German uses a modal verb where English uses another phrasing.

  • You are not allowed to smoke in this bar.
  • In der Bar darf man nicht rauchen.
  • I have to go now.
  • Ich muss jetzt gehen.

So it doesn’t really matter how English does it. What matters is if you have a German modal verb. If you need a refresher on those, I’ll post a link below. For now, here’s a little overview:

können, wollen, mögen, müssen, dürfen, sollen and möchten

Those are not the only ones that can take another verb directly. Also werden, which German uses for the future tense, doesn’t go with zu or um zu.

  • Ich werde schnell Deutsch lernen.
  • I will learn German quickly.

And then there are some “normal” verbs that IN SOME PHRASINGS don’t go with zu.  Mainly, the verbs hören and sehen

  • Ich höre meine Nachbarn streiten.
  • I hear my neighbors arguing.
  • Ich sehe das Einhorn Gras essen.
  • I see the unicorn eat gras.

And then the verb sein, gehen and kommen.

  • Ich gehe heute tanzen.
  • I‘m going dancing today.
  • Ich bin im Park Yoga machen.
  • I‘m in the park doing yoga.
  • Kommst du mit shoppen?
  • Are you gonna come shopping (with me)?

Technically, this also works with other verbs of motion, and I think we’ll also talk about it in a separate article at some point.
But yeah, those were the verbs that take another infinitive directly and it’s no problem to learn them by heart.
All the other verbs either need zu or um zu.

When to use “zu”

When you search for the topic online you’ll find a fair amount of lists with verbs that usually go with zu. However, it’s much better to understand the logic behind when to use which.
The difference between zu and um zu is the role the element plays in the sentence. And the key to finding a role is often to understand what question it answers.

  • I forgot [to turn off the stove].

In this example, the question the to-part answers is… drumroll … what?
The element has the role of an object.

  • I forgot [your name].
  • I forgot [to turn off the stove].

And that’s what a zu-element does in German.

  • Ich habe [deinen Namen] vergessen.
  • Ich habe vergessen, [den Herd auszumachen].

Most of you now probably have a question about the word order, but we’ll get to that later. For now, what matters is that you see how the zu-element has the exact same role as a “normal” object. Here’s another example:

  • Thomas plant [einen Urlaub].
  • Thomas is planning [a vacation].
  • Thomas plant, [seinen Urlaub auf dem Balkon zu verbringen].
  • Thomas is planning [to spend this summer on the balcony].

Just like the first example, the infinite-element has the role of the direct object here. But that’s actually not all it can do.
It can also be a prepositional object.
Here’s an example for what that is…

  • I‘m happy about [my present].
  • Ich freue mich über [mein Geschenk].

Instead of connecting the object directly, we’re using a preposition to do it. The corresponding question is still what, but it would use the same preposition….

  • “You‘re happy about what?”
    About my present.

Now, infinitve-elements can also fill this role, and the twist is that the preposition actually disappears.

  • I’m happy [to hear that].
  • Ich freue mich, [das zu hören].

But you can see that it has the same role as the prepositional element, and you can ask for it the same way…. at least in German.

  • Über was freust du dich?”
    “(Darüber), das zu hören.

Here’s another example, this time with the phrase Lust haben.

  • Ich habe heute keine Lust [auf Deutsch].
  • I have no desire [for german] today.
  • Ich habe heute keine Lust, [Deutsch zu lernen].
  • I have no desire [to learn German] today.

The zu-element has the exact same role as the auf-element in the first sentence and in essence it is still an answer to “what?”.
But I can totally understand if these prepositional objects are a little confusing.
Luckily, the role of the um-zu-elements is completely different and it’s almost impossible to mix them up.

When to use “um… zu”

We’ve learned that a zu-element has the role of an object.
The um-zu-element is completely different.

  • I’m reading this [to learn something].

Which question would you use to ask for the to-element here? I think intuitively, all of you would ask why? Why are you reading this. Or more precisely: for what purpose?
And THAT’S the role of an um-zu-element. It gives us information about the goal of an action, and often, we can replace it with in order to.

  • Ich lese das, um etwas zu lernen.
  • I’m reading that (in order) to learn something.
  • I go to the kitchen (in order) to get a beer.
  • Ich gehe in die Küche, um ein Bier zu holen.

So… zu-elements have the role of an object. They give us information about [what?]. Um-zu-elements have the role of a goal, a purpose. They give us information about [why?]. And because they have different roles, they can totally come together in one sentence.

  • I’m trying [to speak German] [to impress my date].
  • Ich versuche [Deutsch zu sprechen], [um mein Date zu beeindrucken].

What am I trying? To speak German. Why, for what purpose am I trying that? (in order) to impress my date.
I hope you can see that the two elements have COMPLETELY different roles, even though both work with to in English.
Ultimately, the goal is of course to get a feeling for zu and um zu, but for a start, using these two questions what and why is a great test to get to that feeling.
But it’s not a fail-proof rule. There are definitely sentences where it gets tricky. Or shitty. So let’s take a look at that real quick before we get to the word order stuff many of you are waiting for :)

What exceptions look like

There are some cases where the simple what or why test let’s us down. We just have to live with that. And the perfect example are what I will call too-to-phrasing.

  • The car was driving too fast [to read the license plate].
  • This lecture was too difficult [to understand].

And, I’m not gonna lie. Truth is my superpower so I’m just gonna say it… one is translated with um zu, the other one with zu.

  • Das Auto ist zu schnell gefahren, [um das Nummernschild zu lesen].
  • Diese Lektion war zu schwierig [zu verstehen].

And honestly… I can’t logically tell you why.
The second one could also be “um sie zu verstehen” but NOT “um zu verstehen”. So I guess there is something related to whether there’s an object in it or not, but honestly… analysing this is a waste of time. I really really tried to find a logic, or some sort of way of telling when to use which, but I couldn’t.
There are these fringe cases where there seems to be no logic for why it’s zu or um zu and I think the best we can do is just accept them. Welcome them with open arms and love in our hearts.
Welcome, dear exception. Thank you for making German less boring and predictable. Thank you for surprising me and for challenging me to leave my comfort zo… gee, what am I saying.

Now, besides the instances where our test doesn’t really work, there are also gonna be phrasings that can’t be translated with an infinitive-element at all.
The one I want to mention here is:

Question Word + to + verb

  • I don’t know how to do that.
  • I don’t know when to stop.
  • I remember who to ask to get information.

These DO NOT WORK with (um)-zu.
You’ll have to go “all the way” and make a normal boring minor sentence in German. As you do not really have a subject for the second verb in the English sentence,  one usually uses the German man.

  • I don’t know how to do that.
    (I don’t know how one has/I have to do that.)
  • Ich weiß nicht, wie man/ich das macht/mache.
  • I do not know when to stop.
    (I do not know when one stops.)
  • Ich weiß nicht, wann man aufhört.
  • I remember who to ask to get information.
    (I remember who one has/I have to ask in order to get information.)
  • Ich erinnere mich, wen man/ich fragen muss, um Informationen zu bekommen.

This might seem unnecessarily long and complicated but there is no other way.
All right.

So now we know when to use zu or um zu or nothing and we have a quite effective, super quick test.
What we haven’t talked about yet is the grammar.
So… let’s take a look :).

Grammar of “zu” and “um zu”

And there are two pretty much separate parts to this. First of, the structure and order WITHIN the element and then the structure and order in the sentence that CONTAINS the element.
Let’s start within the element.
And you might have already noticed that their structure is like that of a side sentence… you know, like a weil or dass-sentence.
So the verb itself is at the end and the zu is in front of it.

  • Ich habe vor, mir ein leckeres, kaltes Bier aus dem riesigen Kühlschrank zu holen.
  • I am planning to get myself a tasty cold beer from the gigantic fridge.

And if there’s an um, that goes right to the beginning.

  • Ich gehe in die Küche, um mir ein leckeres, kaltes Bier aus dem riesigen Kühlschrank zu holen.
  • I’m going to the kitchen to get myself a tasty cold beer from the gigantic fridge.

If we have a separable prefix verb, there’s a little twist. Then, the zu gets squeezed between the prefix, just like the ge- for the past tense. And the magnetic force between prefix and verb pulls it all into one word. If the prefix is NOT separable, then the zu goes in front of the verb.

  • Ich habe vergessen, meinen Chef anzurufen.
  • I forgot to call my boss.
  • Elon Musk hat vor, alle seine Häuser zu verkaufen.
  • Elon Musk plans to sell all his houses.

Now, on the outside, from the perspective of the containing sentence, the (um)-zu-element is ALSO pretty much like dass or a weil-sentence.
So we can technically put it into different positions.

  1. [Deutsch zu lernen ] kann manchmal frustrierend sein.
  2. Manchmal kann [Deutsch zu lernen] frustrierend sein.
  3. Es kann manchmal frustrieren sein, [Deutsch zu lernen.]

All of them are correct. But in most contexts, the last version will the the most natural choice.
And this brings us right back to a question many of you had in the beginning.
As beginners, we all learn that the verb has to go to the end if there is more than one part. According to that, version two should be the most idiomatic version.
But the thing is that these infinitive-elements are more like a sentence than a noun. And this “verb-at-the end” stuff doesn’t really include side sentences. You CAN squeeze them in the middle of the container. But if you don’t have to, then it’s much better style to NOT do it.

  • Ich habe [Deutsch zu lernen] vor drei Monaten angefangen.

This is a very, very typical mistake… like… I’d go as far as to say that 80% of you have made it. And it’s not wrong, technically. But it would be more idiomatic to say it this way:

  • Ich habe vor drei Monaten angefangen, [Deutsch zu lernen.]

And this is actually much easier to say. So yeah… the (um)-zu-element DOESN’T need to be squeezed into the middle of its containing sentence.

So, that’s pretty much it.
Now let’s put what we’ve learned to the test and do a really really challenging sentence.. who’s with me??

A really hard example

Behold :)

  •  It would be nice to be able to call you to ask you to come by.

Daaaaaamn, what a scary monster.
Let’s take it one to at a time….

  • What would be nice?
  • Why would be nice?

Obviously what makes a LOT more sense, so the first to-element (which contains all the others) seems to be an object and we need just zu in German.
Now, the verb that follows is to be able to. That will translate to können. And können is actually a modal verb in German and we need NO translation for the second to.
That means, so far we have:

  • Es wäre schön, dich anrufen zu können
  • It would be nice to be able to call you

Now, the next element in our long sentence is “to ask you“. A quick check with the questions will clear it up.

  • “to call you what? ”
    “To ask you.”
  • “To call you why?”
    “To ask you.”

Clearly, why makes a lot of sense. And we could just add in order to to call you. So this is a clear case for um zu.

  • Es wäre schön, dich anrufen zu können um dich zu bitten

Last but not least we have to come by. And again, a quick check with the questions clears it up…

  • “To ask you what?”
    “To come by.”
  • “To ask you why?”
    “To come by.”

The first one makes a lot more sense, so it’s probably just gonna be zu.
And it is :)
So here is the final sentence.

  • It would be nice to be able to call you to ask you to come by.
  • Es wäre schön, dich anrufen zu können, um dich zu bitten, vorbeizukommen.

Don’t worry though… you won’t have to do something like this again any time soon :).

And I think that’s it for today.
Hooray :).
This was our thorough look at when and how to use zu and um zu. Here as a reminder:

role of an object (answers to what) – zu
role of a goal (answers to why) – um… zu

And in case of modal verbs, werden or a few opther phrasing, you can just connect directly.
Now, if you want more recap and see how much you remember, just take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
I mean… I will have prepared it shortly. You’ll see it here shortly. It’s gonna be tremendous.
I also have a big exercise, so you can practice it a little
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Oh by the way, if you’re reading comments… this article is from 2012 originally, but I gave it a thorough do over in May 2020. Some of the old comments might not match with the article anymore. I’ll add a separator comment, so you know which ones are new :)



The big exercise: zu or um zu – self practice




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