Learn German Online – “zu or um zu”

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

and welcome to another part of the German Online Course. 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. What’s that? As host I shouldn’t boast in a post? Noooo problem, I totally accept your challenge. If you have not understood the rules I am going to explain by the end of this post you will get all your money back… I will keep your time as a processing fee though. And to keep this amount as small as possible I will stop with the BS right now.

The question we are going to look at, or to be more precise, that we will answer once and for all, is:

When do I use “zu” and when “um zu”? 

One word on pronunciation first. Um zu sounds like “oum tsoo” as opposed to zoo.
The German z is always pronounced like a hard tss.
The question “When do I use zu and um zu” is actually not quite correct because there are 3 rather than 2 alternatives to chose from. The third one, the often neglected and yet powerful knight, is:
which is pronounced like            .
Why is there nothing there, you wonder? Because the third alternative is nothing. To understand all that let’s take a look at the situation in which you have to chose between the 3.
Some basic background first. A boring simple sentence consists of an action represented by the verb, a subject, which is the entity “doing” the actionm and some other blocks of information that give answers to various questions like why, where, when, whom and so on.

  • I call my brother with my phone.

This sentence has the action call, I am the one doing it and the sentence contains answers to the questions “Who do I call?” and “How do I call him?”. If you have 2 actions you can of course make 2 sentences but your language will end up pretty stiff and robotic and it is nicer to fit the verb into the sentence you already have. An example for such a construction would be a Santa Clause… uhm I meant… subordinate clause…if you don’t know what that is, don’t worry, here is an example. First the 2-sentence version.

  • I call my brother with my phone.
  • I bought this phone 2 months ago.

Wow… riveting.

  • I call my brother with my phone, which I bought 2 months ago.

The second part has it’s own subject (again, it’s I) and the verb (to buy) is conjugated and in past-tense with a perfect aspect. It is essentially a full sentence that has been connected to the first part by the word “which”. But there are other, shorter ways to add a second action to your sentence. They are not always feasible but let’s not go too far, here. English has essentially 2.

  • Being bored I call my brother with my phone.
  • I call my brother with my phone to ask him something.

Note that these are 2 grammatical structures, it has nothing to do with meaning. Constructions of type 1, that is constructions with -ing can have a variety of different meanings and it is sometimes cumbersome to translate those lean elegant phrasings into German.
Anyway, it is the second structure that we will focus on today.
This is when the question about zu or um zu or            arises – whenever you need to translate “to + verb”. The grammatical term for this is an infinitive phrase and as we are at it, the scientific name for dog is Canis lupis familiaris…. but… I think dog will do.

So there are 3 possibilities to translate a “to+verb” construction. You either use zu, um zu or nothing. These 3 are NOT interchangeable so you need to know when to use which. People will probably still understand what you are trying to say if you chose the wrong one, but it makes you sound very beginner and given the straightforwardness of the rules, it would be a pity to downgrade your skill that way. Of course understanding the rules and applying them without thought are 2 different things so train, you must but succeed, you will.

Now let’s look at all 3 possibilities one at a time and we will start with nothing… we are not born with a golden spoon in our mouths here, after all :).

When to use nothing.

Nothing is used whenever your first verb, the conjugated one, is a German modal verb. Note that English and German modal verbs are different. The English to want is not a modal, the German wollen however, is. So we are talking about the German ones here.
Those are:

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

I don’t want to talk about all of them in detail so I will add a link to the respective post as soon as that post is written.

  • I am able to swim.
  • Ich kann schwimmen.
  • I want to go to the farmers market.
  • I will auf den Markt gehen.
  • You are not allowed to smoke in this bar.
  • In der Bar darf man nicht rauchen.

As you can see there is no zu or um zu anywhere. When you take a look at the English modal verbs you will realize that they have the same grammar in that there is no to used to connect the other verb.

  • I must leave now.
  • Ich muss jetzt gehen.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Du sollst nicht stehlen.

But as already mentioned, the German and English modal verbs are not the same, so you need to learn the German ones. “I have to” or “I want to” are modal verbs in German while “you need not” is not. I will put a link here to the lecture about modal verbs as soon as I have written it :).

When to use “zu”

Zu alone is used whenever the first part of your sentence, that is the part up to the to, cannot stand for itself. What does that mean? Well, imagine a room full of people, maybe a diner party or something. You sit there but you have not been part of any conversation for a while. You get up, say the first part of the sentence with pathos and leave.
If everyone in the room is now totally confused then it will be just zu in German.

  • I try …

Without conversational history that just doesn’t make sense. It needs the second part, the to-part, for completion and whenever this is the case, to translates to  zu. Let’s look at some more examples.

  •  Thomas plans…                          “What???”, “Huh???”
  • Thomas plans to spend his summer in Paris.          “Ohhhh I see”
  • Thomas plant, seinen Sommer in Paris zu verbringen.
  • I forgot… “What??”, “Like generally???”, “Do you have amnesia???”
  • I forgot to turn off my stove.          “Oh damn, well hurry home then.”
  • Ich habe vergessen, meinen Herd auszumachen.
  • I go to the kitchen…        “Can you get me a beer.”, “Me too?”
  • I go to the kitchen to get myself a beer.    “Can you get me one, too?”, “Yeah, for me as well?”
  • Ich gehe in die Küche, um mir ein Bier zu holen.

The last example was different. Here the first part alone does make sense and no-one at the diner party is left confused.

When to use “um… zu”

The rules you have learned thus far are technically already enough to do everything correctly. When the verb of the first part is a German (not an English, there are some small differences) modal verb you use nothing, when the first part doesn’t make sense for itself you use zu and in all other cases… wait my red exception phone is ringing… just a second…. Yeah hey man, I got it under control this time… yeah, but I was gonna tell them about that one later… as a wrap up… thanks anyway… yeah, you too, man. Bye. …sorry, so in pretty much all other cases you use um zu.
But there is a second way to determine whether it is zu or um zu.
Whenever  you can replace the English to with in order to or because I want to respectively, you have to use um zu.

  • I go to the kitchen to get a beer.
  • I go to the kitchen in order to get a beer.
  • I go to the kitchen because I want to get a beer.

It obviously works. All 3 sentences are saying the same thing, hence the German translation is done with um zu.  Now let’s cross check:

  • I forgot to turn off my stove.
  • I forgot in order to turn off my stove.
  • I forgot because I want to turn off my stove.

This does not work, unless of course forgetting was the only way to empower you for a shutdown of the stove…

“Son, you MUST turn off the stove of evil or the kingdom of the elves is doomed.”
“But … but … how, I am just a normal farm boy after all, how could I possibly turn it off?”
“Ignorance, son, ignorance! You must learn to forget if you want to turn off this stove!”

yeah… maybe in a parallel universe.

The 2 questions, the diner-party-one and the in-order-to-one yield the same answer, so technically you only need to use one of them. It might happen however, especially with the party one that you are not certain. A good example is for such case is the following.

  • Hilf mir,… !
  • Help me… !

This does sound pretty complete and lots of people at the diner party will be willing to help, but … with what. If there is no clue at all about what you could use help with, then it is not complete. This is still arguable though, so let’s try the other question.

  • Help me to fix my bike!
  • Help me in order to fix my bike!

That doesn’t really sound proper. Sure it might not be as weird as “I forgot in order to call my mom.” but it is not correct after all. The in order to alternative has to feel good, otherwise it is very unlikely that it is um zu. So for the example with help, the correct pick is zu.

  • Hilf mir, mein Fahrrad zu reparieren.

Difficult decisions

There are some cases where the decision based on the system proposed above is difficult. This is especially the case for one special phrasing… the too-phrasing.

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

Let’s see what to do here. First we rephrase.

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

Hmmm… that doesn’t make sense in any of the 2 phrases to me… maybe a little more in the first one but still it sounds wrong. That would suggest that it is just zu.  But let’s do the party-check and see if the statements would be downright confusing.

  • The car was driving too fast.
  • This lecture was too difficult.

Shit. Both these sentences CAN stand alone. This suggests that it is um … zu… . The best you can do in cases like these is turn the sentence around and do the check again.

  • The car was slow enough to read the license plate.
  • This lecture was easy enough to understand.

The first sentence clearly works with in order to now and although the first part alone kinda works, in order to overrules here. So the first one is

  • Das Auto ist zu schnell gefahren, um das Nummernschild zu erkennen.

It will not work with just zu. In really high German you would use als dass in that case but let’s not go too far here.
In the second sentence, in order to works too but this time it changes the meaning a bit. Without in order to the sentence means that the lecture had such a level of difficulty that it was possible to understand it. When you put in in order to the meaning is: the lecture was designed or planned in all its easiness so that people would be able to understand it.
So here you can either use just zu or um zu. Both are correct but they do not mean the same thing.
I hope this makes some sense to you. It does to me, but I am not an English native so those who are might feel differently about some of what I said. This special case is REALLY hard to decide. You can somehow apply the rules but it is not as easy as in “normal” situations. I’d say when in doubt go for um zu… it might be wrong but it won’t sounds as bad as a missing um.
Now let’s do something refreshing ;).

Grammar of zu and um zu

You have probably already gotten an impression about the word order in sentences with zu and um zu. In either case this part of the sentence is a minor sentence, as I like to call it, so it is one of those where all verbs are at the very end of the phrase.
The zu stands at the same position as the ge- would be, it is just not connected to the verb.

  • Ich habe vergessen, Milch, Eier und Butter zu kaufen.
  • I forgot to buy milk, eggs and butter.

If you have a verb with a weakly-linked prefix, the zu goes in-between the basic verb and the prefix… like the ge-. For strongly-linked prefixes it goes in front.

  • Ich habe vergessen, meinen Chef anzurufen.
  • I forgot to call my boss.
  • Ich habe vor, mein Auto zu verkaufen.
  • I intend to sell my car.

If the sentence continues after the to-part, that is done accordingly in German.

  • Ich habe vergessen, meinem Chef zu sagen, dass das Meeting morgen um 3 beginnt.
  • I forgot, to tell my boss, that the meeting will start at 3 tomorrow.

End of the sentence means end of the according phrase and not of the whole sentence.
The position of um is really simple… it introduces the respective part.

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

And now a tough one. Behold.

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

What a scary monster, doesn’t make much sense but sure there is a lot TO it… get it?? Not funny?? Ok, I tried.
Let’s now do the translation one to at a time. “It would be nice” clearly makes no sense all by itself without any context so this one is going to be just zu. To be able to is können and it doesn’t make sense alone either. In addition it is a modal verb in German hence the next to is connected with nothing.

  • Es wäre schön, dich anrufen zu können …

Why the anrufen is in front of the können you ask? That is because the German modal verbs are pretty much always completed by another verb. The sentence “I am able to call you.” translates to

  •  Ich kann dich anrufen.

To transform this into a minor sentence, you move the können to the end.

  • Ich bin froh, weil ich dich anrufen kann.

Constructions with zu are minor sentences, too, so there you have the same word order. But let’s get back to the example. The next to is “to ask you”. The part before that is “It would be nice to be able to call you.”. This is a complete statement hence the next to is going to be um zu. Crosscheck: “It would be nice to be able to call you in order to ask you…”… yeah this works, too. So the German sentence thus far is:

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

This doesn’t sound quite complete. Hence the last to should be just zu again, but let’s try the other question once more. “It would be nice, to be able to call you to ask you in order to come by.”. Hmmm, given the weirdness of the whole sentence this could make some sense but it doesn’t REALLY feel right.  Anyway, the fact that the first part is incomplete is non-debatable so we’ll go for zu. 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.

So this was the grammar of          , zu and um zu. If you have questions about how to translate a certain sentence just write a comment, I will try to answer as soon as possible. But now, as a little reward for your grammar stamina, here is the part you have all been yearning for.


Don’t worry. It is not so many… just to … uhm … two of course. I’m starting to get a little confused.
So first you have to note that the following English pattern CANNOT be translated according to what we have done today:

  • Question Word + to + verb

Examples are:

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

For these you have to go all the way and make a full 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 has to stop.
  • 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.

The second exception is the word gehen. It is not a modal verb and yet you can connect verbs to it as if it were.

  • I go to the supermarket to buy milk.
  • Ich gehe in den Supermarkt, um Milch zu kaufen.
  • Ich gehe in den Supermarkt Milch kaufen.
  • I go to the bar to have a couple of beers.
  • Ich gehe in die Bar, um 2 Bier zu trinken.
  • Ich gehe in die Bar 2 Bier trinken.

Either of the German sentences is correct. Using um zu makes it sounds like you are telling us the goal you pursue, while the other version sounds more like a simple description of what you are going to do at the place. In the examples above I would use the latter phrasing but there are certainly situations where the goal deserves the focus… I just can’t think of them right now. I actually can’t think anymore at all… but we are dooooooone!!!!!!

So to sum it all up:

  • if German modal to                                = nothing.
  • confused diner party                             = zu.
  • if to can be replaced by in order to = um zu.

So this is it. If you have questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. If you want your money back, download the respective form from the download section and send it to the address in the contact section. These sections don’t exist you say? Oh… look under uhm…. hmm….  uhm… gotta go…. … … … … … … … … …

BTW: if you want to train – here is an exercise for you.

Hope you liked it and see you next time.

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