Explaining your actions in German — using um … zu and damit clauses

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Explaining your actions in German — using um … zu and damit clauses

A post that gets a great deal of attention is the one about how zu is not always used as an preposition, but often with verbs whereby it is followed by the infinitive of the verb. If you haven’t read that post yet, I highly suggest you do after reading this one.

The umzu construction

One of the handiest dependent clause constructs in German is “um … zu + Infinitv”. We use this construct to provide a reason for doing something. When you translate it back into English it means “in order to”. Often though we can use it for situations where in English we would simply say “to + infinitive”. z.B. I’m going to the shop to buy some apples. (Ich gehe zum Laden, um Äpfel zu kaufen.) Let’s look at this simple structure that will allow you to express your thoughts in more detail and with justification for your actions. There are times where you may also wish to use a weil Satz to express the same thing, though weil is often used to answer a question or for the justification of past event. Um…zu is a great form to express the reason why you’re about to do something.

One thing that is important to remember with the umzu construction is that the subject in both clauses (the two sentences you want to combine) need to be the same. (And remember that um is an accusative preposition, but here it is not functioning as a preposition so the case following might also be in the dative. Important though is that the thing following the um will not be in the nominative.)


neuer-zurcher-zeitungHauptsatz, umzu + Infinitiv

**If the verb has a separable prefix the zu goes between the prefix and the verb and it is written as one word.

  • Ich lerne Deutsch. Ich möchte die NZZ lesen. (I’m learning German. I would like to read the NZZ.)
    • Ich lerne Deutsch, um die NZZ lesen zu können. (I’m learning German, in order to be able to read the NZZ.)
  • Johanna arbeitet lange Stunden. Sie will mehr Geld verdienen. (Johanna works long hours. She wants to earn more money.)
    • Johanna arbeitet lange Stunden, um mehr Geld verdienen zu können. (Johanna works long hours, in order to be able to earn more money.)

Note on Modals:

The modals möchten, sollen and wollen already express intent and can therefore not be used in the um… zu construction. Like in the examples above they can be switched for the modal verb können (can / to have the ability to do something). Können can also most often be totally left out completely and the meaning of the sentence will not change.

  • Johanna arbeitet Überstundenum mehr Geld verdienen zu können. = Johanna arbeitet Überstunden, um mehr Geld zu verdienen.


Sometimes your point comes across stronger by stating the intent of the action first. Like with all dependent clauses, the um… zu construction can come before the the independent clause. This is called inversion. It’s important to remember that when we use inversion the dependent clause takes position 1 (that is the entire clause is just one position) and the verb still needs to come in position 2 (comes right after the comma separating the two clauses).

Umzu + Infinitiv, Konjugiertes Verb + Subjekt

  • Ich lerne Deutsch, um die Zeitung zu lesen.
    • Um die Zeitung zu lesen, lerne ich Deutsch.
  • Johanna arbeitet lange Stunden, um mehr Geld zu verdienen.
    • Um mehr Geld zu verdienen, arbeitet Johanna lange Stunden.

What if the Subjects are different? — Damit:

I know that it sounds like Germans are and angry people who are constantly throwing in the phrase “damn it” into their sentences without provocation, perhaps what you think is some weird form of cultural linguistic frustration, but they are actually using the German word damit, which when used as a conjunction means (so, so that, in order that). If the subject in the two sentences we are talking about is not the same, then we need to use damit to express the the action and it’s intent in a single sentence. Let’s take a look.

  • Ich lerne Deutsch. Die Schweizer sollen mich besser verstehen. (I’m learning German. Swiss people should understand me better.)
    • Ich lerne Deutsch, damit die Schweizer mich besser verstehen. (I’m learning German so that Swiss people understand me better.)

**Note the damit clause is a dependent clause and the conjugated verb comes at the end. The subject follows the conjunction.

  • Johanna arbeitet lange Stunden. Das Projekt soll bis Freitag fertig sein. (Johanna is working long hours. The project should be finished by Friday.)
    • Johanna arbeitet lange Stunden, damit das Projekt bis Freitag fertig sein wird. (Johanna is working long hours so that the project will be done by Friday.)

Inversion with damit:

Inversion works with damit clauses just like it does with the umzu construction. The dependent clause comes in the first position in the same form it would be if it came after the independent clause. The conjugated verb comes right after the comma separating the two clauses.

  • Ich lerne Deutsch, damit die Schweizer mich besser verstehen.
    • Damit die Schweizer mich besser verstehen, lerne ich Deutsch.
  • Johanna arbeitet lange Stunden, damit das Projekt bis Freitag fertig sein wird.
    • Damit das Projekt bis Freitag fertig sein wird, arbeitet Johanna lange Stunden.

One more note:

One last note here. You can use damit even if the subjects are identical in both clauses, however, the subject must be clearly stated in both the independent and dependent clauses. With the umzu construction the subject is generally left out of the dependent clause and thus sounds shorter and more precise.



Henriette Kuhrt entdeckt eine neue Protestkultur in Deutschland.

Ergänzen Sie „um … zu? oder „damit? und -! Denken Sie daran: gleiches Subjekt in Haupt- und Nebensatz = um … zu, unterschiedliches Subjekt = damit!

  1. Hamburger Politiker wollten Kinder länger gemeinsam lernen lassen, _________ sie besser beurteilen ________ können.
  2. Aber reiche Hamburger organisierten eine Kampagne, ________ ihre Kinder auch in Zukunft früh auf das Gymnasium gehen ________ können.
  3. Zurzeit versammeln sich in vielen Städten Bürger, ________ ________ protestieren.
  4. In Stuttgart wollen sich Naturschützer an Bäume ketten, ________ diese nicht gefällt werden ________ können.
  5. Henriette Kuhrt kritisiert, dass die Deutschen nur protestieren, ________ ihren Status quo ________ behalten.
  6. Sie meint, dass sie es nicht tun, ________ die Zukunft besser, gerechter und sicherer ________ wird.

(Exercise from: Deutsch Perfekt 1/2011. Seite 30.)

Related Posts:

  1. AlfredoAlfredo02-26-2013

    Thank you!!!

  2. German-is-easyGerman-is-easy03-03-2013

    Hi Christian, nice post dealing with something that REALLY matters in German tests as far as my experience goes.
    2 things… welll actually 3…

    lange Stunden arbeiten – is that correct in Switzerland? In Germany people would just say “lange” or use “Überstunden machen”

    Then, you mentioned that um is an accusative preposition, which is of course correct but I was a little confused at first because being a conjunction (I think) um has no bearing on what cases occur in the um-zu-sentence.

    And then finally, I answered your mail last week but since a few days, I was not able to log into my mailbox for some annoying reason. Your mail actually ended up in my spam folder and since my private mail is different than the contact on my page, mine might have ended up as spam, too. So just to make sure… did you get the mail?

    Gruss aus Berlin 🙂

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