German Linguistic Precision Part II — Saying where things are in German

liegen, sitzen, stehen

German Linguistic Precision Part II — Saying where things are in German

Last week we learned that the German language has three words that are generally used for “to put”. In English once something is put somewhere it is usually there.

English Example Version 1:

Husband: “Hun, where’s the latest issue of Modern Design? It should have come today.”

Wife: “It’s on the dining room table, dear.”

Now this example is very common in English, where we prefer to not be very precise. “It is on the table”. I say this because it does not really tell us how it is on the table, but just that it exists on the table. Is it flat or upright? We don’t know. Let’s see a more precise example.

English Example Version 2 — more precise:

Husband: “Hun, where’s the latest issue of Modern Design? It should have come today.”

Wife: “It’s lying on the dining room table, dear.”

With this more precise version we are approaching the German way of thinking. It tells us more about the actual state of the magazine. It is flat on the table. Someone has laid it on the table.

So here is the German:

Mann: “Du, Schatz, wo ist die neuste Ausgabe von Modern Design? Sie sollte heute angekommen sein.”

Frau: “Sie liegt auf dem Esstisch.”

Like legen, setzen, and stellen — the three commonly used verbs for telling someone where something is being put — there are three verbs to tell us where that object now is. And fortunately they are related to how it was put there.

setzen -> sitzen

legen -> liegen

stellen -> stehen

Sitzen: If you setzt (set) something somewhere it is then that object now sitzt (sits) there.

Das Verb sitzen

Conjugation of "sitzen"

  1. With people — to sit on something
    • “Das Kind sitzt auf dem Stuhl.”
  2. With animals — to stay in a quietly in a certain place.
    • “Der Hund saß ganz ruhig neben seinem Herrn”
  3. To be stuck in a certain place for a long period of time
    • “Wegen des Schneesturms saßen wir für sechs Stunden im Flughafen.”
  4. To describe how clothing fits
    • “Das Kleid sitzt wie angegossen.”
  5. Slang for being in jail.
    • Er sitzt schon zwei Jahre

Liegen: Like in English if you legst (lay) something somewhere, that object now liegt (lays) there. Like legen liegen describes the position of an object that covers a larger horizontal surface than vertical. Cities also lie — after all they cover more horizontal area than vertical.

Das Verb liegen

Conjugation of "liegen"

  1. To cover a large horizontal surface.
    • “Das Brett liegt auf dem Boden.”
  2. To describe the comfortable position of one object to that of another
    • “Das Messer liegt gut in der Hand.”
  3. Used to describe the positional relation of one object to another
    • “Das Buch liegt links neben dem Bett.”
  4. Used to describe a position in a list or scale.
    • “Die Durchschnittstemperatur liegt im Januar kaum über null Grad.”

Stehen: Was an object was gestellt (placed in an upright position) somewhere, it now steht (stands) there. Here the object is usually quite tall and the majority of its surface area is not in contact with a horizontal surface. The simple past form is stand, so just think of standing in English and you’ll be fine.

Das Verb stehen

Conjugation of "stehen"

  1. To stand on one’s legs without moving.
    • “Er steht auf dem Teppich.”
  2. To be clearly written somewhere
    • “Hier steht es doch geschrieben.”
  3. To be located somewhere
    • “Sie stand zwei Stunden lang im Stau.”
  4. To be in an upright position.
    • “In meinem Bücherregal stehen viele Atlanten.”
  5. To not function
    • “Die alte Uhr von meinem Großvater steht.
  6. Used to say objects such as clothes suit someone.
    • “Blau steht dir sehr gut!”

Note with all of these that they require the dative when saying where they are. There is no movement and the objects are thus is a still state.

In the perfect tense you use haben when describing the active indicative and sein for the passive (the result of an action).

  1. Dr Anthony AlcockDr Anthony Alcock02-17-2012

    German is no more or less precise than any other language.
    The past participle of ‘lay’ is ‘laid’.
    ‘Lain’ is the past participle of ‘lie’.

    • Thank you for the correction. Sloppy mistake there. You’re right, German is not more precise, or rather English is not incapable of being as precise as German. It must be said though, that German in its everyday usage is more precise than English.

  2. Nel FijmaNel Fijma01-23-2013

    It is not a question of German (or Dutch for that matter) being more precise in describing the position of an object. It is just a matter of a different evolution of the languages: the cup’s on the table – Die Tasse steht auf dem Tisch. In German the speaker will use stehen if an object is viewed as positioned firmly on a surface and liegen if the object could roll or slip away. In English you use a form of to be (never stand or lie: it would stress a certain specific position of an object; in German you would have to use an adverbal construction to underline this specific position)

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