German Linguistic Precision Part I — The German word for “put”
How does one say, “Just put that down over there.” in German? Though the sentence is quite simple it is the source of much frustration to English speakers learning German. What is the German verb for “to put”? Type “to put” into LEO and the following translations come up: anbringen, anwenden, legen, setzen. There are of course others, but these are just for “to put” without taking “to put to” or “to put” + something else into account.
This simple English verb that is just so handy unfortunately does not have an equally handy German equivalent. And like so much in German it comes down to a linguistic precision that is the bane of all German-English translators. The best solution though is actually quite simple — think like a German speaker and critically evaluate what it is that you are doing.
So here we go you are either: setting – setzen, laying – legen, or placing – stellen. Three verbs for what an English speaker would just say “put” to. But the fact that English translations of setzen, legen, and stellen exist shows that English speakers can be precise in their descriptions, but that we simply choose not to be. So which verb do you use when and why?
Setzen: A very helpful verb. Unlike legen and stellen, it can be used a bit more freely and does not take the horizontality or verticality of the object into consideration. Yes, you read correctly the others have one extra specification.
- To set something down
- “Hans setzt die Tasse auf den Tisch.”
- To seat oneself (sich setzen)
- “Bitte setzen Sie sich!”
- For positioning figures on a board game
- “Oh, du hast schon gesetzt!”
- To put things in the correct order
- “Setzen Sie die Bilder in die richtige Reihenfolge!”
Legen: Not quite as versatile as setzen, legen means to lay, as in to put something into a horizontal position. If the surface area of the object you are putting somewhere covers more horizontal surface than vertical, you will want to use legen.
- To bring something into a horizontal position.
- “Ich lege das Buch auf den Tisch.” Note the book is sitting on the cover and is not standing.
- To lay eggs
- “Die dicken Hennen legen viele Eier.”
- To lay wires, pipes or flooring
- “Jetzt muss der Installateur nur noch Kabel legen.”
Stellen: So if legen has to do with putting something into a horizontal position then stellen must be to place something in a vertical position. As we are not talking about hanging, stellen is essentially used for tall upright objects. In many ways you can also think of stellen as “to stand”.
- To bring something into a vertical position.
- “Er stellt die Vase auf den Tisch.”
- “Stelle das Buch bitte zurück ins Regal!”
- To stand
- “Das Kind musste sich in die Ecke stellen.”
** Please also note that we use the accusative with these verbs, as they always suggest movement.
*** For other situations where you might want to use the verb “to put” in English and get stuck, think about what other verb you could use to describe the action and you’ll probably find a good German verb.