In English, moving something to a particular location is a relatively simple operation. Describing this kind of action in German, however, is like walking through a verbal and grammatical minefield.
Here’s why: when I’m speaking English, I can put my mobile in my pocket, put the cutlery into the drawer, put the luggage in the boot, put my clothes in the cupboard, put a picture on the wall, put the kettle on, put a cake in the oven, put a child on my knee, put the bag on the floor and put food on the table.*See bottom of page for translation
What a simple, versatile little verb „put“ is.
Yet in German, there is no single verb for all these actions. The verb you use will depend largely on the position of the person/object you are placing or „putting“ somewhere:
- if it is laid flat, the verb is generally legen;
- if it is placed vertically, the verb is generally stellen;
- if someone is being seated, the verb is generally setzen;
- if something is being hung on a wall, the verb is generally hängen.
Here are a few extra possibilities:
- if you are placing something into an opening or through a slot, as you do when you put something in your pocket or put a letter into an envelope, you would generally use stecken;
- if you are putting a child into bed, you could also choose stecken, but bringen is perhaps more common;
- if you are placing something on an angle or leaning it against something, such as leaning a bike against a pillar, you can use the verb lehnen;
- if you need to push something while moving it, you might also use the verb schieben; for instance, if you a putting a cake into an oven or pushing a chair closer to a table.
Each of these verbs, when used to refer to an action of putting something somewhere, must be followed by the accusative case, which in German conveys the concept of active movement into a new location.
The table below provides several more examples of each type of action, followed by the accusative case. These examples may help you to decode the tricky variations of „put“ in German and get a feel for this whole concept.
After absorbing all the examples below, you will be ready to tackle this quiz. It will seem like a cinch – kinderleicht!
legen - to lay something flat | stellen - to stand something upright | hängen - to hang something | setzen - to place someone in a seated position | schieben - to place something into or push it closer to something | stecken - to slip or stick something into | lehnen - to lean something against something (on an angle)
NOTE: Like the multi-tasking English verb "to put", the German verbs above have other varied meanings. The meanings emphasised above relate only to how the verbs can be used to describe placing people or objects into various positions.
So here’s how that succession of „put“ sentences at the top of this page could be translated into German:
Ich stecke mein Handy in meine Tasche, lege das Besteck in die Schublade, stelle den Koffer in den Kofferraum und hänge oder lege die Kleidung in den Kleiderschrank. Dann hänge ich ein Bild an die Wand. Ich setze den Kessel auf *, schiebe den Kuchen in den Ofen, setze das Kind auf meinen Schoß, stelle oder lege die Tüte auf den Boden und stelle das Essen auf den Tisch.
Und danach bin ich völlig erschöpft, weil ich so viel gemacht habe und dafür viele verschiedene Verben benutzen musste.
Manchmal ist Deutsch ganz schön kompliziert. Aber ich mag es trotzdem.
*This is an old-fashioned kettle that you are placing on a gas ring. A new-fangled electric kettle would be turned on, i.e. Ich mache den (elektrischen) Kessel an.