In your conversations with German native speakers, it’s possible that you have heard some words whose meaning you couldn’t quite figure out. These so-called modal particles are words (often short) that do not have a clear meaning, nor are required by any grammatical rule. Then, what are they for? Well, they are generally used to emphasize what the speaker wants to say. In addition, some sentences just sound weird without them.
No meaning and no grammar? So, how can I learn these words? Unfortunately, that is actually the problem. While the best way to learn them would be to live in a German environment and hear them every day, not everybody has this opportunity. So, instead, I will simply try to explain them by providing real-world examples and situations in which they would typically be used by a native speaker.
The most common modal particles are:
While some of these, such as ja, aber, ruhig, einfach, bloß and vielleicht, also have an actual meaning, this meaning only exists when they are not being used as modal particles. In this article, we will see how this difference works.
Let’s start with a typical situation. You are at a friend’s place or at a party and you start talking with somebody you don’t know. You might even ask them some questions about their job or where they are from. Let’s compare these two sentences:
- Woher kommen Sie?
- Woher kommen Sie denn?
Here, denn is being used as a typical modal particle; it has no meaning at all. So, please don’t get it confused with the conjunction denn, which means “because.” The conjunction version is used to connect two sentences and is always placed at the beginning of the second sentence. In contrast, the modal particle version appears in the middle (or at the end) of either a question or a sentence.
So, what is the difference between these two questions? Well, you are actually asking almost the exact same thing in both examples and it is very likely that each will elicit very similar responses. However, you might find that you get different reactions though.
So why is this? The most obvious answer is that the second question is slightly longer. That’s it? Well, kind of. The truth is that the first question sounds a bit like a police interrogation: too direct and fairly rude. With the addition of the modal particle, the question simply becomes longer, and therefore more polite and acceptable.
Another possible situation could occur if you accidently bump into a friend on the train or the bus:
- Wo fährst du denn hin? or Wohin fährst du denn?
- Wo fährst du hin? or Wohin fährst du?
First of all, as you can see, there are two ways of saying the same thing. The version with wohin is the standard question that you will find in textbooks. However, in spoken language, wo and hin are often split into two parts. Therefore, both versions are included above.
In each pair of examples, the version without the modal particle denn makes the speaker seem overly inquisitive. In fact, only a certain intonation could make this question seem appropriate without using denn. Again, the difference lies in the degree of politeness.
Finally, the modal particle denn can also be used to express surprise.
- Wo kommst du denn her? (Where do you come from? Here, it is more of a rhetorical question.)
- Wie siehst du denn aus? (You look terrible! Literally: How do you look like?)
- Was machen Sie denn da? (What the hell are you doing?)
The particle mal can make a request sound more polite. It makes it seem as though the speaker only wants to bother the other person for a brief period of time.
- Könnten Sie mir (bitte) mal helfen? (Could you please help me just for a short moment?)
- Könnte ich (bitte) mal Ihren Stift haben? (Could I please borrow your pen only for a few seconds?)
In the second sentence, it is implied that the pen will be returned as soon as possible. Without mal, one might think that the speaker wanted to keep the pen forever. With bitte, the sentence obviously becomes even more polite. One could say, the longer the sentence is or the more modal particles it contains, the more polite it is.
- Kommen Sie (her)! (Please come over here!)
- Kommen Sie bitte (her)!
- Kommen Sie doch bitte (her)!
- Kommen Sie doch bitte mal (her)!
From the first through the fourth sentences, the meaning remains completely the same, but the degree of politeness increases. This means that the modal particles have the ability to change the tone of the sentence. her, which means “towards the speaker,” makes the whole issue a bit more complicated, however. While Kommen Sie! could be considered acceptable in certain circumstances, Kommen Sie her! sounds pretty rude (imagine an angry general calling a soldier).
Have you ever noticed that when Germans speak English, they use the word “already” quite frequently? This is probably because the German word for “already” (schon) is used in a way that is different from English.
For instance, when asking whether you have “ever” done something, you would use schon mal.
- Warst du schon mal in Berlin? (Have you ever been to Berlin?)
- Ja, ich war schon mal da. (Yes, I have.)
- Nein, ich war noch nie/nicht da. (No, I haven’t.)
The responses to schon (mal) in the negative are noch nie and noch nicht.
Similarly, you can use this word when asking about whether something has been done.
- Haben Sie den Brief schon geschrieben? (Have you written the letter?)
- Ja, ich habe ihn schon geschrieben. (Yes, I have. Literally: I have written it already.)
- Nein, ich habe ihn noch nicht geschrieben. (No, I haven’t. Literally: I haven’t written it yet.)
eigentlich sometimes has a meaning that is similar to “actually.”
- Hast du eigentlich ein Auto?
Here, the speaker is expressing that they are unsure about whether or not the other person has a car. Again, without eigentlich, the question might sound somewhat rude.
- Ich habe es dir doch schon erzählt. (I have told you that already.)
Here, doch emphasizes schon. For example, this sentence could be a response to another speaker who had just expressed that they were unsure about being told something previously. Thus, this answer is a little bit like saying “How can you not remember? I have already told you, so you should know.”
In other, more positive contexts, doch can be used to express surprise, such as in:
- Das ist doch toll! (That is really great!)
Sometimes, doch can be used to express a slight degree of doubt.
- Das ist doch dein Auto, oder? (That is your car, isn’t it?)
As a modal particle, ruhig doesn’t mean “calm” or “silent” as it does when it is being used as an adjective. It means something more along the lines of “don’t worry, no problem.”
- Kommen Sie ruhig rein! (Don’t worry! Come in!)
- Nehmen Sie sich ruhig Zeit! (No worries, take your time!)
halt or eben both express resignation. Typically, the speaker would shrug their shoulders at the same time:
- Das ist halt so. (That’s just the way it is!)
- Da kann man halt nichts machen. (There is nothing that can be done about it.)
A typical mistake that I often hear is wie so, which is probably intended to mean “like that.” This is not correct. Instead, if one wants to say, “I like it like that” in German, they should use: I mag es so. However, this mistake might be due to the student having heard a word that is very similar: sowieso. This word is more or less equivalent to “anyway.” Let’s see some examples:
- Er kommt sowieso nicht mehr. (Anyway, he will not come anymore.)
- Ich habe sowieso keine Lust darauf, heute Abend ins Kino zu gehen. (Anyway, I am not keen on going to the movies tonight.)
- Das ist sowieso besser so. (Anyway, it’s better this way.)
Generally, aber is used as a conjunction meaning “but.” However, as a modal particle, it means something along the lines of “though,” and is used to contradict what has just been said before or to emphasize the content.
- Das ist aber gar nicht so schlecht. (That’s not bad, though.)
- Das passt mir heute aber gar nicht. (It doesn’t suit me today.)
- Das ist aber eine Überraschung! (That is a surprise.)
As a modal particle, ja does not mean yes, but instead is used to emphasize something positive.
- Das ist ja interessant/toll/super! (That’s really interesting/great.)
Ordinarily, bloß has a very similar meaning to nur (only). However, as a modal particle, it is often used in a warning.
- Sagen Sie das bloß nicht zu laut! (Don’t say that aloud!)
- Sei bloß vorsichtig! (Be careful!)
Kontaktiert mich doch einfach, wenn ihr Fragen dazu habt! (Please contact me if you have any questions!)