German modal particles or ‘Those dumb little German words‘

You finally understand German. You are confident. You weigh in a little in a real German conversation. You have even mastered those nasty false friends that used to confuse you. But then: Your German friends start using those dumb little words and you are lost. But don’t worry, we got you covered! These filler words are so-called German modal particles and they serve different purposes to give nuance to your statements or questions. And you are going to use them to spice up your language skills and feel like a German pro in no time. In this definitive guide to German modal particles we will go through all of them, analyze their possible translations, give explanations and provide examples.

Although some of these filler words are used very frequently, they are rarely necessary to understand the (basic) meaning of a sentence. Therefore, German modal particles are considered most useful for advanced students, though some are subject to the official B1 German exam.

While reading through the list, keep in mind that the meaning of most of these words can change with the tone, the pronunciation, the how you say them. Depending on the melody of the whole sentence, they might be considered insulting, threatening, regretting, justifying, extra-caring or even just fun or sarcastic.

With this in mind, it is easy do understand that German modal particles are mainly conversational fillers, giving subtext according to their tone and that it is often hard to put them correctly in written form. While some of those filler words are used when writing, the more nuanced ones could – without the right pronunciation or stress – never convey what is meant to be said. Therefore, filler words are for the most part considered ’bad writing style‘ and should only be used scarcely in essays, literature or formal texts. Of course, many writers are insisting on breaking the rules and keep winning literature prize after literature prize with them. So don’t see this as a strict rule, but more as guidance.

For your overview, and in case you want to jump to a specific word, here’s the definitive list of German modal particles. Don’t just memorize the translations, though. Instead, go to the full section and see every possible translation in context.

Modal particlePossible translationsIllustrative example
aberbut, really, actually, mostDu kannst aber gut singen.
aber schonactually, without questionIch will aber schon auch meine Meinung sagen dürfen.
alsosoIch will eigentlich auch zu Hause bleiben. Also Netflix und Chill?
bloßjust, (what) on earth, don't you dareFass mich bloß nicht an.
dennreally, exactly, I want to know, soWarum weinst du denn?
dochdon't you?, yes, even if you say otherwise, I hope, in the endEr hat es doch gesagt.
ebenjust, exactly, definitelyDas ist eben Tradition.
einfachjust (…already), simply, I don't understand, whyIch musste das einfach sagen.
erstonly, recently, as soon as, first (of all), in the beginning, especiallyErst gestern habe ich dein Buch gelesen.
erst einmalfirst(ly), first of allErst einmal ruhig werden, dann Lösungen finden.
erst rechtall the more, more than everBei dem guten Wetter will ich erst recht nicht zu Hause bleiben.
etwaabout, perhaps, don't you say, for example, by any chanceIst das etwa verboten?
gar (nicht)really, definitely, not at all, especially, it seems likeDas habe ich gar nicht gesagt.
geradestraight, just a moment ago, right now, especially, of all…, exactlyGerade in diesen Zeiten muss man kreativ sein.
guta bit more/longer than, a bit overDas wird eine gute Stunde dauern.
haltjust, what about itDann gehen wir halt schon wieder essen.
immer nochstill, despite everythingEr ist immer noch da.
jadon't worry, do, duh, don't you, right, after all, really?Ich habe es dir ja gesagt.
jetztnow (of all times), just…this timeWas soll das jetzt bedeuten?
malfor once, why don't youKomm mal her!
nichtnot, let'sHast du das nicht gestern gemacht?
nichts wielet's (just/finally)Nichts wie raus hier.
nochstill, even, else, onlyHast du noch Fragen?
noch und nöchermore than anyone can imagineSie hat Schuhe noch und nöcher.
nun einmaljust, it can't be helpedDas ist nun einmal passiert.
nun gutalright thenNun gut, dann sprechen wir nicht mehr darüber.
schauen wir mallet's see, let's take a look without hurryFahren wir im Sommer nach Griechenland? - Schauen wir mal.
schonalready, eventually, indeedDu wirst es schon lernen.
schwacha bit less thanDas wird eine schwache Stunde dauern.
totalabsolutely, definitelyJa, total, lass es uns tun.
überhaupt (nicht)even, at allIst das denn überhaupt legal?
vielleichtwhat do you think?, boy, I tell you, I think, it's better if, reallyIch war vielleicht nervös.
wohllooks like, seems, probablyMorgen werde ich wohl nicht ausschlafen können.

Now, the following is an attempt at bringing some structure into the loooong list of German modal particles. Do keep in mind, though, that many words are used for many different purposes, so do read the whole explanation of each word and do not assume the headlines are the only way to use them.

Using German modal particles to justify action, traditions or feelings without revealing a reason:

eben

Possible translations: just, exactly, definitely

eben has three different meanings that depend on context. In the first way eben is used, it expresses a feeling of unchangeableness and can justify traditions or practices. It is used to explain something that has always been a certain way and is unchangeable. It also states that there is nothing one can do about it. Often it is used after a story to summarize everything you said with ‘That’s just the way someone/something is.‘

Examples:

Das wird hier eben so gemacht. ‘That’s just how it’s done here.‘

Das ist eben Tradition. ‘That’s just tradition.‘

Für gute Noten musst du eben viel lernen. ‘For good grades you just have to study a lot.‘


If someone states something you already knew (and possibly told them before), you can also answer with eben in the meaning of ‘exactly‘. With the right tone it can even mean ‘I told you so‘.

Example:

Statement: Aber wenn du Recht hast, dann ist das wirklich keine gute Idee! ‘But if you are right, than this is really not a good idea.‘

Reaction: Eben! ‘Exactly‘


The third way of using eben, it helps put the emphasis on another word in the sentence. It is used as an intensifier for the sentence.

Examples:

Das ist eben nicht, was ich gemeint habe. ’That’s exactly/definitely not what I meant‘.

Eben auf dieses Problem sind wir auch gestoßen. ‘Exactly this problem is what we encountered as well.‘


halt

Possible translations: just, what about it

halt is a German modal particle that you will hear a lot. It is similar in many cases to eben and explains something that has always been the way it is or states that something does not even need an explanation.

Examples:

Das ist halt so. ’That’s just the way it is‘

Ich denke halt, eine friedliche Lösung ist die beste. ‘I just think a peaceful solution is the best.‘


halt is also used as a justification of an opinion or feeling that does not allow any further questions. Sometimes it can also be translated with ‚it can/could not be helped‘.

Examples:

Ich mag ihn halt nicht. ‘I just don’t like him.’ or ’I don’t like him. It can’t be helped.‘

Dann habe ich halt geweint! ‘So I cried – what about it?‘


In a request or prompt, halt can also state that either there is no better option than to do what is suggested or that the decision has been made already and it’s just a matter of when you do it, so you can just do it right away.

Examples:

Dann geh halt schwimmen, auch wenn es regnet. ‘So just go and have a swim, even if it rains.‘

Dann gehen wir halt schon wieder essen. ‘So let’s just eat out again.‘


einfach

Possible translations: just (… already), simply, I don’t understand, why

In the same way as halt or eben, einfach can be used to justify an action or a tradition without actually giving an explanation. In this case einfach is synonymous with halt or eben.

Example:

Ich musste das einfach sagen. ‘I just/simply had to say that.‘


There are three more uses of einfach, though. One is to amplify your statement or opinion. This is most frequently used in a very emotional context, when you are particularly happy, sad or angry about something.

Example:

Der Urlaub war einfach schön. ‘The vacation was simply/just magnificent.‘


Another way of using einfach is to emphasize a  „just-do-it“-mentality. By adding einfach to a suggestion or request, you express that someone should not make a fuzz about it and just do it already.

Example:

Ruf doch einfach an. ‘Just call already!‘


The last usage of the modal particle einfach is to state that you do not understand the reason behind something. In this case, it could be translated with ‘…and I don’t understand why.‘

Example:

Er ist einfach nach Hause gegangen. ’He just went home and I don’t understand why.‘


nun einmal (or: nun mal)

Possible translations: just, it can’t be helped

Similar to eben, halt and einfach, nun einmal or nun mal can be used to express that something ‘has always been this way‘, giving an explanation without actually providing an explanation for something.

Examples:

Das ist nun einmal passiert. ’That happened. It can’t be helped.‘


mal

Possible translations: for once, why don’t you

This German modal particle is used in a few different ways. Often (but not always) it expresses anger over an action of someone else or the lack of understanding for an action not taken.

Examples:

Sag mal was! ‘Say something for once! ‘ or ‘Why don’t you say something? ‘

Kannst du mal nicht so blöd tun? ‘Can you – for once – not act so stupid?‘


mal can also be used for an emotionally neutral and informal request. It makes what is said seem casual, even unimportant at times.

Examples:

Zeig mir mal, was du gemalt hast. ‘Why don’t you show me, what you’ve drawn?‘

Komm mal her! ‘Why don’t you come over here? ‘

As with many of those German filler words the meaning (Is it just a request or is it meant angrily?) depends on how it’s said.


schauen wir mal

Possible translations: let’s see, let’s take a look without hurry

Regional variations: Schau ma (mal), mal luege, ma schauen

While we have the little German filler word mal in this sentence, it does not work with the explanation given above. Schauen wir mal has a fixed meaning of ‘Let’s see‘in a more unsure way as in ‘Let’s be careful with our decision and we’ll see what happens later‘.

It is commonly used when people are given a choice but don’t want to rush into it. Or if someone is suggesting a plan and the other person doesn’t want to commit right away.

Example:

Question: Fahren wir im Sommer nach Griechenland? ‘Are we going to Greece in the summer?‘

Answer: Schauen wir mal. ‘Let’s see. (I got to think about it first – you won’t get a definite answer right away).‘


Using German modal particles to sound more German (and possible childish) in an argument

ja

Possible translations: don’t worry, do/did, duh, don’t you/we, right, it is known/everyone knows that, after all, really?

Everyone who has ever learned the basics of German will know the word ja as ‘yes‘ – and they are correct. But if not used in an answer to a question, ja can have many different meanings. The first one is to serve as a reassurance (don’t worry‘).

Examples:

Ich mache es ja. ‘I’ll do it, don’t worry.‘

Ich werde die Aufgabe ja am Wochenende machen. ‘I’ll do the homework on the weekend, don’t worry.‘


It can also be a reinforcement (like using ‚do‘/’did‘ in an English sentence, where it is grammatically not required).

Example:

Ich habe es dir ja gesagt. ‘I did tell you!‘


And it can even be used to state that it is foolish to expect otherwise (‘duh‘).

Example:

Das weiß ja jeder. ‘Everyone knows it – duh.‘


At the end of a sentence, ja can transform a statement into a (rhetorical) question.

Examples:

Du willst noch eine zweite Portion Nudeln, ja? You want another portion of pasta, don’t you?‘

Wir sehen uns nächste Woche, ja? ‘We’ll see each other next week, right‘


Another use of ja shows surprise or irritation.

Examples:

Es regnet ja wirklich. ‘Oh, it really rains.‘

Da seid ihr ja endlich. ‘Here you finally are.‘ (later than expected)


Ja can also be used to state that something is widely known and there was in fact no need to state it.

Example:

Meine Geschwister kommen ja immer zu spät. ‘My siblings are always late, everyone knows that.‘


Together with aber, ja intensifies the regret of not being able to do something.

Example:

Ich will ja mit ins Kino, aber ich kann es mir nicht leisten. ‘I really do want to come along to the cinema but I cannot afford it.‘


Another use of ja is to make a request into a threat.

Example:

Vergiss ja nicht das Geld zu Hause. ‘Don’t you forget the money at home.‘


And there is even more! Ja can serve to give extra credibility to what you just said and/or serve the purpose of creating a familiar and relaxed atmosphere.

Example:

Ich habe das ja an der Universität studiert. ‘I did study that at university after all.‘

Ich kenne das ja auch von früher. ‘I do also know that from back in the day.’


Okay, we are almost through: Here comes, last but not least, another meaning of ja. If someone tells you something and you are really surprised about it, you can use ja as a question to show your surprise.

Example:

Statement: Und dann habe ich tatsächlich einfach so den Model-Job bekommen. ‘And then I got the modelling job – just like that.‘

Answer: Ja? ‘Really?‘


doch

Possible translations: don’t you?, yes (in a contradictory argument), even if you say otherwise, I hope, in the end

doch is used when you want to give an objection to a statement, to contradict someone, or when you want to put an emphasis on a statement.

Examples:

Du siehst das doch auch so! ‘You agree with me, don’t you?‘ [You see this the same way as me, don’t you?’

Argument: Ich glaube, das ist keine gute Idee. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea‘

Counter-Argument: Doch, ist es! ‘Yes, it is!‘

Objection: Nein! ‘No!‘

Objection: Doch! ‘Yes!‘

Er hat es doch gesagt! ‘He did say it (even if you say otherwise)‘


Doch can also be used in a completely different way. It can express your hope for a specific answer to your (rhetorical) question.

Examples:

Sie werden doch keinen Unfall gehabt haben? ‘I hope (and believe), they did not get into an accident!‘

Du kommst doch zur Party? ‘I hope, you are coming to the party. ‘


Another way of using doch is when you want to say that something completely unexpected happened.

Example:

Er hat mir dann doch einen Kuchen zum Geburtstag gebacken. ‘At the end, he did bake a cake for my birthday.‘


Together with nur, doch can be used to justify something with an explanation.

Example:

Du sagst das doch nur, weil du wütend bist. ‘You are only saying that, because you are angry.‘


Using German modal particles to tell time periods (less accurately than you actually could)

noch

Possible translations: still, even, else, only

Noch is used to state that something is a specific way but will change soon.

Examples:

Du bist noch da? ‘You are still here? (I thought you already left or/and will leave soon)’

Ich lebe noch in Österreich. ‘I am still living in Austria (but planning on moving away).’


In contrast to that, noch is also used as a warning that if nothing changes, something (bad) will happen.

Example:

Wenn du noch lange wartest, verpasst du den Zug. ‘If you wait even longer, you’ll miss the train.‘


noch can also state that something is even more than something else.

Example:

Bei unserem ersten Treffen war er noch schöner als online. ‘At our first meeting, he was even more handsome than he seemed online.‘


noch can also be used for ‘else‘ or ‘more‘, stating that while  things have already been done/said/given/ more is yet to come.

Examples:

Was gibt es da noch zu sagen? ‘What else is there to say?

Hast du noch Fragen? ‘Do you have more questions?

Ich brauche noch Tomaten. ‘I need (more) tomatoes (after I already needed other stuff/after I already used tomatoes).‘


Noch can also help to express that something just recently happened.

Example:

Noch gestern war es wirklich kalt draußen. Only yesterday it was really cold outside.


immer noch

Possible translations: still, despite everything

While noch is mostly used positively (Hast du noch Fragen? – ‘Do you have more questions?‘ with the undertone that you are happy to answer more questions.), immer noch has (mostly) negative connotations.

Examples:

Hast du immer noch Fragen? ‘Do you still have questions (after I explained so many and don’t want to anymore.)‘

Er ist immer noch da. ‘He is still here (but I want him to leave).‘


More rarely, immer noch is used positively, in which case it can be translated with ‘despite everything‘.

Example:

Wir haben so viele Probleme, aber wir sind immer noch glücklich. ‘We have so many problems, but we are happy despite everything.‘


noch und nöcher

Possible translations: more than anyone can imagine

noch und nöcher means that something happened more often than you can state or someone owns more than you can imagine.

Example:
Sie hat Schuhe noch und nöcher. ‘She has more shoes than anyone can imagine.‘


gerade

Possible translations: straight, just, a moment ago, right now, especially, of all times/people/things, exactly

As you can see from the multitude of different possible translations, gerade has very diverse usages and meanings (though not quite as much as ja, which is the uncontested winner in this regard).

The direct translation of gerade is ‘straight‘.

Example:

Das Bild hängt gerade. ’The picture is hanging straight.‘


However, most of the time, this German modal particle is used in reference to time, expressing that something happened only a moment ago or even at this exact moment (in opposition to noch or erst which are used for ‘recently‘ but longer ago than just a moment).

Examples:

Ich habe sie gerade gesehen. ‘I just saw her (only one moment ago).‘

Wo bist du gerade? ‘Where are you right now?‘


Furthermore, gerade can mean ‘especially‘ when it is put just before a time frame or condition in a sentence. You can therefore use it to put emphasis on special dates, times or circumstances.

Examples:

Gerade in diesen Zeiten, muss man kreativ sein. ‘Especially in these times, one has to be creative.‘

Gerade an Regentagen schlafe ich gerne lange. ‘Especially on rainy days I like to sleep in.‘


Furthermore, gerade states anger or surprise about why something happens in this moment/to this person/with this thing and not someone else/something else/some other time.

Examples:

Warum gerade jetzt? ‘Why now of all times?‘

Er wollte, dass gerade ich all seine Probleme löse. ‘He wanted me of all people to fix his problems.‘

Sie hat gerade diese eine Seite aus meinem Tagebuch gelesen. ‘She read exactly this one page of my diary (and not the others which would not have been as bad).‘


Last but not least, if you add gerade after nicht, it makes a critique sound less intense.

Examples:

Ich bin nicht gerade die richtige Person dafür. ‘I am not really the right person for that.‘

Sie ist nicht gerade die klügste Schülerin. ‘She is not really the brightest student.‘


erst

Possible translations: only, recently, as soon as (and not earlier), first (of all), in the beginning, especially, not more than

Similar to gerade this modal particle is used to tell that something ‘just happened not so long ago‘ and to put emphasis on the time element in the sentence. In general, however, erst refers to something that happened a bit longer ago than gerade.

Examples:

Erst gestern habe ich dein Buch gelesen. ‘Only yesterday I read your book.‘

Ich bin erst wieder im Kino gewesen. ‘I recently went to the movies again.‘


As opposed to gerade, erst can also be used for an unspecified time in the future.

Examples:

Erst im Sommer werde ich Sport machen. ‘Only in summer, I will do sports (and not earlier).‘

Erst nächste Woche kommt mein Paket an. ‘Only next week my package will arrive (and not earlier).‘


Erst can also help to state the order of things.

Examples:

Erst arbeiten, dann Freizeit. ‘First work, then play.‘

Erst besprichst du das mit deinen Eltern. ‘First of all, you talk to your parents about it.‘

Erst war ich am gewinnen, dann habe ich verloren. ‘First I was winning, but then I lost.‘


In a different situation, erst can emphasize one specific element out of many things that have the same characteristics (see also gar).

Example:

In seiner Wohnung war alles schmutzig und erst das Badezimmer! ‘In his apartment everything was dirty and especially the bathroom.‘


And finally, erst can state that something is ‘not more than‘ something, although you might expect it.

Example:

Sie verhält sich wie 18, aber sie ist erst 15 Jahre alt. ‘She acts as if she was 18, but she is only 15 years old.‘


erst recht

Possible translations: all the more, more than ever

This German modal particle is used to express that your opinion or wish has hardened because of a specific circumstance.

Examples:

Bei dem guten Wetter will ich erst recht nicht zu Hause bleiben. ‘In this good weather I all the more don’t want to stay at home.‘

Wenn du lachst, bist du erst recht attraktiv. ‘When you smile, you are more attractive than ever.‘


erst einmal

Possible translations: first(ly), first of all

Erst einmal is used when you want to give the timely order of something. It is a shortened form of Zuerst einmal and can be shortened further to Erstmal. Sometimes you can also just say erst (as stated above). All versions are used the same way, which to pick depends only on the region.

Examples:

Erst einmal ruhig werden, dann Lösungen finden. ‘First calm down, then find solutions.’

Erst einmal will ich eine Erklärung hören, dann entscheide ich, ob ich dir glaube. ‘First of all I want to hear an explanation, then I will decide if I believe you.‘


jetzt

Possible translations: now (of all times), just…this time

jetzt is most commonly known as ‘now‘. As a filler word it can be used for two different purposes, though. The first expresses anger over an action of someone else. It means that what was done or is requested happens at a very inconvenient moment.

Examples:

Was wollte er jetzt noch? ‘What else did he want now of all times?‘

Was soll das jetzt bedeuten? ’What is that supposed to mean now?‘

Das ist mir jetzt wichtig. ’That is just important to me this time.‘


Jetzt is also used as an intensifier, common in rhetorical questions but also when giving an explanation. For instance, it can be used when asking a rhetorical question about where an item has gone (e.g. a phone, keys, glasses). In these situations, jetzt is often accompanied by denn to add a tone of surprise, as in the following example.

Example:

Wo ist mein Handy denn jetzt hingekommen? ’Where did my phone go now?‘


gut

Possible translations: a bit more/a bit longer than, a bit over

gut is used for the adjective ‘good‘ and the adverb ‘well‘ but as a German modal particle it gives an estimate on time. With gut one says that it is a bit more than stated.

Examples

Das wird eine gute Stunde dauern. ‘It will take a bit over an hour.‘

Er ist gute 50. ’He is a bit older than 50.‘


schwach

Possible translation: a bit less than

Regional variation: knapp

schwach is literally translated with ‘weak‘ but is used in opposition to gut, when you give an estimation but want to say ’a bit less than what I say‘.

Examples:

Das wird eine schwache Stunde dauern. ‘It will take a bit less than an hour.‘

Er ist knappe 80 Jahre alt. ‘He is a bit younger than 80 years.‘

In this context, schwach and knapp are synonyms and which to use depends on the region you find yourself in.


Using German modal particles to intensify your opinion

nicht

Possible translations: not, let’s

In many cases this German filler word can be literally translated with ‘not‘ and is used to intensify your opinion.

Examples:

Ist das nicht schön? ‘Isn’t it beautiful?‘ (intensifying how beautiful it is)

Hast du das nicht gestern gemacht? ‘Didn’t you do that yesterday?‘ (intensifying the question, because you thought it was done yesterday)


Other times, it gives a suggestion with the expectation that everyone agrees to it.

Example:

Wollen wir nicht spazieren gehen? ‘Let’s go for a walk!‘


Nicht can also be used to show surprise about something.

Example:

Wie gut das nicht schmeckt! ‘How tasty it is!‘


gar (nicht)

Possible translations: really‚ definitely, not at all, especially, it seems like

gar adds another level of intensity, both in negative and positive statements.

Examples:

Das ist gar übertrieben. ‘That is really too much.‘

Sie hat gar übertrieben. ‘She really overstated.‘

Das habe ich gar nicht gesagt. ‘I did not say that at all.‘

Das ist gar nicht schön. ‘That is not pretty at all.‘


Another possible usage is to emphasize a specific element out of a group of things. In this case it is synonymous with erst.

Example:

Im Hotel war alles perfekt, und gar das Essen! ‘At the hotel, everything was perfect (and) especially the food!‘


Gar can also be used in rhetorical questions to intensify assumptions.

Example:

Hat er gar seinen Regenschirm vergessen? ‘It seems like he forgot his umbrella.‘


total

Possible translations: absolutely, definitely

Another way of intensifying a statement is with ‘total‘. It can either intensify a positive response or an adjective.

Examples:

Das ist total umwerfend. ‘That is absolutely stunning.‘

Ja, total, lass uns das tun. ‘Yes, definitely, let’s do it.‘


aber

Possible translations: but, really, actually, most

Most commonly known as a conjunction with the meaning ‘but‘, aber has different meanings as well. As a German modal particle, you can use it to show surprise in a positive way. It will intensify your statement.

Example:

Du kannst aber gut singen. ‘You actually can sing well.‘


As an answer to a request, aber states that something can be taken for granted and that it need not even be asked.

Example:

Request: Könntest du für mich einkaufen gehen. Ich bin krank. ‘Could you go shopping for me? I am ill.‘

Answer: Aber sicher! ’Most certainly!‘


aber schon

Possible translations: actually, without question

In combination with schon, aber intensifies the meaning of schon or states that it is contradictory to what was said or done before.

Example:

Ich will aber schon meine Meinung sagen dürfen. ‘I do actually want to be allowed to state my opinion.‘

Das war aber schon auch lustig. ’That was without question funny.‘ (even though no one else is laughing.)


überhaupt (nicht)

Possible translations: even, at all

Überhaupt is a German modal particle that is used mostly in questions – especially to  question a basic assumption.

Example:

Ist das denn überhaupt legal?  ’Is that even legal?‘.


In other questions or also in statements, it can intensify your anger, wishes or displeasure about something.

Examples:

Ich wollte das überhaupt nicht. ‘I did not want that at all.‘

Warum bist du überhaupt zurückgekommen? ‘Why did you even come back?‘


Using German modal particles to state uncertainty or make predictions

schon

Possible translations: already, eventually, indeed

schon can be literally translated with ‘already‘ and is a sort of antagonist  to noch (‘still‘).

Example:

Ist sie schon da? ‘Is she already here?‘


Often schon also means ‘eventually‘ and is used to soothe someone or reassure them that things will turn out positively in the end.

Example:

Du wirst es schon lernen. ‘You’re going to learn it eventually.‘


At times, schon is used as an introduction before a contradiction. It says that you tried but it didn’t help.

Example:

Ich war schon in der Vorlesung, aber ich habe nichts gelernt. ‘I was indeed at the lecture but I did not learn anything.‘


Another possible usage of schon is when you want to state that something is more than you or your counterpart thought.

Example:

Das ist schon eine echte Herausforderung. ‘That’s indeed a real challenge.‘ ’That is a bigger challenge that we/I thought.‘


Schon can also be used when you want to state that – contrary to previous beliefs – something definitely is a certain way.

Example:

Regentage machen mich schon manchmal traurig. ‘Rainy days do make me sad sometimes.‘


wohl

Possible translations: looks like, seems, probably

wohl is mostly used for forecasts or predictions. It states that something is likely to happen.

Examples:

Morgen werde ich wohl nicht ausschlafen können. ‘It looks like I won’t be able to sleep in tomorrow.‘

Es wird wohl eine gute Ernte geben. ‘There is probably going to be a good harvest.‘

Da hast du wohl recht. ‘You are probably right with that.‘


Using German modal particles to make suggestions with different undertones

vielleicht

Possible translations: what do you think? boy, I tell you, I think, it’s better if …, really

As with many German filler words in this list, vielleicht is a word every German beginner learns and thinks of as fairly simple. But, as with the others, vielleicht can have quite a lot of different meanings.

When you add it to a suggestion put in a question, it asks for approval.

Example:

Wollen wir morgen vielleicht an den See fahren? ’Let’s go to the lake tomorrow, what do you think?‘


Vielleicht can also be used to put emphasis on what you say.

Example:

Ich war vielleicht nervös. ’Boy, was I nervous.‘


You can also use vielleicht with your opinion to give it the slightest tone of a threat.

Example:

Vielleicht schläfst du heute lieber bei deiner Schwester! ’I think it’s better, if you sleep at your sister’s tonight.‘


In a question, vielleicht can show that you expect or hope for your counterpart to object to your statement/question.

Example:

Ist das vielleicht, wie du deinen Abend verbringen willst? ‘Is that really how you want to spend your evening?‘


nichts wie

Possible translation: let’s (just/finally)

This one gives a pretty intense suggestion, stating that something really should be done immediately. It adds an intense sense of urgency to your suggestion.

Example:

Nichts wie raus hier! ‘Let’s get out of here immediately!‘


Using German modal particles to show real interest and/or make a threat

bloß

Possible translations: just, (what) on earth, don’t you dare

This German modal particle can be used to intensify wishes.

Example:

Ich will doch bloß in Ruhe schlafen. ‘I just want to sleep in peace.‘


It can also state that you can’t stop thinking about something.

Example:

Was ist denn bloß zwischen den beiden los? ‘What on earth is happening between those two?‘


And finally, it can intensify a request or even turn it into a threat.

Example:

Fass mich bloß nicht an! ‘Don’t you dare touch me!‘


etwa

Possible translations: about, perhaps, don’t you say, for example/for instance, by any chance

Regional variation: leicht

The best-known usage for etwa is for estimations.

Example:

Ein T-Shirt kostet etwa 20 Euro. ‘A t-shirt costs about 20 euros.‘


But again, there are more meanings to this dumb little German filler word. In yes-no-questions, it is used when you really want to hear an objection. This may entail an underlying threat (first example); a genuine hope that you are wrong (second example); or it may mean that you cannot believe what you are expecting to hear (third example).

Examples:

Möchtest du etwa sagen, dass ich zugenommen habe? ‘Do you perhaps want to say that I’ve gained weight?‘

Ist das etwa verboten? ‘Don’t say this is illegal?’

Ist er etwa gestorben? ‘Don’t you say he died!‘


In other cases, etwa can be used if you want to state an example.

Example:

Ich mag nur manches Gemüse, etwa Karotten, die sind okay. ‘I only like some kinds of vegetables, for instance carrots, they are okay.‘


Finally, etwa, can add a tone of positive surprise to a question.

Example:

Hast du das etwa für mich gekauft? ‘Did you buy that for me by any chance?‘


denn

Possible translations: really, exactly, I want to know, so

This German modal particle is most of the time seen as a conjunction, where it is used as ‘because‘. However, when it is not used at the beginning of a sentence but in the middle, it reveals its full potential as a filler word.

The first case in which you would use it is in a question if you want to show extra support or that you are really interested in the answer and care about the person you are talking to.

Example:

Warum weinst du denn? ‘Why are you crying?‘ (I really want to know, so I can help.)


If it is a rhetorical question, though, the meaning changes completely and shows anger over something.

Example:
Bist du denn taub? ‘Are you deaf?‘ (Or why don’t you answer?)


In a non-rhetorical and non-caring question, it can also show doubt about information given.

Example:

Ist das denn wirklich der schnellste Weg nach Wien? ‘Is this really the fastest way to Vienna?‘


Another way of using denn is in a follow-up-question after a statement. When you learn a fact about someone or something and want to know specifics, you can add denn after the question word. It will show your curiosity and honest wish to know more while still being casual. (Yes, denn really is tricky.)

Examples:

Statement: Ich hab deine Schwester gerade gesehen! ’I just saw your sister.‘

Follow-up: Wo denn? ’Where exactly?‘ ’So where?‘

Statement: Ich habe 500 Euro bekommen. ‘I got 500 euros.

Follow-up: Von wem denn? ’From whom? I want to know!‘


Finally, this form of asking with real curiosity or actual surprise can also be used in a ’regular‘ question.

Examples:

Wo kommst du denn her? ‘Where are you coming from? (The way you look suggests something else than what I was expecting.)‘

Wann wirst du denn endlich erwachsen? ‘When are you finally going to grow up? (I am surprised, that you still act like a child.)‘


As you can see, denn can have different meanings in a question and not all of them are properly translatable. You should therefore  pay extra attention to the tone, the how you say it, in order to make sure that you bring across what you really want to say and not the absolute opposite.


Using German modal particles to think aloud and conclude a discussion

also

Possible translation: so

This one is perfect if you want to stop thinking aloud in  English and do it in German instead. Whenever you feel like using ’soooo‘ or ‘well’ try to say the German also instead. (Keep in mind that if you follow up with a full sentence, the word order changes as it is an adverb.)

Examples:

Ich will eigentlich auch zu Hause bleiben. Alsooooo Netflix und Chill? ’I actually want to stay at home too. Sooooo … Netflix and chill?‘

Du sagst, du willst dein Kleid spenden, alsooooo heißt dass, ich kann es haben? ’You’re saying, you want to donate your dress, soooooo does that mean I can have it?‘


nun gut

Possible translation: alright then

While nun can be literally translated with ’now’ almost every time, nun gut is used at the end of an explanation, a discussion or simply at the end of a day to put a final conclusion to it all.

Examples:

Statement: Ich habe dir erklärt, was los war, ich habe mich entschuldigt und ich werde es nie wieder machen. I explained to you what happened, I apologized, and I won’t ever do it again.

Answer: Nun gut, dann sprechen wir nicht mehr darüber. ’Alright then, let’s not talk about it again.‘

Statement: Schau dir die Fotos an. – Sie beweisen, dass ich nichts falsch gemacht habe. Have a look at the photos. – They prove that I did nothing wrong.‘

Answer: Nun gut, ich glaube dir. ’Alright then, I believe you.‘

Statement: Es ist spät geworden. ‘It got late.‘

Answer: Nun gut, gehen wir schlafen. ’Alright then, let’s go to bed.‘


Nun gut, dieser Blogpost ist lange geworden. Alright then, this blog post got really long. In the end, a conversation is like a dish, sometimes delicious, sometimes rotten and now, if you want to, you are able to spice it up.

Those dumb little German words are the herbs and spices in each and everyone of your sentences. Sometimes they are not needed, sometimes they make all the difference in the world. Use them carefully, use them with intent and enjoy the feeling of mastering a language.

If any more German modal particles pop up in our lessons, in our daily lives or on TV, we will update the list with even more of those flavouring filler words.


Feeling inspired to improve your German through lessons with native speakers?


About the author:

Viola Rosa Semper has been teaching German as a second language to more than 100 students from all over the world since 2017 and is one of the first tutors to join Sbique.

The other side of her career is also tightly connected to language: She is a published author and literature prize winner. In January, her first non-fiction book, the Literaturführer Wien (literature guide Vienna) was published in a Viennese publishing house. It combines background information about Viennese authors and history of literature with sights in the city that are connected to these writers, their books or literature in general. On six guided walks through the city, readers discover less crowded parts of Vienna and learn even more about Austrian writers and their work.

More about Viola (in German): https://viola.semper.at

Get your own copy of the Literaturführer Wien: https://shop.falter.at/literaturfuehrer-wien.html

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