Modal Particles in German

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Modal Particles in German


  • In German we can say:
  • Other modal particles

Modal particles are the short words like mal, nur, eben, etwa that appear in many German texts and conversations . They often do not have a clear and direct English translation, because their task is to reveal the attitude, intention or emotion of the person speaking. It is like adding an emoticon to our message . If we remove it, the meaning does not change. In this way, the particles serve to qualify or modify the content of a statement.

With the particles we can exert influences on other people, express our mood, warm our anger or happiness. The same particle can perform different functions depending on the person speaking, situation or intonation. Its literal translation into English is difficult, sometimes even impossible.

In German we can say:

  • Das ist schön!

That is pretty!

  • Das ist aber schön!

It’s really beautiful

Both phrases mean “It’s pretty!” The only difference is that the second sentence expresses more amazement or surprise by adding ” aber ” as a modal particle. In English we could translate it as: “It’s really pretty!”

In most cases we can omit the particle and the sentence will remain grammatically correct, despite the emotional charge of what has been said changes, as we have just seen above. For this reason, it is difficult to learn the correct use of particles, since they usually do not add a concrete meaning to our message, but rather modify its emotionality.

So it is advisable to always look at the context in which they are used and develop a certain sensitivity for their existence and application. It is worth a try, because that way our communication in German becomes more authentic.

Other functions of modal particles

Another difficulty is that we use words as modal particles that can have other functions in the sentence, such as adverbs or conjunctions with a specific meaning different from the function of a modal particle. For example, “ aber” is a conjunction that allows us to connect two sentences that express the opposition between two trials and means “but” in Spanish:

  • Ich wollte kommen, aber ich habe meinen Bus verpasst.

I wanted to come, but I missed the bus.

In the example above we do not use ” aber ” as a modal particle, but as a conjunction .

Below we can see a summary of the most common modal particles along with their most typical functions, and then examples for each of them. The translations of the phrases with modal particles are not literal but try to express the feelings related to each phrase.




ABER Amazement, surprise Adverb: but
AUCH Doubt, concern Adverb: also
BLOB Warning, concern, wish Adverb: only
DENN Astonishment, surprise. desire to know Conjunction: because
DOCH Opinion, exhortation, desire, contradiction, assumption Adverb: yes
EBEN / HALT Conclusion, resignation, confirmation Adverb: right now, a moment ago
ETWA Surprise, contradiction Adverb: approximately
HA Astonishment, threat, confirmation Adverb: yes
ETWA Kind exhortation Adverb: once, sometime
NUR Warning, threat, wish Adverb: only
SCHON Reassuring assumption, warning exhortation, restriction Adverb: ya
WOHL Assumption warning, threat Adverb: well

ABER = amazement, surprise

“Aber” is a word that means “but” , however in its modal particle function we use it to express our surprise or amazement, as we have just seen in the example at the beginning.

  • Du bist klug.

You’re smart.

  • Du bist aber klug.

You’re so smart!

AUCH = doubt, concern

“Auch” means “also”, but as a particle it expresses doubt or concern.

  • Hast du das richtig verstanden?

Have you understood correctly?

  • Hast du das auch richtig verstanden?

Are you sure you have understood correctly?

BLOß = warning, concern, wish

” Bloß” , as an adverb means “only” . As a modal particle it expresses warning, concern or desire.

  • Wo habe ich mein Handy hingelegt?

Where have I left my mobile?

  • Wo habe ich bloß mein Handy hingelegt!

If I knew where I left my cell phone.

DENN = interest, amazement, surprise, desire to know

As a conjunction ” denn” means “because” and as a modal particle it expresses amazement, surprise or desire to know something.

  • Wo sind wir?

Where we are?

  • Wo sind wir denn?

But where are we?


“Doch” expresses exhortation, desire, contradiction or assumption.

  • Wenn wir schon Urlaub hätten!

I wish we were already on vacation!

  • Wenn wir doch schon Urlab hätten!

How we would like to be on vacation now!

 EBEN / HALT = conclusion, resignation, confirmation

As an adverb “ eben” means “a moment, right now or a moment ago” . As a modal particle it reflects a conclusion, resignation or confirmation.

  • Mein Kollege ist heute nicht gekommen. Ich muss is alleine machen .

My partner did not come today. I have to do it myself.

  • Mein Kollege ist heute nicht gekommen. Ich muss is eben / halt alleine machen.

My partner did not come today. Unfortunately I have to do it myself. There is no other remedy, I have to do it myself.

ETWA = surprise, contradiction

The adverb “etwa” means “approximately . ” With the modal particle «etwa» the speaker expresses that he expected the opposite of what he says in his question

  • Bist du schon gesund?

Are you okay?

  • Bist du schon etwa gesund?

But are you okay?

JA = knowledge, amazement, threat, confirmation

“Ja” means “yes” , but in the function of a particle it helps us to express knowledge, confirmation, amazement or threat.

  • Du bist krank.

Are you sick.

  • Du bist ha krank!

But if you are sick!

ETWA= kind exhortation

“ETWA” as an adverb is “once, sometime” and as a modal particle it helps us to express a kind exhortation.

  • Kannst du kommen?

Can you come?

  • Kannst du mal kommen?

Can you come for a moment?

NUR = warning, threat, want to know something, wish

« Nur» is a very common and used adverb, since it means «only» . As a particle it means a warning, threat, wish.

  • Was soll ich machen?

What should I do?

  • Was soll ich nur machen?

I really don’t know what I should do.

SCHON = reassuring assumption, warning, exhortation, restriction

“Schon” is an adverb that means “already . ” But it can also appear in sentences as a particle and thus expresses a reassuring assumption, warning, exhortation, or restriction.

  • Du wirst is schaffen!

You will get it!

  • Du wirst is schon schaffen!

You are sure to get it!

WOHL = assumption, warning, threat

The adverb “wohl” means “good” and the particle expresses a supposition, threat or warning.

  • Er hat die Besprechung vergessen.

You have forgotten the meeting.

  • Er hat wohl die Besprechung vergessen.

I guess you forgot about the meeting.

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