At beginner level, students first encounter the preference words “mögen” and “gern”. Both are normally translated as “like”, but this translation is misleading as it disregards the grammatical difference between the two words. In this blog post, I will not only explain the difference and show how to use “mögen” and “gern”, I will also discuss the verb "gefallen" and clarify how it differs from the other two preference words.
“Mögen” is a modal verb that translates as “to like”. But unlike other modal verbs, which normally require the infinitive of the main verb at the end of the sentence, “mögen” is almost exclusively used with nouns. As such, it communicates a general preference. Let's consider some examples.
Ich mag kein Fleisch.
(I don’t like meat)
Die Frau mag Yoga
(The woman likes yoga)
Wir mögen die deutsche Sprache
(We like the German language)
It is important to note that when we say “Die Frau mag Yoga” we express that the woman likes the sport, we don’t necessarily say that she actually does it. So it’s a general preference in that sense.
By contrast, gern is an adverb that is used for preferences regarding verbs, so specific preferences. It is best translated as “gladly” or “to like (to do something)”
Ich esse nicht gern Fleisch.
(I don’t like to eat meat)
Die Frau macht gern Yoga
(The woman likes to do yoga)
Wir sprechen gern Deutsch
(We like to speak German)
The position of adverbs like “gern” is normally third, straight after the conjugated verb.
So is it not possible to use “mögen” with verbs at all? It is, but it is more complicated. In order to use “mögen” with a second verb, you have to add the pronoun “es” to the main clause and then use an infinitive clause for the main verb. The “es” is necessary because it is the substitute for the accusative object which you should mention but don’t. The translation into English is the same as the examples for “gern”, the difference just lies in the grammatical construction.
Ich mag es nicht, Fleisch zu essen.
(I don’t like eat meat)
Die Frau mag es, Yoga zu machen
(The woman likes to do yoga)
Wir mögen es, die deutsche Sprache zu sprechen.
(We like to speak the German language)
Since it is a bit more complicated to use “mögen” with a second verb, my advice to students is to exclusively use it with nouns and “gern” with verbs.
After the initial stage of learning German, usually at around A1.2 level, students learn about another way of expressing "to like" in German in the form of the verb "gefallen". The latter is a verb that always goes with the dative case and, as such, it is more difficult to use than "mögen". Even though it is normally translated as "to like", the more helpful translation is "to appeal to" as it reveals the dative case in English and serves as a reminder that it is the person to whom something appeals that takes the dative case. Like "mögen", "gefallen" is normally used with nouns but can also be used with "es" and an infinitive clause.
Mir gefällt Tennis.
(Tennis appeals to me/ I like tennis)
Das rote Auto gefällt ihr
(The red car appeals to her/ she likes the red car)
Es gefällt ihm nicht, zu verlieren
(Losing doesn't appeal to him/ he doesn't like to lose)
So of the three ways to say "like" in German "mögen" is easiest to use with nouns and "gern" with verbs, whereas "gefallen" is more complicated by virtue of it being a dative only verb.
On our German language blog “Auf Deutsch, bitte!”, you’ll find explanations of other grammar topics that are relevant for students at A1 and A2 level, such as the conjugation of verbs in the present tense, the Perfekt tense, the difference between “viel” and “viele”, "sehr" "and "viel", “denn” and “dann”, how to use German articles, adjectives, and German word order.