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Understanding the Difference between 'um...zu' and 'damit' in German

Updated: Jan 5

Having discussed the difference between "als" and "wenn" in German, the other two subordinate clause conjunctions that students struggle to comprehend are "um...zu" and "damit". So what is the difference, and how do we use them?



Subordinate clauses with "Um...zu" (in order to) don't have a subject because it is assumed to be the same as in the main clause and carry the infinitive of the verb to the end of the clause, while subordinate clauses with "damit" (so that) do have a subject- and one that can be different from the subject in the main clause- and send the conjugated verb at the end of the subordinate clause.


Let's first take a look at the same sentence using the two different conjunctions.


Ich lerne Deutsch, um mit meiner Partnerin auf Deutsch sprechen zu können.

(I'm learning German in order to be able to speak German with my partner)


Ich lerne Deutsch, damit ich mit meiner Partnerin auf Deutsch sprechen kann.

(I'm learning German so that I can speak German with my partner)


The meaning of the sentences is the same- both communicate an intention. Yet grammatically "damit" is a classic subordinate clause conjunction in the sense that it is followed by the subject and sends the conjugated verb to the end. "Um...zu" doesn't follow that logic. "Um...zu" clauses don't need a subject because it is assumed to be the same as in the main clause, and the "zu" is followed by the infinitive form of the verb.


While it is grammatically correct to use the two conjunctions as I do above, the point of "damit" is that should be used in situations where the subject in the subordinate clause is different from the subject in the main clause.

Ich lerne Deutsch, damit die Eltern meiner Partnerin mich besser verstehen.

(I'm learning German so that my partner's parents understand me better)


Ich unterrichte meine Schüler:innen, damit sie ihr Deutsch verbessern.

(I'm teaching my students so that they improve their German)


So whenever the subject in both parts of the sentence is the same, use "um...zu". When it is not, use "damit".






On our blog, you will also find posts about adjective endings in German, and the German cases on our blog. There, you will also find reviews about the most common online German dictionaries and apps for learning German.

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