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With Zu Or Without? Infinitive Clauses And Modal Verbs In German

Updated: Jan 5

One of my former students once told me what her ingenious strategy is for using “zu” in German. “I just stick it at the end to make the sentence sound German”. Unsurprisingly, as always in the German language, there is a rule for when we use zu- intuition won’t do the trick. In this blog post, I'll explain when to use zu and when not do.

Many students first learn about zu as a dative only preposition. I have covered dative prepositions in German elsewhere, in this blog post I focus on the word zu in combination with verbs.

First, let’s clarify where zu is never used- after modal verbs and auxiliary verbs like werden und würden. So können, wollen, sollen, dürfen, möchten, mögen, müssen, and the aforementioned verbs only go with the infinitive of the verb without zu before it.

Ich muss meinen Unterricht vorbereiten.

(I need to prepare my lesson)

Er wird im Sommer in Urlaub fliegen.

(He will fly on holiday in the summer)

Sie würde lieber zu Hause bleiben.

(She would rather stay at home)

Let’s now look at two situations in which zu is used in subordinate clause. The first situation is in combination with the conjunctions “um...zu”, “ohne...zu”, “statt...zu”.

Um mein Griechisch zu verbessern, muss ich mehr Vokabeln lernen.

(In order to improve my Greek, I have to study more vocabulary)

Ich gehe selten aus dem Haus, ohne vorher meinen Schlüssel zu suchen.

(I rarely go out of the house, without looking for my key prior before I leave)

Sie geht zu Fuß, statt den Bus zu benutzen.

(She goes by foot instead of taking the bus)

The trickier situation in which zu is being used in a subordinate clause is after verbs that trigger a so-called infinitive construction. The most common verbs and phrases are:

Anfangen- to start to do something

Aufhören - to stop doing something

Anbieten - to offer to do something

Beginnen - to begin to do something

Beabsichtigen - to intend to do something

Die Absicht haben - to have the intention to do something

Beschließen - to decide to do something

Entscheiden - as above

Sich entschließen - as above

Versprechen - to promise to do something

Versuchen - to try to do something

Bereit sein zu -to be ready to do something

Ich fange an, eine E-Mail zu schreiben.

(I start writing my email)

Wir beabsichtigen/haben die Absicht, einen Urlaub zu planen.

(Wie intend to plan a holiday)

Sie beschließen/entscheiden sich/entschließen sich, ihr Auto zu verkaufen.

(They decide to sell their car)

Ich versuche, mehr Zeit zum Joggen zu finden.

(I try to find more time for jogging)

The good news is that the zu often translates into English and reminds you that there is a zu in the infinitive clause. So I hope you see that the German use of zu is not as random as my student assumed. One final remark on commas in German. Rules have changed in the last 25 years. Nowadays, it's optional to use a comma before the infinitive clause. But I'm old school, so I use commas there to distinguish the main from the subordinate clause.


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