The verb ‘to be’ or not the verb ‘to be’?

Have you ever noticed how many verbs there are in German that mean to be? Apart from the verb sein (which literally means to be) there are plenty of other verbs that can be translated as to be in certain contexts. I’ve listed ten of them below, illustrating their use with authentic examples. Note that in each case, no matter how specialised or formal the German verb might seem at first glance, its most idiomatic English translation is simply to be:

1    bestehen

Es besteht kein S-Bahnverkehr zwischen Köpenick und Karlshorst.

There is no S-Bahn service between Köpenick and Karlshorst.

Another good example of when this verb means to be is the phrase ‘Besteht die Möglichkeit…?’ meaning ‘Is it possible…?’ or ‘Is there any chance…?’

2    betragen

Die Kündigungsfrist beträgt 3 Monate.

The notice period is 3 months.

This is a phrase typically found in the language of rental agreements. In this context betragen is like a specialised version of the verb to be which is used for referring to exact numbers of things.

3    liegen

Aber wo genau liegt denn der Unterschied?

But what exactly is the difference?

Although it is possible to say ‘But where exactly does the difference lie?’, this sounds much more formal in English than it does in German, even a little old-fashioned. Peter Littger uses the verb lie jokingly in the phrase The devil lies in the detail, the title of his book on common errors made by German speakers in English. (The implication being, presumably, that the title is an overly literal translation of the German phrase ‘der Teufel liegt im Detail’, the more usual English equivalent of which is ‘the devil’s in the detail’).

4    sitzen

Ich sitze im Zug.

I’m on the train.

This has been the classic rail travellers’ refrain ever since mobile phones became widespread. Of course it’s equally possible to say ‘Ich bin im Zug’ or ‘I’m sitting on the train’, but the above examples seem to be the default phrases in the respective languages. (Although in German you presumably wouldn’t use this phrase if there were no seats left on the train and you were in fact standing during the phone call.)

5    vorkommen

To illustrate the use of vorkommen, I have chosen this tweet:

and my translation of it:

‘The most annoying Star Wars character has got to be Jar Jar Binks.’
‘Excuse me, there was no Jar Jar Binks in any of the three Star Wars movies.’

By referring to ‘the three Star Wars movies’ @felltomate wilfully denies the existence of the Star Wars prequels (featuring Jar Jar Binks) which he clearly sees as vastly inferior to the original trilogy. In this example the meaning of vorkommen is close to the English verb appear, although to me it would sound unidiomatic to say ‘No Jar Jar Binks appeared in any of [those] movies’ – unless there were some specific reason for emphasising the phrase in that way.

6    vorliegen

Hier liegt ein entsetzlicher Irrtum vor!

There’s been some terrible mistake!

Sticking with the Star Wars theme, this is a quote from one of those very prequels mentioned above, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The words are spoken by C3PO, whose head has been attached to the body of a battle droid, as he realises with horror that he has been programmed to march into battle. In this example, of course, the English sentence is the original version and the German is the translation (not my own, I hasten to add, but the translation from the official dubbed version of the film).

7    sich befinden

Das Gerät befindet sich außerhalb jeglicher Garantie.

The device is not under any kind of guarantee.

Der Ausstieg befindet sich in Fahrtrichtung links.

The exit is on the left in the direction of travel.

The first example was printed on a document from the German Apple retailer Gravis. I added the second example (a commonly heard announcement on Deutsche Bahn trains) to show that this phrase can be used in the physical as well as the abstract sense.

8    sich um etwas handeln

Bei dem nachfolgenden Text handelt es sich um eine redaktionelle Fassung.

The following text is an editorial version.

This German construction is an elaborate way of providing additional information about something. To put it another way, it allows the user to say what something is without resorting to the boringly straightforward verb sein!

9    sich verhalten

Mit der wahren Liebe verhält es sich wie mit Geistererscheinungen: alle Welt redet davon, aber nur wenige haben sie gesehen.

True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen.

This quote is attributed to the 17th century author François de La Rochefoucauld. Since the original language was French, both of the above sentences are translations (neither of them my own). The German verb here is used as part of an elaborate construction for comparing two things with one another: sich verhalten literally means to behave, so sich verhalten wie means to behave like (in other words to be like).

10    zu etwas kommen

Es kommt zu zahlreichen Sperrungen.

Many roads will be closed.

This example comes from information about traffic restrictions during the Berlin Marathon.

There are two verbs which are conspicuous by their absence from the above list: darstellen and gelten (or gilt als, to be precise). I have not included them here because they have been criticised as problematic alternatives to sein, despite commonly being used as such. Juliane Topka complains that darstellen is often used as ‘eine aufgeblähte, behördische Form von sein’ (an overblown, officialese form of the verb sein). And Fiete Stegers criticises journalists who use gilt als to present uncorroborated claims as accepted truths.

Unlike darstellen and gilt als, the verbs in my list would not normally be considered pretentious or misleading by German native speakers. On the contrary, it seems that avoiding the use of sein as a main verb is considered a mark of good style in German. As the linguist Raphael Berthele concludes in reference to the German informants in one of his studies:1 ‘Die stilistische Maxime: “Vermeide das simple Verb sein als Vollverb” ist offensichtlich tief ins sprachliche Unterbewusstsein gesunken’ (The stylistic maxim: ‘avoid the simple verb to be as a main verb’ has clearly become deeply embedded in the linguistic subconscious).


1 Ort und Weg: Die sprachliche Raumreferenz in Varietäten des Deutschen, Rätoromanischen und Französischen (a comparative study of linguistic spatial reference in a number of language varieties, including standard German)

All of the above translations are my own unless otherwise indicated. The translations of the Rochefoucauld quote in point 9 can be found here: German and English.

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