German Speakers: Is There a Word for "Put?"

I remember my German professor from college telling us that German had no word for “put.” Instead, a word that more specifically described the action would be used.

Here are examples of the concept (illustrated in English):

  • I set the glass on the table
  • I lay the papers on the table.
  • I spread the cream cheese on the bagel.
  • I hung the coat in the closet.

Is it true that German is effectively put-less?

Yes, that is correct. The English word put is extremely versatile.

There is, of course, a translation for “put” in each of these instances, but it’s not always the same. So yes, there is no full equivalent for “put” in German. In other instances (e.g. a put option in finance), the English word was simply borrowed into German. That is, however, not at all peculiar when translating stuff from one language into another.

It seems to me that every language has some catch-all verbs that get put to lots of idiomatic use. It’s just that those catch-all verbs don’t correlate with any target-language verbs one-to-one when translating.

English has “put”, “set”, “run”, and others. Sppanish and French seem to get a lot of mileage out of “hacer” and “faire” respectively. I’m sure German has some specific examples.

If you want all your examples to be consistently past tense, that should be “I laid the papers on the table.”

This is similar to the way that there is no 1 to 1 translation of “to be” into Spanish. Most cases of “to be” would be translated as either ser or estar, but which one is correct depends on the circumstances. It is possible, however, to translate an English sentence containing some form of “to be” into Spanish - you just have to do some extra work other than slavishly translating each word individually. And anyone here who knows more than one language knows that you can’t translate like that - context is important.

Thanks everybody.

The reason I’m asking is this:

Tomorrow night, I have to give a very short presentation on a point of English grammar or word usage in public speaking. One bit of standard advice to improve speeches is to opt for words that are more specific and more descriptive. It occurred to me that “put” might offer some opportunities to sub in more specific and descriptive words. Not all instances of “put” can be feasibly replaced, but changing out a few would make for an easy way to liven up a speech.

I was going to use the German thing to introduce the point, given that’s what made me think of it, but I wanted to check to see if it was true first.

I just have to be careful not to say something like “so see what you can do with your puts.”

I guess the German machen (to make) is similar. (at least the way I, with my horrible German and frequent blanking on the verb I should use, use it).

You wouldn’t want to look like a schmuck.

And of course if you want them all to be present tense you would say “I hang the coat in the closet.”

That’s the example I was thinking of too. I speak German, but I also teach English and my German students often over-use the word make.

I saw it in a TV show the other day too (Great Continental Railway Journeys, FTR), where a German curator with fairly good English said an artist had “made an exhibition” in some city or other. That’s a common error for German ESL speakers, and funnily enough in English one of the ways to phrase it, depending on context, would involve “put,” as in “put on an exhibition” - from the context it wasn’t clear whether the artist had put on an exhibition or simply been included in one; in German “machen” can be used for either meaning with context telling you which is more likely.

Yeah, in German you can make the cake… make the train… make the door open,please … make (instead of do) your/the work

Nitpick: “Make the train” is not an instance where I’d use machen, at least not if the intended meaning is to reach a train which is about to depart. The literal translation of “make the train” (“den Zug machen”) would be referring to making a move, e.g. in a boardgame. The other instances you name are very common, though, and there are many more - such as macht nichts (“It doesn’t make anything”), meaning that something doesn’t matter or doesn’t bother you. I wouldn’t want to exclude, however, that there is a colloquial usage I’m not aware of where “making the train” in the sense above is used.

Yeah, it was meant as “Wir machen den Zug noch”

In my early English speaking days the term “machen” caused some some confusion, since you can use “mach/machen” for put, lay, do, make, etc. in German, but not in English. For “Mach die Tuer zu.” you would’t say “Make the door close” you just say “Close the door”

Couldn’t tun be used (admittedly somewhat informally) in all of the OP’s examples?

Not really. Tun is more like do

Yes, it can, if you have no qualms about being taken for a plebeian. While not grammatically correct, you can get away with saying “Tu’ das Glas auf den Tisch”, or, perhaps more commonly, “Tu’ das weg hier”. Umgangssprache is a lot more forgiving than Hochsprache, especially in places like Berlin.

I’m not seeing the grammatical error here; could you explain?

Sure you can say

  • I do the glass on the table
  • I do the papers on the table.
  • I do the cream cheese on the bagel.
  • I do the coat in the closet.

However, I’m not sure that it means the same as put when you use do, it might work to some degree in German.

Tu(n) in some of these contexts doesn’t seem to be wrong per se, but it is certainly cavemanesque. OTOH, I think that there are more legitimate uses for the English word put.