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How to use "zu" + infinitive

zu + infinitive

Practical examples of how to use "zu" with infinitive in german

How to use it?

In German we use the word "zu" (= "to" in English) to add an incomplete expression to what we are saying.

Ich kann dir helfen, Deutsch zu lernen.

I can help you to learn German.

In this example we are talking about two independent ideas. First "Ich kann dir helfen" and the second "Deutsch zu lernen". The actions "help" and "learn" are independent and that is why we have to connect the two ideas with the word "zu". In English the same logic applies and in 90% of the cases you say "to ..." you can translate that structure directly to german.

Ich will lernen, ein Motorrad zu fahren.

I want to learn, to drive a motorcycle.

Special structures

There are 3 special structures that force you to add a "zu". The most common is (um ... zu ...) which means (in order to ...) in the sense of (to do something).

  • um ... zu ...
  • ohne ... zu ...
  • anstatt ... zu ...

First let's see some examples.

Ich gehe zum Supermarkt, um ein Brot zu kaufen.

I go to the supermarket, in order to buy a bread.

Typical mistakes

In English the word "in order" is often omitted (in order) to speak faster.

I go to the supermarket, to buy a bread.

But in German we don't have that much flexibility 🙄 So there is no way to remove the word "um".

There are situations, where you might say the word "to ...", but it is not used in German. The easiest way to master this situation is to be able to differentiate very well if you are talking about 2 independent ideas / concepts or a single idea. For example:

I'm going to buy a car.

For a German "I'm going to buy" is the same idea and the 2 verbs "I'm going" and "buy" belong together. So in German you do not need the word "zu".

Ich werde ein Auto kaufen.

In English you say a lot:

I want to watch a movie.

I have to learn German.

I need to buy a new Cellphone.

In German you don't need to say "zu ..." because each of these examples refer to 1 single idea.

Ich will ein Film anschauen.

Ich muss Deutsch lernen.

Ich muss ein neues Handy kaufen.

Practical examples

Die Frau hilft dem Mann, sein Auto zu reparieren.The woman helps the man to repair his car.
Ich habe lust, heute Abend ins Kino zu gehen.I am in the mood to go to the cinema this afternoon.
Er lernt, Apfelkuchen zu backen.He is learning to cook an apple pie.
Ich kann mir nicht leisten, ein neues Auto zu kaufen.I can't afford to buy a new car.
Ich muss mein Zimmer aufräumen, um meine Socken zu finden.I have to clean my room (in order) to find my socks.
Er kann dieses Haus nicht verlassen, ohne seinen Kaffee zu trinken.He can't leave this house without having his coffee.
Sie spielt mit ihren Freundinnen, anstatt ihre Hausaufgaben zu machen.She plays with her friends, instead of doing her homework.


Look at the following sentences and decide if it is necessary to add the word "zu" or not. You do not have to change the order of the words or remove or add words except "zu".

Magst du es, [ jeden Morgen / drei Kilometer / joggen ]?

Nein, aber es hilft mir, [ fit / bleiben ].

Hast du wirklich Pläne, [ ein Auto / kaufen ]?

Klar! Ich will nicht mehr [ mit dem Bus / fahren ].

Hast du Lust, [ mit uns / heute Abend / ins Kino / gehen ]?

Vielleicht; ich muss [ meine Hausaufgaben / zuerst / fertigmachen ].

Jetzt habe ich Zeit, [ mich / entspannen ].

Aber vielleicht sollte ich [ fĂĽr meinen Test / lernen ].

Recommendations and Tips

If you find yourself in a situation where you are not sure, if you have to use "zu" or not, I recommend you follow the following recommendations and tips.

  1. If you say a sentence with the word "to ... (do something)", it is 80% probable that in German you will have to use the word "zu".
  2. If your sentence contains only 1 idea, you should not use "zu".
  3. If your sentence contains 2 ideas, and the first condition applies, you have to use the word "zu".
  4. If you say a sentence and you did not use the word "to ... (do something)" or any of the special structures "um ... zu ...", "ohne ... zu ..." or "anstatt ... zu ...", it is 90% probable that in German you will not need the word "zu".

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Aaron Koivunen

Aaron Koivunen is a German teacher and software engineer. He helps people from all around the world to learn German in an easier and more efficient way. He currently lives in the city of Helsinki in Finland.