How to use “zu” in German

How to use “zu” in German

by Sandra Köktaş

Updated October 6, 2023

Zu is one of the most versatile words in German. The little word may consist of only two letters, but it can cause you big trouble. It is tempting to translate zu simply as “to.” And that is often correct — but not always. If you look out for the word zu when reading, you will quickly discover that it has many different purposes. 

Zu can take on five distinct tasks in a German sentence, and it doesn’t always have the same meaning. And then, of course, there are the dreaded infinitives with zu, not to mention the um-zu-Satz infinitive clause. Let’s look at each use of zu individually to give you a sense of this word’s impressive utility.

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“Zu” as a preposition

As a preposition, zu takes the dative case. This is a good time to review the declination of German articles, but simply using the article doesn’t always work with zu. That’s because zu is typically contracted with the noun’s article when the noun is singular, like so:

zu dem -> zum 

zu der -> zur

The trouble with zu as a preposition doesn’t end here. You also have to distinguish between three different meanings.

“Zu” to express direction or destination

If you are going somewhere, you can use zu to express where you are headed:

Ich gehe zur Bäckerei.

I am going to the bakery.

Ich fahre zu Timo.

I am going to Timo’s.

But you can’t always use zu to express a destination. When you’re talking about a city or country as a destination, you will need to use nach:

Ich fahre nach Berlin.

I am going to Berlin.

Ich wandere nach Spanien aus. 

I will immigrate to Spain.

Zu is used for “to” with people and with some locations. But there are exceptions in which you may need to use a different preposition, such as in:

Ich gehe ins Kino.

I am going to the movies. 

Are you still with me? Good. Because here is one more distinction between zu and nach, and it hits home:

Ich fahre nach Hause. / I am going home. (direction/destination)

Ich bin zu Hause. / I am home. (location)

“Zu” to express an occasion

No worries, that was the worst of it. If the preposition zu expresses an occasion, there are no exceptions:

Ich bekomme ein Geschenk zum Geburtstag.

I will get a present for my birthday.

“Zu” to express an activity

If the preposition zu expresses an activity, it is used in combination with a verb-derived noun:

Ich bin zum Reisen geboren.

I was born to travel.

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“Zu” as an adverb or adjective

Zu can also take on two meanings as either an adverb or an adjective.

“Zu” as “too much”

Ich bin zu müde für Hausarbeiten.

I am too tired for homework.

“Zu” as “closed”

Zu can also mean “geschlossen” (“closed”), especially in spoken German:

Die Bibliothek ist heute zu.

The library is closed today.

“Zu” as a prefix

You can easily build new verbs in German by adding zu as a prefix. As a result, you get a separable verb, like so:

zusehen – to watch

zumachen – to close

zurufen – to shout out to somebody

zulaufen – to run up to somebody or something

“Zu” to build infinitive clauses

One of the most dreaded (but very convenient) uses of zu is the infinitive clause with zu

How to use “zu” + infinitive in German 

Subordinate clauses with zu + infinitive don’t have a subject of their own, but depend on the subject of the main clause (hence the term “dependent clause”):

Linda hofft, die Prüfung zu bestehen.

Linda hopes to pass the exam.

In many cases, the infinitive with zu helps you avoid a dass-Satz, making your sentence shorter and easier:

Linda hofft, dass sie die Prüfung besteht.

Linda hopes that she will pass the exam.

In most cases, you should use a comma after the main sentence if the infinitive with zu depends on a full verb. You don’t need a comma if the verb in the main sentence is haben (to have), sein (to be), brauchen (to need), pflegen (to use to), scheinen (to seem), drohen in the sense of “being at risk” or versprechen in the sense of “to seem.”

How to use “um…zu” + infinitive in German 

The infinitive with um…zu can take the place of a sentence with damit (in order to):

Linda lernt, um die Prüfung zu bestehen.

Linda lernt, damit sie die Prüfung besteht.

Linda studies (in order) to pass the exam.

If you use the um-zu-Satz construction, you don’t have to repeat the subject. In this construction, the comma is followed by um, the rest of the sentence and lastly zu + infinitive.

When you are translating a sentence like “Linda studies to pass the exam,” you might wonder if you should use zu or um…zu in German. There is an easy way to find out:

If the infinitive clause answers the question “what,” use zu + infinitive:

What does Linda hope? 

Linda hopes to pass the exam.

Linda hofft, die Prüfung zu bestehen.

If the infinitive clause answers the question “why,” use um…zu + infinitive:

Why does Linda study?

Linda studies to pass the exam.

Linda lernt, um die Prüfung zu bestehen.

Too much “zu”?

Zu can do a lot of things. It can express direction or destination, express a state or condition, express a relationship between two things, express purpose or intention and finally form infinitive clauses. When reviewing, it helps to stick to the examples. Bist du bereit, dein Wissen zu testen

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Sandra Köktas

Sandra lives in Istanbul, together with her kids, cat and dog. As a historian she thrives exploring this ancient city with her two- and four-legged loved ones. Together, they also love to go on adventures through all of Turkey and its neighboring countries. If she’s not on the road, Sandra is busy putting her experiences into writing as a freelance copywriter for the travel industry and everything related to language, culture and family. Her particular interest lies in providing information on animal welfare with her website.

Sandra Köktas

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