When learning German, beginners often fear the compound nouns of the language. It’s true that German is quick to put words together to form new ones, but in basic conversation and daily life, there are certainly expressions, sayings and phrases that stand out because they’re used a lot. Some of these most common German phrases have to do with manners, courtesy and politeness, while others are rooted in German culture or are just plain useful to know.
Mind your manners: common German phrases for being polite
The Germans value manners and formal interaction in public follows a set of basic, common phrases. Study these and you’ll be halfway there on the way to talking like a local. “Höflichkeit ist die halbe Miete” (politeness is half the rent), as they say in German!
As a noun, “Entschuldigung” translates to “apology”, but the most common use is in the sense of “Excuse me”. The full formal expression would be “Entschuldigen Sie bitte”, followed by whatever question or statement you have: “Entschuldigen Sie bitte, …”
- “Wo ist die Toilette?” – Where’s the bathroom?
- “Darf ich mal vorbei?” – May I pass?
- “Ist hier noch frei?” – Is this seat taken?
- “Ich habe nicht verstanden.” – I didn’t understand.
- “Wie viel kos”tet das? – How much is this?
- “Können Sie mir helfen?” – Can you help me? or “Kann ich Ihnen helfen?” – Can I help you?
- “Haben Sie… ?” – Do you have… ?
- “Gibt es… ?” – Is there… ?
- “Es tut mir leid.” – I’m sorry
Bitte und Danke
To go the extra mile, you can end most of these questions with “bitte”. As a statement, the word for “please” is used in the sense of “here you go”– also common are “Bitte sehr” and “Bitte schön”. Don’t forget to say thanks, for example with “Vielen Dank.” A reply to that you might hear often is “Gern geschehen” (you’re welcome).
Hätte, hätte, goldene Kette
For expressing wishes, Germans use the conjunctive, which is also the polite way to order something: “Ich hätte gerne ein Bier” is therefore “I’d like a beer”. The expression “Hätte, hätte, goldene Kette” (literally “If I had a golden necklace”) is used to end too much speculation of “what if”.
Well-wishes are also common in German: you can congratulate someone with “Herzlichen Glückwunsch” on their birthday or passing an exam, whereas “Alles Gute” (all the best) is also widely used, especially for saying goodbye.
At the table: common German phrases around food and drink
In die Augen
When Germans sit down to eat, they wish each other a “good appetite” by saying “Guten Appetit!” You can reply with the same or “Danke, gleichfalls” (“Same to you!”). The term for “Cheers!” is “Prost!” or “Zum Wohl!” and as you clink glasses, it’s important to look each other in the eyes, otherwise you’ll be reminded to do so: “In die Augen!” (“In the eyes!”).
Most Germans will consider “Fassbier” (draft beer) superior to bottled or, god forbid, canned beer. You can use “Vom Fass?” to ask what’s on tap. With “Noch eins, bitte!” (another one, please) you can keep them coming. Of course, there are many common phrases around beer: “Das ist nicht mein Bier” (literally: that’s not my beer) refers to something you don’t care about, similar to “Das ist mir Wurst” (that’s sausage to me, i.e. you don’t care).
“Ich würde gerne bestellen” means “I’d like to order, please”. You can order take-out using “Zum Mitnehmen” (to go), but “Zum hier Essen” means you’d like to sit down. Beilage (side order) is a useful word to know, as is the term “mit allem” (with everything). “Zahlen, bitte” is for letting your server know you’d like the check. Don’t forget Trinkgeld, the tip. When handing over cash, locals use “Stimmt so” to communicate “keep the change”. “Bar oder mit Karte?” means “cash or card?”
German sayings with food
These are a few choice German idioms using food-related metaphors and images: “Alles in Butter” (everything in butter) means everything is well, while “Butter bei die Fische” (butter for the fishes) indicates that “enough is enough”.
“Da haben wir den Salat” (there it is) is commonly used to refer to the mess you’re in, especially when you’ve seen it coming.
“Jemandem die Suppe versalzen” (“Jemandem auf den Keks gehen”salting someone’s soup) refers to crossing someone’s plans, but (going on someone’s cookie) is an expression for yanking someone’s chain.
“Tomaten auf den Augen” (tomatoes on the eyes) describes a person who can’t spot the obvious.
Common German phrases for mastering everyday life
We’ve compiled more common German phrases which are useful to know because you’ll hear them often. Learn some of the following, then weave them casually in your everyday conversations and impress your German friends!
- Was machst du so? – What are you doing?
A very common phrase for establishing a casual conversation, wanting to hang out, or asking a friend about their well-being.
- Fix und fertig / fix und alle – done for, shattered, smashed, worn-out, tired
Whether you’ve been working like a dog or partying all night, when you can’t keep your eyes open anymore and need to collapse into bed, you’re “fix und fertig”.
- 08/15 (Null-acht-fünfzehn) – standard, off-the-shelf, common
This is a derogatory term for all things mediocre, simple, and ordinary. Although some people say the origin of this expression is the fact that in Germany, the “Tagesschau” daily news is on TV at 8:15pm every day, the term derives from the German 08/15 machine gun, which was standard issue at the time of WWI.
- Rechts stehen, links gehen – Stand on the right, walk on the left
Germans love rules and efficiency, so of course there are rules to enforce efficiency. Pick a side on any escalator, but don’t block the way for others or they’ll remind you with this common phrase.
- Trick 17 – an original solution
The term describes a clever, instantly successful solution to a problem, but can also be used ironically.
- Innerer Schweinehund – inner bastard
When you want to do the right thing, but can’t muster the motivation or courage, you’re fighting to overcome your inner bastard, the reproachful “Innerer Schweinehund” (literally pig dog).
- frei nach Schnauze – freely, at will
The literal translation is “following your snout freely”, which is used for something without concept or consideration, spontaneous, or without constraint. It’s often used when someone talks openly.
- Brett vorm Kopf – slow to comprehend
Someone with a “board in front of their head” is confused, stupid, or acting foolish or simple-minded.
- Daumen drücken – Fingers crossed
Germans don’t cross their fingers, they press their thumbs when wishing someone best of luck.
- Aller guten Dinge sind drei – All good things come in threes
Based on numerology and superstition, this saying is used to justify giving something three tries for good measure.
- Aus dem Schneider – off the hook
This is obviously used for when you’ve survived a delicate situation. Though “Schneider” means tailor, the expression originates from the German card game Skat.
- am Ball bleiben – stay on the ball
Not only common and useful in soccer, this encouragement or motivation to keep up the (good) work is a reminder to stay the course, focused and with your eyes on the prize.