German, like any other language, has particular words and expressions that can be used in more than one way. These include the short but tricky words known as particles or fillers. We call them small words that can cause big problems.
German words such as aber, auch, denn, doch, halt, mal, nur, schon and even ja look deceptively simple, but are often a source of errors and misunderstanding for learners of German. The main source of problems is the fact that each one of these words can have multiple meanings and functions in different contexts or situations.
Take the word aber. Most often it is encountered as a coordinating conjunction, as in:
In that context, aber functions like any of the coordinating conjunctions (aber, denn, oder, und). But aber can also be used as a particle:
Another characteristic of such particle words is that it is often difficult to translate the German word into an English word. German aber, contrary to what your first-year German teacher told you, does not always equal but! Depending on how it is being used, the word aber can mean: but, and, at all, however, really, just, isn't it?, haven't you?, come on now or why. The word can even be a noun:
In fact, a German dictionary rarely offers much help in dealing with particles. They are so idiomatic that it is often impossible to translate them, even if you understand German pretty well. But throwing them into your German (as long as you know what you're doing!) can make you sound more natural and native-like.
How would you translate Sag mal, wann fliegst du? or Mal sehen.? In neither case would a good English translation actually bother to translate mal Say (Tell me), when does your flight leave? The second phrase would be We'll see in English. The word mal is actually two words. As an adverb, it has a mathematical function: fünf mal fünf (5×5). But it is as a particle and a shortened form of einmal (once), that mal is most often used in day-to-day conversation, as in:
If you listen carefully to German speakers, you'll discover that they can hardly say anything without throwing in a mal here and there. (But it's not nearly as irritating as the use of Ya know in English!) So if you do the same (at the right time and in the right place!), you'll sound just like a German!
The German word doch is so versatile that it can also be dangerous. But knowing how to use this word properly can make you sound like a true German! Let's start with the basics: ja, nein and doch! Of course, two of the first words you ever learned in German were ja and nein. You probably knew those two words before you began studying German! But they aren't enough. You also need to know doch. The use of doch to answer a question is not actually a particle function, but it is important. (We'll get back to doch as a particle in a moment.) English may have the largest vocabulary of any world language, but it doesn't have a single word for doch as an answer. Whether you answer a question negatively or positively, you use nein (no) or ja (yes) in German and English. But German adds a third one-word option, doch (on the contrary), that English does not have.
For instance, someone asks you in English, Don't you have any money? You actually do, so you answer, Yes, I do. While you might also add, On the contrary... only two responses are possible in English: No, I don't. (agreeing with the negative question) or Yes, I do. (disagreeing with the negative question). German, however, offers a third alternative, which in some cases is required instead of ja or nein. The same money question in German would be: Hast du kein Geld? If you answer with ja, the questioner may think you are agreeing to the negative, that yes, you do not have any money. But by answering with doch, you are making it clear: On the contrary, yes, I do have money.
This also applies to statements that you want to contradict. If someone says, That's not right, but it is, the German statement Das stimmt nicht would be contradicted with: Doch! Das stimmt. (On the contrary, it is right.) In this case, a response with ja (es stimmt) would sound wrong to German ears. A doch response clearly means you disagree with the statement.
Doch has many other uses as well. As an adverb, it can mean after all or all the same.
It is often used this way as an intensifier:
rather than the harsher (You will) go by. As a particle, doch can intensify (as above), express surprise
With a little attention and effort, you'll begin to notice the many ways that doch is used in German. Understanding the uses of doch and the other particles in German will give you a much better command of the language.
Below are some examples of particles. Note the subtle differences in meaning that particles can sometimes convey. The translation of expressions with particles is often subject to various interpretations. It involves a bit of Sprachgefühl, i.e. a feeling for the language that comes with experience.