What's the difference in usage between "machen" and "tun"?

  • Is there any rules or guidelines when to use which one?

    Du darfst mir nicht sagen, was ich machen soll.

    or

    Du darfst mir nicht sagen, was ich tun soll.

    I find a big overlap in their usage:

    Was soll ich nur machen/tun? (So what am I supposed to do?)

    Ich habe nichts getan.

    Are they interchangeable?

    Is "du darfst nicht mir sagen ..." wrong?

    Yes, @gigili. My rule of thumb is that the negation usually drifts to the end of the sentence, to the place just before the *partizip*, *infititiv* or *abtrennbarem Verbteil*. In the comment to your excellent question http://german.stackexchange.com/questions/1101/where-is-exactly-the-place-of-nicht-in-the-sentence you will find a link which explains it better than I do. :)

    When I grew up (70s/80s) the use of the word "tun" was strongly discouraged and seen as bad style. There were a couple of these "outcast" words, another one was "kriegen". Not sure sure what they did to deserve this, but that's how it is (or at least was, not sure if it's still that way). The fixed expressions mentioned in the answers below were exempt.

  • splattne

    splattne Correct answer

    10 years ago

    The verbs tun (to do) and machen (to make) are very similar. You can exchange them in many sentences with each other, but they don't always mean the same.

    The following synonyms for both words show the different connotations:

    • tun:
      handeln, unternehmen, realisieren, verwirklichen, vollführen, beschäftigen, betätigen
    • machen:
      anfertigen, herstellen durchführen, bereiten, fertigen, fabrizieren, anrichten, bewältigen

    tun can be indefinite in time and relate to the bigger picture. machen has a defined framework - and the results are visible. The question "Was willst du jetzt tun?" requires a fundamental decision, an "either - or".

    "Was willst du jetzt machen?" refers more to a direct action or reaction or on the next step. machen will be associated with a specific, often small (manual) activity.


    There are a few fixed expression in German that you can only use with "tun" or respectively "machen". Examples:

    • "Gutes tun"
    • "Das macht nichts."
    • "Das tut nichts zur Sache."

    Origin: both words come from West Germanic verbs. The Indoeuropean roots are mag (machen) and dhe (tun). machen meant "to knead" (in German: "kneten") originally, "tun" meant "put", "place" and "lay".

    The origin of "machen" is explained very well by belles lettres: http://www.belleslettres.eu/artikel/sinn-machen-make-sense-anglizismus.php @splattne: I'm not sure, but I think he stated that the origin "kneten" is controversial...

    This answer tries to seem there are rules, but there are not. The usage of both words have historical-linguistics reasons. You can only memorize which one to choose. `Was willst du jetzt tun?` is absolutely equal to `Was willst du jetzt machen?`

    And the indefinite-in-time-vs-direct-action theory is wrong.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM