When to use "bezahlen" and when "zahlen"?

  • Leo shows that both bezahlen and zahlen are translated as "to pay". I noticed that people sometimes use the one, and sometimes the other.

    So, when to use bezahlen and when zahlen?

  • chirlu

    chirlu Correct answer

    8 years ago

    In many cases, zahlen and bezahlen mean the same and may be used interchangeably:

    Sie haben die Miete noch nicht gezahlt/bezahlt.
    Das Museum hat zwei Millionen für das Bild gezahlt/bezahlt.

    Sometimes, there is a difference in register; otherwise, it is often a matter of personal taste when to use which. However, there are some cases where a more-or-less clear difference exists.

    1. You can’t use (at least not in standard language) zahlen with a person as the direct object:

      Sie macht lieber alles selbst, statt einen Handwerker zu bezahlen.
      Ich bezahle dich nicht dafür, daß du Löcher in die Luft guckst!

      (Exception: If the person is not the recipient of the payment, but the item that is being paid for, i.e. a slave.)

    2. Bezahlen may be used to indicate completion:

      Ist die Waschmaschine bezahlt? – Nein, er hat erst einmal nur hundert Euro gezahlt/bezahlt und zahlt/bezahlt nächste Woche den Rest.

    3. On the other hand, zahlen is more general:

      Firma X? Ja, die zahlen gut.

      (Although bezahlen isn’t impossible here.) It may also be preferred when talking about who’ll pay in the end:

      Dafür zahlt doch wieder die Allgemeinheit.
      Greift zu! Ich zahle. (= My treat.)

    If I understand correctly, I can always use `bezahlen`, and it won't be a mistake?

    I guess so, yes. There are some fixed phrases, however: _Da zahlt man sich dumm und dusselig._ But you’ll have to learn those anyway (if you want to use them).

    But even then "bezahlen" would not be wrong. "Da bezahlt man sich dumm und dusselig" is also ok. Same with "Zahlen/Bezahlen bitte!".

    The Dictionary of German Synonyms says that, in the case that you are paying to a person, you can either use "bezahlen" with accusative, as mentioned in this answer, OR use "zahlen" with dative for the person and accusative for what is being paid. eg "Ich habe ihm drei Euro dafür gezahlt". It also says that only "bezahlen" may be used with abstract meaning (eg "pay for your sins")

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