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Time to pay: bezahlt vs. gezahlt

In a previous lesson, we discussed the difference between the German verbs zählen and zahlen. Although only an umlaut differentiates the two words—and their meanings can both relate to numbers or money—let's quickly recap the distinctions in meaning. The verb zählen means "to count," and the verb zahlen means "to pay." The first video below talks about counting money (zählen), and the second about paying money (zahlen):


Ja, manchmal muss ein Bankkaufmann auch Geld zählen.

Yes, sometimes a banker has to count money too.

Caption 9, Nicos Weg - A1 Folge 38: Mein Beruf

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Wer eine Bar, eine Disco oder ein Fitnessstudio weiterbetreibt,

Anyone who continues to run a bar, club, or gym

muss 5.000 Euro zahlen.

will have to pay 5,000 euros.

Captions 16-17, Die Corona-Krise - Null Toleranz & Strafen bei Verstößen in NRW

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But what about the verbs bezahlen and zahlen? In their infinitive forms, they are easy enough to differentiate, but in their Partizip Perfekt form, they look very similar (bezahlt / gezahlt) and even rhyme:


Du hast mir monatelang kein Gehalt bezahlt!

You have paid me no salary for months!

Caption 22, Mama arbeitet wieder - Kompromisse zu finden ist nicht einfach

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Süß. Aber du hast nur 50 gezahlt.

Cute. But you have only paid 50.

Caption 31, Die Pfefferkörner - Cybermobbing

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Whether to use bezahlen or zahlen is a complicated topic indeed, but there are a few general rules that make it easier.


1. When a person is being paid (in the case below, the models), you always use bezahlen:


Übrigens, wir haben nur zwei Models bezahlt.

By the way, we only paid two of the models.

Caption 25, Bausa - Was du Liebe nennst

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2. The verb bezahlen generally suggests that something has been fully paid or "paid up," whereas zahlen means a payment has been made, but it may have been just a partial payment. A clever article entitled "Haben Sie schon gezahlt oder bezahlen Sie erst später?" illustrates this well. A literal translation could be: "Have you already partially paid or are you going to completely pay up later?"


A more literal translation of the following could be: "I don't have to pay for all of it, the German Film Academy is making payments for that."


Keine Ahnung, ich muss das nicht bezahlen,

No idea, I don't have to pay for it,

das zahlt die Deutsche Filmakademie.

the German Film Academy is paying for it.

Caption 38, Ball des Weines - Barbara Schöneberger

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3. The verb zahlen is usually used for more general purposes, such as "to pay any price":


Die kleine Meerjungfrau war bereit, jeden Preis zu zahlen,

The Little Mermaid was ready to pay any price

um bei dem Prinzen zu sein.

to be with the Prince.

Caption 50, Märchen - Sagenhaft: Die kleine Meerjungfrau

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4. In many cases, either bezahlen or zahlen will work. It would be somewhat more correct to use gezahlt and zahlen in the second sentence, but it works either way:


Wurde der Computer schon bezahlt? –Nein, er hat vorerst nur 500 Euro bezahlt / gezahlt und wird den Rest nächsten Monat bezahlen / zahlen.
Has the computer already been paid for? –No, he has only paid 500 euros for now and will pay the rest next month.


To conclude: Always use bezahlen when paying a person—as a rule, use bezahlen for paying something completely and zahlen for a partial payment and just paying in general. However, it's not a serious grammatical mistake in most cases to use either one.


Further Learning
Go to Yabla German and search for variations of bezahlen and zahlen. Tip: add an asterisk in your search (bezahl*, zahl* and gezahl*) and you will get all of the cases in the search results. Be careful to note the different contexts in which the verbs appear. Then read the above-mentioned article "Haben Sie schon gezahlt oder bezahlen Sie erst später?" It's pretty funny, considering it's about grammar!

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