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Machen or Tun?

One of the challenges in learning a language is making the right choice among words with similar meanings. Tun means “to do.” Simple enough, but another word means “to do” too. Machen basically means “to make,” and is very often used just like in English (see explanations and examples here), but it also means “to do.” So which one do we use, and when? Usage changes from area to area and sometimes from generation to generation, but as a very general guide, if there is no particular object, machen and tun are usually interchangeable.

Piggeldy and Frederick happen to be talking about a sheep.

Es hat eben gesagt, was es den ganzen Tag tut.

It just said what it does the whole day.

Caption 33, Piggeldy und Frederick: Das Schaf

Piggeldy could have said:

Es hat eben gesagt, was es den ganzen Tag macht.

It just said what it does the whole day.

And here, someone is suspected of cheating at German Monopoly:

Was machst du da an der Kasse?

What are you doing there at the cash register?

Caption 26, Monopoly: Geheime Tipps und Tricks

He could have said:

Was tust du da an der Kasse?

What are you doing there at the cash register?

We've seen how machen and tun can be interchangeable. In practice, though, German speakers will use one over the other in a given situation. So pay attention. Little by little, you will start getting a feel for which one sounds more natural. The important thing is to know when machen and tun cannot replace each other. 

When you are making an apology, go for tun.

Es tut mir sehr leid, dass ich dich danach gefragt habe.


I am very sorry that I asked you about it.

Caption 36, Piggeldy und Frederick: Sprichwörter

When you accept an apology, you’ll use machen.

Das macht nichts.

It doesn’t matter.

When you want to explain that you’re busy, tun is the right verb to use:

Was willst du von mir? Ich hab' zu tun.


What do you want from me? I have [things] to do.

Caption 66, Alexander Hauff: Showreel - Part 2

And pretending to do something is child’s play, as long as you remember to use tun!

Ich könnt' so tun, als ob ich dir zum Beispiel eine verpasse.

I could pretend, for example, as if I were to sock you one.

Caption 89, Bürger Lars Dietrich: Schlecht Englisch kann ich gut - Part 2

Learning tip:



On the Yabla video page, do searches with machen and tun in any or all of their conjugations, and see where they are used. Then go to the video itself to see the context and the translation. 


Another suggestion: Think of a sentence using one or the other, like Was tust du denn so in deiner Freizeit? and Google it to see if and how many times it comes up. If you searched tun where most of the time machen is used, you will find that Google gives results for machen—the more commonly used word.

Have a look at this blog about machen and tun.

Vocabulary

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