3 Simple Uses of the German Word Zu, Plus When to Avoid It

They’re any Scrabble player’s secret weapon.

Those tiny, two-letter words.

Am… is… do… on…

I could keep going. There are quite a few words you can create in English with only two letters.

Same goes for German. Which ones can you think of?

In this post, we’ll be talking about a particular two-letter German word that’s incredibly versatile. By itself, it expresses direction towards someone or something, but paired up with other words, it has tons of other possibilities.

So the next time you’re playing (German) Scrabble, don’t worry if you’ve only got “z” and “u” left.

You’ve got the German preposition zu!

Why Focus on Zu?

Think about the words you use all the time in your mother tongue. Can you list a few?

You’ve probably included words that describe your daily life, like I, you and me, and probably a few verbs, too. You’ll need those verbs to tell others what you had for breakfast, what happened to you on the way to work or to tell your friends or parents what happened at school that day.

Most German native speakers will have a similar list of common words, since we all share basic needs. Remember sein (to be) and haben (to have)? Those verbs are essential to the German language, not only for basic statements about the state of something or what someone has, but also for use as helping verbs.

Learning zu is the next step in building your German language foundation.

It’s not necessarily a word you’ll use everyday, but it’s one you’ll see often. It’s also a very versatile word, so learning the different meanings of zu and how it works is crucial to expressing yourself fluently in a variety of situations.

How to Form Contractions with Zu

Before we dive into our zu guide below, we’ll need to cover German contractions so you can recognize how the word is being used in different example sentences.

Since zu is a dative preposition, we need to select the correct dative article for our noun, like so:

  • The masculine dative article is dem.
  • The feminine dative article is der.
  • The neuter dative article is dem.

We then take the last letter of the new article (m, r, m) and add that on to the end of zu:

  • zu dem becomes zum
  • zu der becomes zur

(For a comprehensive rundown or refresher on German articles for different genders and cases, the University of Michigan has a helpful chart.)

This is also a handy way to figure out the gender of a noun that you don’t know. If you see zur, you’ll know that the noun following is feminine. Likewise, nouns following zum are either masculine or neuter.

If you need some more help with these concepts, you can see them in action by watching native German speakers use them on FluentU.

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Vocabulary and phrases are learned with the help of interactive subtitles and full transcripts.


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A Word of Many Meanings: How to Use the German Word Zu

1. When Zu Means “To” or “Towards”

One of the most common forms of zu is the dative preposition. In this context, it means “to” or “towards” something or someone, and it changes the case of the following noun to dative.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Ich muss morgen zur Schule gehen. (I must go to school tomorrow.)

Literally translated: I must tomorrow go to school.

  • Er will mit mir zum Tierpark gehen. (He wants to go to the zoo with me.)

Literally translated: He wants with me the zoo to go.

  • Willst du mit ihm zum Einkaufszentrum gehen? (Do you want to go to the mall with him?)

Literally translated: Want you with him to the mall go?

  • Ich gehe dieses Wochenende zu meiner Tante. (I go to my aunt’s this weekend.)

Literally translated: I go to my aunt this weekend.

Zu is sometimes confused with nach, which indicates a distant destination or direction:

  • Ich fahre nächsten Sommer nach Deutschland. (I fly to Germany next summer.)
  • Wir gehen zum Supermarkt. (We go to the supermarket.)

This one’s a bit confusing, because Germany and the supermarket are both destinations, technically. But we use nach for the first one and zu for the second one because of distance. Zu is appropriate for locations that are close to you, whereas nach is appropriate for locations that are farther away. Think about it like walking somewhere versus having to fly or drive for several hours.

2. When Zu Expresses Causes or Conditions

For this usage of zu, we’ll need to create infinitive constructions. These are basically a fancy way of expressing cause or condition.

For example, in order to become fluent in German, you’ll have to study grammar. You can’t speak German without knowing how to conjugate verbs, and instead of speaking in English all the time, you should speak in German more often, to get practice!

Here are the German infinitive constructions with zu that you should know:

  • um… zu (in order to)
  • ohne… zu (without)
  • (an)statt… zu (instead of)

These constructions use the infinitive of a verb, much like modals do, but are set off by a comma. You’ll place the verb after zu, and the rest of your phrasing between zu and um, ohne or (an)statt.

For example:

  • Ich muss mein Zimmer aufräumen, um meine Socken zu finden. (I must clear up my room in order to find my socks.)
  • Er kann dieses Haus nicht verlassen, ohne seinen Kaffee zu trinken. (He cannot leave this house without drinking his coffee.)
  • Anstatt ihre Hausaufgaben zu machen, spielt sie mit ihren Freunden. (Instead of doing her homework, she plays with her friends.)

3. When Zu Is Used in Infinitive Clauses

For this usage, zu is combined with the infinitive of a verb in a dependent clause. Infinitive clauses don’t require um, ohne or (an)statt. 

For example:

  • Ich habe große Angst davor, meine Prüfung abzulegen. (I’m scared to take my test.)
  • Er soll zu Hause bleiben, um seine Tochter zu sehen. (He should stay home to see his daughter.)

Sometimes you need a comma to set the clause off. If there’s more to the clause than just zu and your infinitive, then you need a comma. Otherwise you don’t. This is really just to help clarify the sentence and show proper word order.

Dartmouth’s German Studies Department has a lot of good examples to show you when you need to set the clause off by a comma, and when you don’t.

4. When Not to Use Zu

With Modal Verbs

German modal verbs include könnnen (to be able to), müssen (to have to), wollen (to want to), mögen (to like to), etc.

You might think that when we use modals in German sentences, we would need zu. However, modals don’t require the word zu in German.

Take the English sentence, “I want to sing.” Our German modal would be wollen. But if we said, “Ich will zu singen,” we’d be wrong.

Rather than meaning, “I want to sing,” this is grammatically incorrect, because modals already have the “to” built in. The correct way to say this would be, “Ich will singen.”

I know, I know—this is a little confusing, especially in comparison to the infinitive clauses with zu that we discussed above. Here’s a handy online worksheet where you can compare these two contexts further and practice applying zu the right way.

With Indirect Objects

Similarly, you don’t always need zu when referring to indirect objects, because the word order of the sentence can do the work for you.

Let’s say you wanted to translate the sentence “We are giving him a fish.”

In German, you can just say, “Wir geben ihm einen Fisch.”

The sentence above reflects proper German word order, as indirect objects come before direct objects. By putting “ihm” in the position of the indirect object, you’re indicating already that he’s the recipient of the direct object. No zu is needed.


Practice your zu usage and soon, you’ll know the difference between all its uses—and be that much closer to fluency!

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