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So I recently thought about the word inability, which is a kind of neutral word in English, but in German when someone tells me »Du bist unfähig.« or »Das war deine Unfähigkeit«, it really is more or less an offensive thing to say.

Now are there any German words to tell someone he is unable to do something without being offensive?

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There are a couple of synonyms here out of which none sounds completely non-offensive to me... –  Baz Jan 30 at 9:12
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Spontaneously, I would say that there is no way in any language to say something like this such that nobody can possibly offended. I thus wonder, if inability really neutral. –  Wrzlprmft Jan 30 at 9:44
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What you're looking for is something like beating around the bush: "Dafür kannst du andere Sachen besser." –  Em1 Jan 30 at 9:46
    
You'd have to try to "blame something else" than his/her personality, like lack of years of experience (not your fault really, you could still do it if you had the time). Or try to "blame yourself" as in "I just would feel better if a professional xxx would do it". This of course holds for any language. –  linac Jan 30 at 9:52
    
To me at least, inability seems like a very blunt way to tell someone they can't do something in English –  thekeyofgb Jan 30 at 10:01
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4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Note that "being offensive" is a cultural and not a language thing. While in the English-speaking world you typically rotate around and around if you want to say something, in the German-speaking world you typically just say it. It is polite vs. honest, or dishonest vs. impolite, and neither is right or wrong (or better than the other).

Why not just say "Das hast du falsch gemacht, das liegt dir einfach nicht"? If you want to say something offensive (and you do want that, otherwise you wouldn't blame it on the inability to do something, but rather on the mistakes done), then say it.

I don't see how blaming someone's inability is less offensive than blaming it on his Unfähigkeit. It will be slightly more polite if you specify what the Unfähigkeit is about, like Unfähigkeit, [x] zu machen.

But since the question is about alternative phrases:

  • Du hast hier einige Fehler gemacht.
  • Du hast in diesem Bereich zu wenig Erfahrung.
  • Diese [Dinge] sind einfach nicht deine Stärke.
  • Du hast in diesem Bereich einige Defizite.
  • Wir sollten dieses Problem lieber gemeinsam lösen.

Note that you'll be kind of offensive anyway, because you have to tell them that they screwed up, somehow. After all, they did make a mistake, and unless you want to help him fix the situation, in which case you can talk about the mistake, rather than his general inability, there is no way around. You can, however, avoid being insulting by using phrases like the ones I suggested.

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Excellent points! –  Mac Jan 30 at 12:36
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I'm not sure you can really compare the two instances you're describing.

a) the translation itself:
Usually, Unfähigkeit and unfähig sein aren't really equivalent with inability and being unable. They're closer to incabability and being incapable.

b) one word vs. a complete statement
The German "Du bist unfähig." [note the period!] is a blanket statement expressing that you think the person is incapable of basically anything.

If you say "You're incapable." in English, it's more or less the same thing (although less idiomatic). ["You're unable." just doesn't work.]

You'd probably try to find a way to tell someone that they're unable to do something in a slightly less direct way in English, too. "You're unable to parallel park," is not something you'd say in polite conversation.
It's much more common to say "You're not very good at parallel parking, are you?" and the same is true for German: "Rückwärts einparken ist nicht Deine Stärke, oder?"

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Was about to write about the difference between the two words as well, but you already nailed it. Bonus points for using phrases from recent questions as examples ;) –  OregonGhost Jan 30 at 11:54
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"Inability" seems to mean the impossibility for someone or something to achieve a goal. For example, you might talk about my inability to install Windows software on a Linux computer, which isn't my fault at all. Or my inability to run fast with my broken leg. Example:

Es ist mir nicht möglich dieses Programm auf deinem Computer zu installieren.

Mein gebrochenes Bein macht es mir unmöglich schnell zu laufen.

On the other hand, you might talk about someone's inability to follow instructions, out of stupidity or pigheadedness.

Er kann einfach keinen Anweisungen folgen. ("kann einfach" instead of "kann" expresses some exasperation).

You'll probably notice that I would very rarely translate "inability" using a single corresponding word, but by using a completely different phrase. Single word translations tend to sound quite strong.

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The phrase "nicht in der Lage sein" or "verhindert sein" (if applicable) is a formulation that "blames" the situation rather than the person for not being able to do something, so maybe you want something like this. Then again, all depends a lot on context. For example, a plain "nicht können" as in

Ich kann diesen Vertragsbedingungen nicht zustimmen.

does not even imply any inability in an offensive manner, but may rather connote a certain strength of will of the speaker to resist to pressure.

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+1 for "nicht in der Lage sein". This would be my choice if I wanted to be as neutral as possible. –  nwellnhof Jan 30 at 23:11
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