Take the 2-minute tour ×
German Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for speakers of German wanting to discuss the finer points of the language and translation. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Is there any rules or guidelines when to use which one?

Du darfst mir nicht sagen, was ich machen soll.

or

Du darfst mir nicht sagen, was ich tun soll.

I find a big overlap in their usage:

Was soll ich nur machen/tun? (So what am I supposed to do?)

Ich habe nichts getan.

Are they interchangeable?

share|improve this question
    
Is "du darfst nicht mir sagen ..." wrong? –  user508 Jun 13 '11 at 6:17
    
Yes, @gigili. My rule of thumb is that the negation usually drifts to the end of the sentence, to the place just before the partizip, infititiv or abtrennbarem Verbteil. In the comment to your excellent question german.stackexchange.com/questions/1101/… you will find a link which explains it better than I do. :) –  Stovner Jun 13 '11 at 6:53
2  
When I grew up (70s/80s) the use of the word "tun" was strongly discouraged and seen as bad style. There were a couple of these "outcast" words, another one was "kriegen". Not sure sure what they did to deserve this, but that's how it is (or at least was, not sure if it's still that way). The fixed expressions mentioned in the answers below were exempt. –  user12889 Jun 14 '11 at 23:54
add comment

4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The verbs tun (to do) and machen (to make) are very similar. You can exchange them in many sentences with each other, but they don't always mean the same.

The following synonyms for both words show the different connotations:

  • tun:
    handeln, unternehmen, realisieren, verwirklichen, vollführen, beschäftigen, betätigen
  • machen:
    anfertigen, herstellen durchführen, bereiten, fertigen, fabrizieren, anrichten, bewältigen

tun can be indefinite in time and relate to the bigger picture. machen has a defined framework - and the results are visible. The question "Was willst du jetzt tun?" requires a fundamental decision, an "either - or".

"Was willst du jetzt machen?" refers more to a direct action or reaction or on the next step. machen will be associated with a specific, often small (manual) activity.


There are a few fixed expression in German that you can only use with "tun" or respectively "machen". Examples:

  • "Gutes tun"
  • "Das macht nichts."
  • "Das tut nichts zur Sache."

Origin: both words come from West Germanic verbs. The Indoeuropean roots are mag (machen) and dhe (tun). machen meant "to knead" (in German: "kneten") originally, "tun" meant "put", "place" and "lay".

share|improve this answer
    
The origin of "machen" is explained very well by belles lettres: belleslettres.eu/artikel/sinn-machen-make-sense-anglizismus.php @splattne: I'm not sure, but I think he stated that the origin "kneten" is controversial... –  ladybug Jun 14 '11 at 8:31
    
This answer tries to seem there are rules, but there are not. The usage of both words have historical-linguistics reasons. You can only memorize which one to choose. Was willst du jetzt tun? is absolutely equal to Was willst du jetzt machen? –  falkb Jul 7 '13 at 21:35
    
And the indefinite-in-time-vs-direct-action theory is wrong. –  falkb Jul 9 '13 at 19:11
add comment

Like everyone else said, usually these can be used synonymously.

Only in rare cases, the translation of English "to do" will demand usage of one rather than the other.

The difference appears to be that "machen" tends to imply an action that brings something into existence (cf. "maker" in English) or changes it somehow (usually physical, but also in a figurative sense):

  • Ich mache mir gerade etwas zu essen. (I'm making myself something to eat.)
  • Ich mache Dich zur Schnecke! (I'll kick your a**!)
  • Du machst mir Angst! (You're frightening me!)
  • Was machst Du beruflich? (What do you do for a living?)

[These don't usually work with "tun".]

"Tun" either tends to focus much more on the action itself rather that its effect, or is a kind of execution of an intention, order etc.

  • Tu es einfach! (Just do it!) [also works with "machen"]
  • Was tust Du da? (What are you doing?) [also works with "machen"]
  • Jemandem etwas antun. (To do something to someone. (in this construction usually something horrible)) [never works with "machen]

NOTE: We're talking tendency here, i.e. it is one of these nuance things that are so hard for non-native speakers.

share|improve this answer
add comment

It wasn't yet mentioned that there are cases in which "machen" can be used, but "tun" cannot. This is always when "machen" is used as a transitive verb, because "tun" can never be transitive. "Ich mache einem Freund ein Geschenk" is correct, but "Ich tue einem Freund ein Geschenk" is not. The latter sentence does only make sense in youth language, meaning "Ich gebe einem Freund ein Geschenk", where the former says "Ich erstelle ein Geschenk für einen Freund und gebe es ihm dann". If used in this context (jmd. ein Geschenk machen or jmd. eine Freude machen), "machen" does in fact not have any exact synonyms at all. There are other uses for "machen" as a transitive verb, though - for example "Ich mache eine Vase" means "Ich produziere eine Vase". In this context "tun" can be used neither, because "machen" is still used transitively.

share|improve this answer
2  
Agreed, that in a lot of cases tun instead of machen does not work. However: Ich tue dir einen Gefallen.... transitive. –  Emanuel Mar 26 '12 at 10:20
    
Your transitive theory is wrong. If not, please prove it. Another example: Ich tue es dir auf den Tisch. –  falkb Jul 9 '13 at 19:07
add comment

I don't think, that there is any difference, when used in a question.

But looking at the answers there is a difference.

machen is usually followed by a substantive

Ich mache meine Hausaufgaben.

while tun is followed by a verb. At some very colloquial level I would say

Ich tue gerade lesen

but some how feeling it isn't good style, I changed it while writing the answer to

Ich lese gerade ein Buch.

Which doesn't contain the verb tun. I'm not sure whether all examples I can think up are in some way colloquial.

Further machen is used in context, when something is produced, while tun is describes spending ones time.

share|improve this answer
    
"Machen", also, describes spending time on something! –  user508 Jun 13 '11 at 7:21
1  
@Gigili Are you thinking of blau machen? Admittedly there is nothing productive in that case. –  bernd_k Jun 13 '11 at 8:21
    
I don't understand the line "weil tun is followed by a verb". 1. Do you mean "while" instead of "weil"? 2. I don't see "tun" in "Ich lese gerade ein Buch." –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 13 '11 at 17:08
    
@Hendrik Vogt Very interesting. I think up an example and in the moment I write it down, I try to improve the style and the example breaks. –  bernd_k Jun 13 '11 at 19:16
    
"Ich tue gerade ..." is always colloquial when followed by a verb like this. I'm not sure at the moment how colloquial "Ich tue ein Stück Zucker in den Kaffee" is. –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 13 '11 at 19:47
show 1 more comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.