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I've heard the structure verb + mal a lot, like:

Sag mal, schau mal, warte mal

  • Is it a good style? does it sound more friendly?
  • What's the difference between "warte" and "warte mal"?
  • Is it applicable for all verbs?
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I agree with Hauser regarding the (initial) effect of using "mal": makes the imperative's roughness easy. But I think there's no connection with "einmal" in the meaning "once". "Einmal" may in fact mean "once", "zweimal" twice and so on. There are more meanings of "einmal":

  • eines Tages, später: eventually, one day;
  • vor langer Zeit, einst, früher: a long time ago, once (!):

"Es war einmal....";

  • irgendwann: anyday, someday.

So I think "einmal" in connection with the imperative means: "I need this, but not immediately" or "please do this, but only if you find time to do so".

But even using "mal", this doesn't ease the imperative in every case; in the contrary, it may aggravate it:

"Könntest Du jetzt bitte mal den Müll runterbringen?"

means it isn't a wise decision to defer that operation any longer, in other words: "do this immediately!" (furthermore, it usually doesn't denote a unique act... )

edit: to answer the initial questions:

  • IMO using "mal" sounds more friendly; It's not a matter of style directly, because it's used in colloquial speech mostly - generally, i think it isn't bad style anyway - it's just colloquial. I can't think of a written instruction that connects a imperative with "mal".
  • i think there's almost no difference between "warte" and "warte mal". In both cases, you request someone to interrupt an activity or not to start doing something, without a distinct difference in meaning.
  • IMO yes, you can connect it with every verb that's used as imperative (at the moment i can't find an example where it would be wrong).
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Using "mal" in the meaning of "einmal" is colloquial. –  Takkat Aug 2 '11 at 9:22
"there's no connection with "einmal" in the meaning "once"" means you don't agree with Hauser. ;) –  user508 Aug 2 '11 at 10:46
@tohu -1, because the question is not, what CAN einnmal and esp. once(eng!) mean, but what does it mean in this context Your examples also dont fit imo Sag DOCH mal..., this exactly means Sag doch nur dieses eine mal.... Sag mal means Sags mir jetzt bitte i dont see the point of immediately or having time as you use it daily real-time 4 eyes conversations, sounds very artificially reasoned to me IMHO.Your last example gets rough because of jetzt bitte,mal is just a fill word here, without the example has the same meaning and sound to me. Könntest du mal den...is pretty common –  Hauser Aug 2 '11 at 11:31
Referring DUDEN the meaning of "mal" other than in multiplications is colloquial "einmal" in the meaning of "irgendwann" (2c). Therefore @tohuwahohu is right here. Whoever downvoted should reconsider this. –  Takkat Aug 2 '11 at 12:18
@Hauser: your're right objecting that "Sag doch mal" doesn't mean "tell me anytime" but "tell me now". My explanation attempt obviously doesn't fit in every case. But i still think the limitation "just one time" fits only in rare cases, i don't estimate it to be the "default" meaning. Seems we both didn't hit the bull's eye :) –  tohuwawohu Aug 2 '11 at 13:14
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Probably comes from phrases like:

Warte (ein)mal, Lass uns (ein)mal abwarten, Sag (ein)mal, Schau (nur ein)mal

IMO, it denotes more a unique/singular case/situation you are unsure about what is going to happen or talking about something you want to gather information about. More meaning

Kannst du mir nur dieses eine Mal sagen, ob...

An imperative wouldn't sound very friendly and/or implicate more that you are aware of what is going to happen (in case of "Warte mal"). So in both cases it eases the rough effect/meaning of an imperative. So that's where it likely comes from.

But today it's -IMO- also commonly used just to avoid the harsh imperative in daily conversations without the above original meaning.

Anti-example would be:

Wiederholen sie das mal 1000 mal (sounds unfriendly)

Here you would only use the pure imperative:

Wiederholen sie das 1000 mal!!!...Bitte!

Concerning @tohu reasoning, i still think esp. because of common phrases like

Sag doch (nur dieses eine) mal bitte...

that it denotes a singular case/situation. Also i dont understand why to look at the german meanings of once to understand this. verb + mal are set phrases with meaning in context, a translation and re-translation only makes this more complicated, artificial and speculative to me.

Concerning further comments and usage of mal mainly in conversations its hard to argue how mal/Mal/einmal/ein Mal is used by the speaker and understood by counterpart. You can add it to many verbs, but the exact meaning will probably be not always clear.

Beeil dich mal! Wiederhol das mal!

hardly implies dieses einzige mal nor wenn du Zeit findest. Nowadays its purpose seems mainly the easening of the imperative. I associate it mainly with Sag mal and the meaning i explained above - singular thirsting after information


maybe a hint but no proof where it comes from

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Sorry, i'm still not convinced. You're mixing up "Mal" as substantive with "(ein)mal" as adverb (Takkat already pointed to that). Even your example "Sag doch mal" doesn't force the meaning "just once"; in the contrary, "doch" is commonly used for any other request: "Jetzt erzähl' doch mal, wie war's gestern im Kino?" There's a plethora of other examples where a limitation to "just once" would be - sorry - quite bizarre IMO. –  tohuwawohu Aug 2 '11 at 13:08
@tohu the main problem is probably that in spoken language no one can differ between Mal, einmal, ein Mal, diff. people will imo have diff. view. I wouldnt use this in written language, only conversations. Here still, as i stated above as comment on your answer it means to me ein Mal If someone asks on & on Sag mal i stop saying something to him. You use it in a conversation and expect a direct answer, i dont understand how it can implicate to give someone time to answer when he feels like? Warte/Sag mal means do it NOW. We will likely find no compromise here, to many diff. examples. –  Hauser Aug 2 '11 at 13:24
@tohu doch und mal are imo too alterably to find a clearcut answer what is HAS to mean. I voted your answer down becauese of the "not immediatley", this just doenst make much sense to me in a face to face conversation, there is no time for waiting. Anyday/Someday just seems the plain wrong translation TO ME, i would not understand it this way and some other too, otherwise our answers wouldnt be voted both. –  Hauser Aug 2 '11 at 13:28
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