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

Du darfst mir nicht sagen, was ich machen soll.


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?

  • 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
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    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

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".

  • 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? – äüö Jul 7 '13 at 21:35
  • And the indefinite-in-time-vs-direct-action theory is wrong. – äüö Jul 9 '13 at 19:11

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.


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. "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.

  • 3
    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. – äüö Jul 9 '13 at 19:07

"tun" can be used as auxiliary for analytical conjugation.
Indikativ Präsens:

Ich tu(e) lesen
Du tust lesen
Er/Sie/Es tut lesen
Wir tun lesen
Ihr tut lesen
Sie tun lesen

I believe that Indikativ Präteritum is at least grammatical, but very uncommon:

Ich tat lesen
Du tatest lesen
Er/Sie/es tat lesen
Wir taten lesen
Ihr tatet lesen
Sie taten lesen

In southern dialects, analytical Konjunktiv Präteritum (Konjunktiv II) is done with tun, and it is not frowned. I have witnessed foreigners adopting it:

Ich täte lesen
Du tätest lesen
Er/Sie/es täte lesen
Wir täten lesen
Ihr tätet lesen
Sie täten lesen

Personally, I think that this is superior to "würde": it sounds nicer and "würde" would have been left free to be used for Konjunktiv Futur/Konjunktiv Futurperfekt, adding two new forms of Konjunktiv.

Additionally, in some dialects, using tun signifies a long progressive:

Er ist am arbeiten (he is working right now, "am-Progressiv")
Er tut bei Daimler arbeiten (he works for Daimler, ie. he worked there for years and will work there in the future)

"machen" cannot be used as auxiliary.


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.

  • "Machen", also, describes spending time on something! – user508 Jun 13 '11 at 7:21
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    @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

Vieles is rein idiomatisch, und Definitionen werden einem Lernenden wenig helfen. Hier kann man nur raten, Sprache zu beobachten.


As a native speaker I recommend the answer of splattne. It's a really good one.

I might add: "Verb" is a latin word. The German correspondance would be "Tunwort". "Tun" is used when the action is not specified. "Gutes tun" (do good) for instance doesn't specify the action. It might be giving money to somebody, spending time with somebody, nurturing someone etc.

"Du tust mir weh!" (you are hurting me) doesn't specify the action (beating, piercing, cutting etc.).

"Tu/mach das nie wieder!" (don't do that again) Both are possible but tun would be the more elegant choice. In this case, "tun" evoked a principle.

PLEASE don't use "tun" as auxiliary. It really is very, very bad style!

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