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When do we use the word mal after a verb? Does it change the meaning?
For example: what is the difference between the following sentences.

Guck mal. Frag mal.
Guck. Frag.

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The addition of the word 'mal' does not directly change the meaning in this context. It does, however, change the underlying tone of the statement.

A sentence like

Frag mal dort nach.

makes your statement more of a proposition while

Frag dort nach.

sounds more like a direct instruction.

This is the reason why the configuration Verb+'mal' is more used in an informal context. For example, if a student asks another a question during classes, he would answer:

Weiß nicht. Frag mal den Lehrer.

Without the 'mal' this would sound distant and maybe a bit annoyed.

In contrast, the word 'mal' is usually avoided in very formal situations where you tend to distance yourself from the converstational partner for politeness:

Für weitere Informationen fragen Sie Herrn XY.

So in conclusion if you speak with a friend or someone you know well, always use the 'mal'. If you want to be polite (for example in official correspondence), try to avoid it as much as possible.

  • Is "frag mal dort nach" the same as "du solltest dort nachfragen"? – Denis Jul 8 '16 at 8:24
  • @Deni Basically. It is somewhat more colloquial, however. – Chieron Jul 8 '16 at 8:26
  • @Chieron But it is closer to "du solltest..." than to "frag dort nach", right? – Denis Jul 8 '16 at 8:30
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    @Deni Yes. solltest strongly implies a suggestion (more so than the mal-construction), the imperative an order or annoyance. mal tends to be seen as an abbreviation of einmal (see Hubert's answer, which is wrong in this case), and thus more informal. – Chieron Jul 8 '16 at 8:36
  • Actually I feel it the opposite: "Solltest" is in my view a very decisive suggestion ("it is really a good idea to do that") while "mal" I think is more an idea suggestion ("it might be a good idea to do that"). So unless I misunderstood your English (quite possible), I'd say "mal" more strongly implies a suggestion than "solltest". – celtschk Jul 11 '16 at 7:39
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"Guck" and "frag" are imperative forms of their respective verbs. That is to say that they are commands.

The term "mal" is a "softener" in this context. When placed behind commands like "guck" and "frag" as "guck mal," and "frag mal," it turns those commands into suggestions.

The effect of "mal" is more or less the opposite of "doch" (the latter is used for emphasis, the former for de emphasis.)

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    So "guck doch mal" is an oxymoron? ;-) – celtschk Jul 11 '16 at 7:43
  • @celtschk :I'd say so. – Tom Au Jul 11 '16 at 7:55
  • I think the combination 'doch mal' expresses something that might be spelt out in English as 'for once (mal), why don't you (doch)'. Not that easy to nail down to one single meaning, these modal particles. – user22484 Jul 11 '16 at 17:56

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