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I recently came across this phrase:

Können wir nicht mal was anderes machen?

The meaning is clear enough, i.e. “Can we not do something else?”, but I can’t work out how the word was is functioning in this context. I’m guessing it means what in the sense of “is there not something else what/that we could be doing?”, but why is the was necessary? How would the meaning change if you wrote

Können wir nicht mal anderes machen?

instead?

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"was" is short \ colloquial for "etwas" (engl. "something").

Literally, "something else" translates to "(et)was anderes", so no, you can't leave out "was" as you suggested, just as you cannot say "Can't we do else?" in English.

As @CarstenS pointed out, one thing that you can do in German is make "anderes" into a noun and then say "Können wir nicht mal Anderes machen?" (note the capitalisation of "Anderes"), which grammatically is correct, but does not quite convey the meaning of your original sentence/is not idiomatic.

  • Great that clears that up, I had a feeling it might be something simple. – advert2013 Feb 19 '17 at 18:10
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    Anderes ohne etwas wäre eine Substantivierung und nicht falsch. – Carsten S Feb 19 '17 at 18:20
  • The capitalisation of anderes would be optional. – Carsten S Feb 20 '17 at 12:44

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