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I'm revising for a German exam I have coming up, and I came across the sentence

Aufgrund seiner guten Leistungen wählte ihn seine Produktionsgruppe zum Gruppensprecher

which I understand to mean 'Due to his good achievements, his production group chose him as group leader.'

Until now, I've only ever seen „als“ used in situations like this. For example

Sie wählten ihn als Wächter für sie aus

which I understand to mean 'They chose him as the guard for her.'

I've looked online a bit, but so far I haven't found any explanation. When is „als“ used, and when „zu“? Does it depend on context?

Thank you!

  • I'm not sure that "achievements" is an appropriate translation of "Leistungen" in this context. Though I don't know the full context, of course. – Lykanion Mar 29 '18 at 15:47
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The difference between »zum/zur« and »als« is very subtle:

Sie wählten Walter zum Sprecher.

They choose Walter, and by choosing him, they turned him into their spokesman. The phrase »wählen zum« signals the turning into the new role. This is equivalent to:

Sie machten Walter zu ihrem Sprecher.
They made Walter their spokesman.


Sie wählten Walter als Sprecher.

They was looking for a spokesman, and they opted for Walter. The subtext "they turned Walter into a spokesman" is not contained in this version.

But as said: The difference is very subtle, because the result is the same: After the election Walter is their spokesman.


Also note:

  • Sprecher = spokesman/spokeswoman/spokesperson ≠ leader (A leader makes decisions for the group. A spokesman just speaks in the name of the group, he doesn't make decisions.)
  • Gruppensprecher = spokesman of a/the group
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Not sure I agree with Hubert here -- to me, both versions imply "he" has accepted the role and now is the spokesman...
Instead, as I understand it, the difference hinges on the verb "wählen", which takes different prepositions depending on what you want to say:

"wählen zum" means "to elect somebody" in the sense that a group of people voted for somebody

"wählen als" means "to choose s.b." in the sense that one or more people just picked somebody from a number of options

(Note that "auswählen" always expresses the second meaning.)

In your example with the group spokesman, the difference between the two is barely discernible, since the context makes it clear that this wasn't a unilateral decision, but a joint decision by the entire group. But if you want so split hairs, the given sentence does imply a somewhat official vote, rather than the group casually agreeing that "he" is the best man for the job.

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