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What is the difference between fragen and nachfragen? The question was to translate:

I would ask.

I translated that as: Ich würde fragen, but it was marked wrong. The correct answer was: Ich würde nachfragen.

  • Was the sentence given without any context at all? – sgf May 14 at 9:03
  • @Janka I think it's fine to use nachfragen for first-time questions, too. But you are right, context matters and "Ich würde fragen" should usually not have been marked wrong. – Annatar May 14 at 12:47
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Fragen is a very open act and would be the closest translation to the word "to ask". It can be used almost always as the translation, but sometimes it wouldn't be a good form.

Nachfragen on the other hand is more specific than fragen: it often means that you're asking for confirmation like "Is this true?" or "Did you say that" or "what's my job here?" like Janka stated in his/her comment. Another thing about nachfragen is that it implies interaction in terms of getting an answer: "to ask yourself" would only translate to "sich etwas fragen" (nachfragen would be wrong here). When you use nachfragen you want confirmation/information from another person/group/office/etc.

The simplest separation of those word however is to what/who the asking refers: "Asking someone" is always "fragen". "Asking about a state of something" almost always translates to "nachfragen"

Examples:

  • Ich muss nachfragen, wann die Feier ist (State: Time of something)
  • Ich frage meinen Bruder, wann die Feier ist (asking someone: my brother)
  • Wir werden nachfragen, welche Unterlagen benötigt werden (State: needed Documents for something)
  • Wir werden den Beamten fragen, welche Unterlagen benötigt werden (asking someone: official)

Now more generalized:

  • Ich frage die (Person/Gruppe/etc) etwas
  • Ich frage nach, wie/ob/was/etc. (ein bestimmter Sachverhalt)
  • Ich frage bei (Person/Gruppe/etc.) nach, (ein bestimmter Sachverhalt)

Italic words are the indicator whether fragen or nachfragen should be used.

As in most things in the German language, there are always some exceptions to this. But it's a good orientation.

To your example: I assume the "I would ask" refers to something said before, and if it's a sentence like "how does this work?" or "when will they come?", which are both asking about a state (functionality/time of the arrival). In that case, it would apply to the former sentences' kind of question and therefore be translated to "ich würde nachfragen".

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    Nachfragen also has one more meaning - as a verb derived from Nachfrage (= demand in economical meaning) usually used in passiv: Diese Ware wird kaum nachgefragt (there is a low demand for this good - lit. this good is seldom asked for). – Volker Landgraf May 16 at 9:21
  • True, but Ithink this would be confusing in this context. – miep May 16 at 9:30
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    also there are similarities to this in English: die Frage - the question; nachfragen (in the meaning of demand) - to request. – miep May 16 at 14:35
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Depending on the context, nachfragen could be more appropriately translated with to inquire, while fragen to me is more of a direct translation of to ask.

Ich werde mal auf dem Amt nachfragen, wie es mit meinem Antrag steht.

I'll inquire about the status of my application from the bureau.

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