How do you say "I'm not able to or I wasn't able to" in German? So far (as of my small German knowledge :) ) I've come across two possible ways.

What I've learned in class, Ich kann nicht - I'm not able to, Ich konnte nicht - I was not able to.

What I've found in a translator (Namely DeepL), Ich bin nicht in der Lage

I mean, I've heard Germans use the phrases "Ich kann nicht" or "Ich konnte nicht" quite often. But, I'm a bit skeptical about using the phrase "in der Lage" when speaking German. Is it okay to use it like, in a general conversation?

Could you guys help me to clear this out? Thank you.

  • as you have the word incapacitated in the title, specifically; but then do not repeat that in the actual question, I post this as a comment only: to match the tone and style of that, you could also say imstande sein zu as in Ich war nicht mehr imstande, dem Gespräch zu folgen and as well fähig sein zu as in ich war unfähig, aufrecht zu stehen. How and why two synonyms derive, figuratively, once from liegen, and another time from stehen, and why both my examples only seem to fit in a context where subjects are inebriated idk.
    – dlatikay
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 13:36

2 Answers 2


Er ist nicht in der Lage ...

means literally

He is not in a position to ...

So that's more about the circumstances.

Er kann nicht ...

is about the (current or fundamental) ability.

If you want to say, that the little girl can't ride a bicycle (but she can learn it), you would use

Sie kann (noch) nicht Fahrrad fahren.

If you want to say, that young children are incapable of abstract thinking, you would rather use nicht in der Lage.

Kleine Kinder sind zu abstraktem Denken nicht in der Lage.

As an everyday expression kann nicht is (in my experience) more frequently used than ist nicht in der Lage. In a more formal context you might want to distinct between skills and circumstances. It makes a difference, if you cannot do something because you don't know how

Ich kann nicht

or if you cannot do something because you are not allowed to do so or you don't have the access priveleges.

Ich bin nicht in der Lage

So if you want, you can use the one or the other to tranport a connotation. If a trainer is asked about the skills of a trainee, he might say

Er kann nicht streichen. (He cannot paint [a wall].)

meaning, the trainee doesn't know yet how to do it and will have to learn it.

If the trainer says

Er ist nicht in der Lage, eine Wand zu streichen.

it would rather mean, that he was tought how to do it, but all the time in the world won't make him a good painter.


You can easily use this in a general conversation. As an example: "Ich bin nicht in der Lage diese Gläser zu servieren" (I’m not able to serve these glasses), or "Ich bin in der Lage diese schwere Kiste zu heben" (I‘m able to lift this heavy box). But both example you can say with "kann nicht/kann" (Ich kann diese Gläser nicht servieren/Ich kann diese schwere Kiste heben) and means the same.

"nicht in der Lage" describes an activity for which I’m not suitable and who I don’t have the ability.

But "Lage" can of course also be used in other ways:

  • "Ich bin in einer ziemlich schwierigen Lage" (I‘m in a pretty difficult position)

  • "Die wirtschaftliche Lage (= Situation) hat sich durch Corona verschlechtert..." (The economic situation has deteriorated due to corona...)

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