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My question relates to a sentence that I came across in a German-language book that I use for studying. It reads:

"Schöne Ferienhäuser oder Hotels bekommt man eben nur, wenn man sie rechtzeitig bucht".

What is the purpose of the word eben in that sentence?
A friend told me that it has no special meaning and was there only to serve as an emphasis. I still don't quite understand the concept - would the sentence still work absent of that word?

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3 Answers 3

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Words like "eben" (or "halt") are very hard to describe. In this case, it carries a connotation of: "That is simply how it is, deal with it.", so it can roughly be translated as:

"To get a nice vacation home or hotel, it is simply the way it is that you have to book one in time."

Although this usage of simply could be misunderstood without the right intonation.

A translation as "just" can make sense in the meaning of "that's just how it is."

The sentence would work fine with that one word omitted, but it would carry a a more matter-of-fact connotation. "Eben" gives it kind of a connotation of "You didn't book in time so don't complain, I told you". In some usages it can be compared with putting clap emojis and periods between words on twitter. In other contexts it can simply mean "just" in a temporal sense as in eben gerade (just now). There is also the adjective eben (flat).

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  • Do you think it would be an optical benefit to have both sentence versions written übereinander? Sep 9, 2020 at 6:25
  • To maybe emphasize the "mood" of the word, I feel like in everyday speech, its usage is most commonly accompanied by a shrug; even just thinking about it makes my shoulders twitch. Sep 9, 2020 at 12:56
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eben has multiple meanings. The first one translates to even, plane. A second meaning is just in a temporal sense.

But this is not what we are interested in here: The usage we are dealing with here is a usage where the word does not appear as a standalone adjective, but is used as an attribute to another adjective and hence functions as a qualifier to the whole assertion. For an example, compare

Es ist so. (It is like that.)

with

Es ist eben so. (It is just like that.)

Here, eben is attributed to the whole assertion. With this usage, eben is untranslatable to an English word but corresponds vaguely to just, simply, plainly. But, as far as I know, there is no counterpart of the German construction in English. Your friend is right, that it adds some emphasis, but there is a more fine-grained meaning than just that. The sentence could be used without eben and would have the same logical value (it would express the same facts), but the social implications would differ a lot. So let's have a closer look.

Synonyms

eben is fully synonym to other German words such as nun mal and halt and einfach. So for instance the following sentences are equivalent

Die Welt ist eben schlecht. Was soll man machen?

Die Welt ist nun mal schlecht. Was soll man machen?

Die Welt ist halt schlecht. Was soll man machen?

Die Welt ist einfach schlecht. Was soll man machen?

expressing something like:

The world is just bad. So, what to do about it?

Logic

eben is used in reasoning to mark an assertion the speaker does not want to justify further with premises. By using eben, the speaker signifies that they do not wish this premise to be questioned. Hence this premise is marked by the speaker as what in argumentation theory is called a "self-evident premise", or a "dogma" - an assertion that is considered so simple and true, that it cannot (and need not) be derived from other precepts. (To understand the special meaning the word "dogma" has here, have a look at Münchhausen-Trilemma) I guess, this notion of simplicity is the reason how the word eben (a cognate of english even) "plain", "plane" has come to be used this way.

Social Function

eben transports the idea that the assertion is self-evident, it is obvious and easy to grasp. Hence eben is used for explanations which are based on a reasoning and facts which the addressee did not see, although they are considered self-evident and simple to recognize by the speaker. That's why the use of eben comes with an attribution of responsibility or even guilt to the addressee, having a subtext of "The current situation you are finding yourself in is your own fault. It results from you not seeing the obvious."

That's why I would translate your example sentence

Schöne Ferienhäuser oder Hotels bekommt man eben nur, wenn man sie rechtzeitig bucht.

with the following English construction. It is not a word-by-word translation, but it tries to catch the conceptualization of the situation that eben beares:

Well, you would have gotten a nice apartment or hotel if you had just booked in good time.

So, using the four-sides-model of communication, eben does not change the logical value of the assertion, it does not change anything of the "Nachrichtenebene" (of the message) but it has a strong influence on the "Beziehungsebene" (the relationship).

Style and Tone

Due to the above, using eben is a way of marking dominance over the addressee and has a (slightly) arrogant tone. It could make the speaker be seen as a know-it-all, surfing on a wave of hindsight-bias. This might be subject to subjective interpretation, but in any case the use of eben expresses reluctance of the speaker to argue about the assertion.

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    There is another meaning of "eben", it can be used as affirmative, either alone or in expressions as "eben drum". You could imagine a situation like this: "Schöne Ferienhäuser oder Hotels bekommt man nur, wenn man sie rechtzeitig bucht." - "Eben! Buch endlich!".
    – Polygnome
    Sep 9, 2020 at 8:08
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    And there's yet another meaning of "eben", in a temporal sense ;) "Ich habe es ihm eben gesagt." Sep 9, 2020 at 9:59
  • @HenningKockerbeck Thanks, I added this to my answer Sep 9, 2020 at 11:18
  • @Polygnome I fail to see how your example differs from my explanation. Sep 9, 2020 at 11:19
  • @jonathan.scholbach Polygnome's point is that "eben" can occur alone as an answer: "Eben" or "Ja, eben".
    – Paul Frost
    Sep 10, 2020 at 15:56
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"Eben" in this context marks the statement as a conclusion, with a vague undertone of blame, in the sense of "told you so". An English speaker might say "you see, [statement]" or "[statement], see?". It is just a little less explicit or bold than these English terms.

Your sentence could be the conclusion of a story told by the speaker, or a reply to a story told by somebody else, e.g. about a bad hotel on a spontaneous trip, and could be accompanied by an apologetic or self-deprecating shrug (in the case of one's own story) or a certain smugness (in the case of a girl who wanted to book a hotel months ahead while her boy friend insisted it would all work out, and then it didn't).

Looking the word up in Grimm's Dictionary shows the many facets of its use. Our example is probably covered by meaning 8:

nicht selten mindert sich die bedeutung des eben noch stärker und gewinnt fast den sinn einer enclitischen partikel, wie mhd. eht, nhd. halt in die rede eingeworfen wird

and gives among others this example:

du must dich eben in geduld fassen

This exposes another aspect of this use: A certain amount of opposition, both as a defense ("das geht eben nicht!") or offense (be patient!). The blame palpable in the OP's original sentence can be considered another variation of an opposing stance.

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