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In many circumstances we could not only use "kaufen" to refer to "to buy". "holen" and "nehmen" sometimes could also imply the meaning of "to buy",

z.B. Ich nehme eine Tasse Kaffee.

Are there any differences in the scope of use or the underlying nuance between these words?

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I'm pretty sure the differences are not that subtle and you could probably resolve this with a dictionary. But kaufen is "to buy", money changes hands and you take the item home in your car. In this context, nehmen is something you might use with a server at a restaurant, who will then bring the item for you to consume on the spot and then pay. In this scenario you'd probably use "take" or "have" in English, as in "I'll have coffee," or "I'll take some ice cream." You'd use holen if you don't want to be specific about how you're going to obtain the item. Maybe you have already have the item lying around in your garage, or maybe you'll need to buy it somewhere; the details are no one's business but your own. In English you might say "fetch" or "get"; it might be assumed that you're going to buy it but it's not stated.

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    "Nehmen" in this context implies choosing and can also be said when the exchange is not commercial, e.g. when you're a guest at someone's home and they are asking: "Tee oder Kaffee?" – Jann Poppinga Mar 11 at 9:25
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    The means of transportation are completely irrelevant for the kaufen part. And it's perfectly fine to buy something that you intend to consume on the spot. – Lykanion Mar 11 at 12:35
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    @Lykanion: Yes, those were just my idea of a typical scenarios. I guess nowadays the typical scenario is to order (bestellen) on-line and wait for someone in a truck to bring it to your house. – RDBury Mar 11 at 15:28
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"Nehmen" is what you use when you're in a restaurant or a shop, to either order something (in a restaurant, café, bakery, ... ) or to tell someone what you have decided to buy. The English equivalent is often "to have" or "to take".

Im Café: Carla, nimmst du Kaffee oder Tee? (zur Bedienung:) Ich nehme eine Tasse Kaffee.
In der Bäckerei: Ich nehme einen Berliner, zwei Kürbisbrötchen, drei Croissants, und vier Stücke Himbeertorte.
In der Boutique: Ich habe diese beiden Hosen anprobiert und nehme die rote Hose. Kann ich mit Kreditkarte zahlen?

Holen or sich etwas holen in its literal sense just means to fetch something. To use holen for buying something is colloquial and equivalent to American use of "to pick up" or "to grab".

Wenn du zu Aldi gehst, holst du bitte Milch und eine Gurke?
Holst du dir das neue iPhone, wenn es rauskommt?
Ich habe mir beim Bäcker einen Berliner, zwei Kürbisbrötchen, drei Croissants, und vier Stücke Himbeertorte geholt.

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  • Not sure whether it is worth mentioning but in my experience your bakery and coffee shop examples would probably be considered rather rude in Austria and in Switzerland. – Christian Mar 12 at 14:08
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    A agree, it's quite short and cannot be the first sentence you say to the staff... It would be ok and pretty common here when accompanied by some greeting and "bitte". I still prefer "Ich hätte gerne", but there are definitely people that use "Ich nehme ... " or even "Ich kriege ... ". – HalvarF Mar 12 at 15:31
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I think all terms have near exact equivalents in English, in that the general English translations can be used to describe a purchase, emphasizing different aspects of of buying something. The European cultures are remarkably similar, which is reflected in the similar semantics of even unrelated words in the different languages.

  • "Kaufen": To buy or purchase. This emphasized the mutual transaction of money against a commodity in unambiguous terms (OK, it can be used metaphorically as well in a similar fashion to English: "Das kauf' ich Dir nicht ab" = "I don't buy [=believe] that").
  • "Holen": To get or fetch. Like in English it is a general term but in the right context it's a common way to describe a purchase: "Ich hol uns mal eben was zu essen" = "I'll go fetch us something to eat." Perhaps grab would be more idiomatic and contemporary (and American). This emphasizes the act of getting something, typically involving a (short) trip. In some places the composite einholen specifically means to go shopping for food.
  • "Nehmen": To take. Perhaps the least specific of the three. Being in a clothes store confronted with a choice between two shirts: "Ich nehme das kurzärmelige" = "I'll take the short-sleeved". Also idiomatic: At a burger joint one can say "ich nehme den Mac Royal und 'ne Cola" = "I'll take the quarter pounder with cheese and a Coke". This emphasizes a selection made when there is a choice.

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