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In episode 5 ("Beim Arzt") of Mein Weg nach Deutschland (playlist), the doctor keeps using gern in a way that's odd to my ears. For example she says

Dann möchte ich gern noch Fieber messen im Ohr.

Literally this says

"I'd still enjoy taking your temperature (measuring your fever) in your ear,"

but obviously what is meant is

"I'd still like to take your temperature in your ear."

The English expression "would like to" expresses an intention to do something without necessarily implying that you'll be enjoying it. (I think we can agree that enjoyment on the part of the doctor would be inappropriate, not to mention creepy.) But the German gern implies enjoyment according to the meanings I'm able to find in dictionaries. I would have thought dürfen would be used in this situation: "Darf ich noch Ihr Fieber im Ohr messen?" Bruce Duncan's site has the example

Ich hätte gern das große Frühstück. -- "I'd like the large breakfast."

But there are no other examples of the subjunctive using gern.

Questions:

  • Is it fair to say that gern + subjunctive expresses intention rather than enjoyment?
  • Is this construction used outside a medical setting? (In English, medical settings seem to have their own register, for example it's not uncommon to use "we" instead of "you" when addressing a patient.")
  • Is this construction used with verbs other than mögen?
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  • I'm somewhat puzzled by your translation of dann with still, where I would choose something like furthermore or then.
    – guidot
    Oct 23 at 21:33
  • @guidot - In the video, the doctor (Ärztin) had already done most of her examination, and she was going to do a temperature reading as a final confirmation. I think the "still" was more from noch rather than dann, but either way, that part of it was not meant as a word for word translation, just my interpretation of what she would say in English.
    – RDBury
    Oct 24 at 8:29
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A phrase like "ich möchte gern..." is typically used to request something or to ask for permission to do something. The translation you quoted, "I would like..." is quite accurate. In combination with a verb, it would be something like "I would like to (do something)".

Ich möchte gerne Fieber messen im Ohr.

would be something like

I would like to take your temperature in your ear.

You could consider it a three step process: In order to ask for permission to do something, you express the intention to do something. And in order to express the intention, you express that you would enjoy the action. But the enjoyment has mostly vanished from the meaning, with only the other two steps remaining. I'd assume that taking your temperature isn't especially pleasurable for the doctor ;) It's mostly a matter of politeness and tact, while the enjoyment is more of a remnant in the choice of words. If an English-speaking doctor asks you, "I would like to take your temperature", it probably isn't something they've been looking forward to the whole week, either ;)

This question is, to a degree, related to another question about directness and rudeness in requests that was asked recently. Your doctor could have asked

Darf ich Fieber messen im Ohr?

But that would be considered, while not outright rude, relatively direct and forceful. It might not be appropriate in a medical situation, where aspects like vulnerability (a sick patient isn't as "durable" as normal), the invasion of the patient's physical privacy or a difference in power and/or authority often come into play. Therefore, you doctor asked you

Also, I would like to take your temperature in the ear as well.

with an implication of "...is that okay for you?".

You'll find similar expressions in a lot of situations, like the "Ich möchte gerne das große Frühstück" example you quoted. But you can also imagine a situation where somebody's blocking your way and you say something like "Entschuldigung, ich möchte gerne durch" or "Entschuldigung, ich möchte gerne an dieses Regal".

Because of the transfer in meaning I outlined above, this construction is quite specific to "mögen".

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  • So you're saying ich möchte gern... is something of a fixed phrase, not really an idiom but not to be taken too literally either. The politics of dürfen seem a bit unusual. I gather it's not an issue between equals, but it may be problematic if used by someone in a more powerful position (e.g. doctor) with someone in a less powerful position (patient).
    – RDBury
    Oct 23 at 18:38
  • @RDBury I'm not sure whether it technically qualifies as an idiom or not. Regarding the power difference, you've got it about right. If you're in a position of power, like a doctor towards a patient, you're expected to be more restrained and to not steamroll people, compared to a "normal", everyday situation. For comparison: I recently heard a meditation teacher speaking. He didn't say, "Now, open your eyes", but rather, "Now I invite you to open your eyes" or something to that effect. The difference here is similar. Oct 23 at 22:56
  • Definitions of an "idiom" vary; I wouldn't consider it one because the meaning is so close to the literal meaning, even it's slightly different. Similarly, I would consider the English "to hold hands" as a fixed expression that's not an idiom because it's a literal description of what you're doing. It does connote a certain feeling, romantic or otherwise, between the people though. "Now I invite you to open your eyes" sounds odd to me, not something a doctor would say, not even an eye doctor. Cultures differ, apparently.
    – RDBury
    Oct 24 at 8:03
  • @RDBury As I mentioned, that quote (from memory) wasn't from a doctor, but from a meditation teacher ;) The idea was to illustrate the restraint, indirectness and "non-steamrolling" that your doctor probably applied, too. Oct 24 at 8:07
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The German word »gern« usually means "to like". Your sentences are good examples for that.

Susi isst gerne Brot.
Susi likes to eat bread.

This means, that Susi often eats bread because it tastes good to her. The usage of "to enjoy" seems too strong for this sentence, because means to relish something, to have doing so, but for Susi eating bread is just normal. It is nothing extraordinary. It is something that feels good and positive, but she is not excited about eating bread. Eating bread is nothing she would mention in her diary.

Jürgen hat Irene gerne.
Jürgen likes Irene.

Irene is a person for which Jürgen has positive feelings, but he is not in love with her.

Ich hätte gerne eine Tasse Kaffee.
I'd like a cup of coffee.

This is just an order in a restaurant. This is what you want in this moment, but you have no idea if the coffee will be so good, that you would enjoy it.

Ich würde den Müll gerne jetzt runterbringen, denn später habe ich sicher noch weniger Lust dazu.
I'd like to take the garbage down now, because I'm sure I'll feel even less like it later.

Taking down the garbage is eben something that you don't want to do. But doing it now feels a little bit better than knowing that you still have to do it later.


But also:

Kurt vergisst gerne die Wohnung abzusperren, wenn er zur Arbeit geht.
Kurt tends to forget to lock up the apartment when he goes to work.

Kurt doesn't enjoy forgetting to lock the door, and he doesn't have fun leaving the door unlocked. He just often forgets to do so.

In feuchten Ecken entsteht gerne Schimmel.
Mold tends to grow in damp corners.

Mold has no emotions at all. It just grows where it finds acceptable conditions.


  • Is it fair to say that gern + subjunctive expresses intention rather than enjoyment?
    Neither nor. It expresses a wish or request. The doctor wants to measure for fever. It doesn't enjoy him doing so, and it it not an intention, because it depends on the patients agreement.

  • Is this construction used outside a medical setting?
    Yes

    Ich würde mich auch gerne noch wo anders nach schwarzen Schuhen umsehen.
    I would also love to look elsewhere for black shoes.

  • Is this construction used with verbs other than mögen?
    Yes

    Ich könnte ihnen auch gerne noch ein Strafmandat ausstellen.
    I could also issue you another penalty notice.

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  • So in the Müll example, gern just means a preference rather than enjoyment. E.g. one might say Ich gehe gern früh los, bevor der Verkehr zu dicht wird. I take it that gern in the original example is to soften the request, so really it's acting as a modal particle since it's not really necessary to convey the meaning. I'm not certain what function gerne has the last example. Is it something like "easily" or "very well"? As in "I could easily also issue you another penalty notice."
    – RDBury
    Oct 23 at 18:15
  • @RDBury: About the last sentence (penalty ticket): Here "gerne" means "if you want". The driver already got a ticket but obviously argues with the officer, so the officer asks the driver if they want even more penalty. Oct 25 at 15:25
  • I had a feeling there was some sort of sarcasm involved, but I wasn't sure.
    – RDBury
    Oct 25 at 16:50
  • @RDBury: Yes, there is sarcasm involved. Oct 27 at 16:39
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Is it fair to say that gern + subjunctive expresses intention rather than enjoyment?

I think the enjoyment is indeed there, but it would be a mistake to assume the enjoyment lies directly in the proposed action.

Rather than that, these two mutually related aspects are at work:

  • Enjoyment by serving the customer: In general, it is considered a part of good service that service providers appear to want to serve the consumer. That doesn't so much mean that service providers would enjoy the very action themselves, but the fact that they have made the customer happy.
    This aspect shows, for instance, in restaurant settings, as well, when a (very polite) waiter says something like "It would be my pleasure to offer you the finest meal of the week." Of course, they (most likely) do not find the experience of describing the week's top offer to some new guests for the fiftieth time especially pleaseant; what is pleaseant is the action of treating the guests with an excellent offer.

  • Enjoyment by achieving a good work result: Arguably, people in most professions should be at least minimally interested in achieving a good result with what they do. Even if they personally do not care about the result, taking decisions as if a good result were the objective is the basis for diligent work.
    In this vein, when a doctor expresses "ich möchte gern Fieber messen", that doesn't mean that they enjoy the very act of taking the temperature, but that that is the next step in order to provide a good treatment. Therefore, they express what would "please" them to do - not in the emotional sense, but in the sense of approaching their professional goal.

Is this construction used outside a medical setting?

Absolutely. While medical settings may have some linguistical peculiarities in German (first and foremost, medicine is one of the areas where a split between "everyday vocabulary" and "professional vocabulary" is maybe most noticeable), this is not one. Just like the doctor or the aforementioned waiter, your floor tiler could tell you something such as "Ich möchte gerne noch Ihr Badezimmer ausmessen."

Is this construction used with verbs other than mögen?

It is. This "gern" in the described meaning of professional enjoyment can be added virtually anywhere where a service is provided to a consumer - be it "Ich bringe Ihnen gerne noch ein Glas Wasser." in a restaurant, "Wir prüfen gerne auch Ihren Reifendruck." at the car garage, or even "Gegen Aufpreis liefern wir gerne auch sonntags."

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    I like the Wir prüfen gerne auch Ihren Reifendruck, example; "We'll be happy to check your tire pressure," is something you might hear at a garage in English. (Of course what they might really be happy about is the chance to sell you new tires.) English is full of words and phrases that used for politeness rather than meant literally; the most notorious is "How are you?" which is basically equivalent to "Hello." In a doctor's office you might hear "If you don't mind," which really means "You should do it whether you mind or not, if you want me to cure you."
    – RDBury
    Oct 25 at 8:02

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