In conversation with two native German speakers I said,

Ich habe gelernt, wie die Parameter zu kalkulieren.

I was corrected to either of these two possibilities:

Ich habe gelernt, wie die Parameter zu kalkulieren waren.


Ich habe gelernt, die Parameter zu kalkulieren.

In my mind my initial sentence was saying, "I learned how to calculate the parameters." Why is my translation not correct?


The construction "{question word} + to + {infinitive}" (e.g. how to, when to) does not exist in German; it would be ambiguous because most question words have another meaning when used in the middle of a sentence.

For example, your translation has the meaning "I learned to calculate like the parameters" (leaving the question if the parameters learned to calculate or calculated open). Here "wie" only describes "die Parameter", not the whole sentence; it is interpreted as preposition, not as question word.

The clause after "wie" must be a finite subordinate clause, for example by adding the subject "man":

..., wie man die Parameter kalkuliert.

Or by making "Parameter" the subject:

..., wie die Parameter zu kalkulieren sind.

Note that all those end sentences don't end in the infinitive (they are finite), and thus can form a subordinate clause with "wie".

  • 1
    Good answer, but I'd refine the beginning sentence to the construction "{question word} + to {infinitive}". The difference in German is that you can do the same, but need to use a finite phrase. And then you can use an impersonal passive or man to match the subject-less English style. Dec 30 '21 at 13:55

This isn't the whole answer, but your version is ambiguous. It could also mean "I learned to calculate like the parameters" or "I learned to calculate the way the parameters do." Parameters don't usually calculate so this interpretation can be ruled out, but it might still sound strange. The wonderful DWDS usage database turned up Ihr lernt wie eine Königin zu sprechen. from the subtitles to Game of Thrones. (GoT is high fantasy, so presumably this is upper case Ihr (ihrzen), not lower case ihr.) Queens usually do speak, and often in a way that's different from the way that other people speak, so it makes sense that you can learn how to speak like they do.

You can avoid the zu altogether using man: Ich habe gelernt, wie man die Parameter kalkuliert.

  • I cannot find the indicated sentence in DWDS, using multiple different queries. How did you find this, please?
    – user44591
    Dec 30 '21 at 4:07
  • 2
    Nice observation that there is a grammatical (nonsensical) interpretation of the sentence. There is not much more to say, I think, the handy "how to" construction just does not exist in German.
    – Carsten S
    Dec 30 '21 at 7:53
  • 1
    @user44591: Starting from the top page, type "lernen wie" into the search bar; this finds all results with these two words next to each other. (DwDS automatically includes inflections of lernen.) The default is results from the DWDS-Kernkorpus, but these tend to be lengthy and more "journalese" than you'd see in everyday speech, so I usually switch to the subtitle corpus; click on the "Filmuntertitel" link in the right panel. I get 46 results at this point, and the Königin one is near the top.
    – RDBury
    Dec 30 '21 at 10:21
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    @user44591: PS: you get more results by searching on "lernen, wie" (with a comma). It looks like man is used much more often than zu, which is why I mentioned using it instead.
    – RDBury
    Dec 30 '21 at 10:29
  • @Carsten S: I suspected that "how to" doesn't really work in German, so it's good have some confirmation. There is a whole industry of "How To" books in English. There's also the movie title "How to Train Your Dragon"; the German title is Drachenzähmen leicht gemacht (="Dragon taming made easy").
    – RDBury
    Dec 30 '21 at 10:46

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