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In English, there is a distinct difference (at least where I live) in the meaning of the following two ideas:

  • to be late
  • to be too late.

»Too late« carries an implication (albeit perhaps a tacit one) that one will be too late for something to happen or to be avoided.

»If you don't catch the next bus, you'll be late«, might be used in the context of arriving on time for work. You might run afoul of your employer for arriving later than the agreed time, but there is nothing irrecoverable about the problem caused.

On the other hand, »If you don't catch the next bus, you'll be too late« might be used in the context of a dying parent in hospital. If you miss the next bus but get the one after, you might arrive at your destination too late to see your mother before she dies, and no action that you then take could recover the loss.

I have the impression, however, that the expression »zu spät« in German appears to be used in contexts where, in English, one would simply say »late« as, for example, in the sentence:

  • Wenn du nicht den nächsten Bus nimmst, kommst du zu spät.

Is my impression correct? If it is, what would one say to convey a meaning along the lines of the English »too late«?

6 Answers 6

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You're quite right: "I'm late" equates to German "Ich bin zu spät [bei einer Veranstaltung]". The "zu" is necessary; there is no conventional meaning to simply saying *"Ich bin spät".

We do, however, have a sort of intermediate expression: "Ich bin spät dran", which means that you're behind schedule but it's not yet clear whether you'll actually end up missing something. The equivalent would be "I'm running late".

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    There is also the use of the comparative in German: "Ich komme später" which equates in certain circumstance in English equate to "I'm coming in late" Mar 29 at 6:59
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    German Wiktionary has the example Der Schüler kam spät zum Unterricht, was der Lehrer im Klassenbuch notierte. I render this as "The student came late to the class, which the teacher marked down in the class register." The difference between spät and "late" seems subtle, but an attempt to explain it appears in a usage note in English Wiktionary. German and English do seem to agree when it's meant in a relative sense: Wir feierten bis in die späte Nacht. -- "We partied late into the night" (Another Example from Wiktionary).
    – RDBury
    Mar 29 at 8:55
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    @RDBury: Frankly, that Wiktionary sentence strikes me as slightly unidiomatic if it is meant as "the student arrived only after class had already started". If I had to make sense of "Der Schüler kam spät zum Unterricht", I'd understand this as some sort of free-form class where it's entirely up to students when they wish to arrive or leave. Or that the student arrives just on time, with no remaining leeway (but then there is no reason for the teacher to record that in any way). Otherwise, the "zu" would be mandatory in my opinion. Mar 29 at 12:52
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    @O. R. Mapper: Well, it's a Wiki so there are options if you feel strongly about it. The whole point of a dictionary usage example is to give a typical usage for the meaning in question. The example was added quite a while ago by a native speaker (or so he says), so my theory is that the discrepancy is due to regional variation.
    – RDBury
    Mar 29 at 16:39
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    @O.R.Mapper It sounds a bit dated to me, but not exactly unidiomatic. Mar 29 at 18:26
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Your analysis is correct, "Du bist zu spät" is just "You're late". For "too late" you can use "Es ist zu spät". Like "too late", it also carries the implication that being late results in something becoming unrecoverable. So I would say

Wenn du nicht den nächsten Bus nimmst, ist es zu spät.

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  • This is the right answer, "zu spät" can perfectly convey the context you intend. "Ich möchte ein Ticket kaufen" - "Zu spät, Tickets sind komplett ausverkauft".
    – kopaka
    Apr 1 at 13:50
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What is the context? Like are you saying it to someone, is someone saying it to you, are you reporting something?

Say you arrive at a place and people were already waiting for you, so they might point out the obvious and tell you that you're late or "Du bist spät dran", which could also be said if you barely made it in time. Or you might say that if you're on the way to something and want to excuse your impatience, the fact that you're in a hurry or want to politely decline a task, in the sense of "sorry I'm already late". Though you might also use "zu spät" here because you're already behind schedule even if you still have the chance to be there in time.

Now if people waiting for you get so annoyed or if the start of something is fixed and not in their power, so that you're no longer allowed to participate or that whatever was about to happen has already started or is already over than "zu spät" actually captures the too late.

Though Germans kinda expect others to be on time (or even a few minutes ahead of that) anytime, so "spät" (late) is often already called "zu spät" (too late).

The closest I could think of would be "später". Like if you're telling someone that you will be late you could say "Ich komme später". Or in the sense of "he came in a little late", "er kam etwas später". Implying later then the appointed time.

It's not that "spät" alone without "zu" doesn't exist but it's less common. Like if you're reciting the events of an evening you could argue that someone came late using "Er kam spät und ..." or there are idioms like "Besser spät, als nie" (better late than never)" or "es ist nie zu spät..." (it's never too late".

So this distinction kinda exist, but people get kinda annoyed if they have to wait for you, so late and too late are often used synonymous with a preference for too late.

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If there is a person or a thing involved (Ich bin zu spät, er ist zu spät, der Bus ist zu spät), the meaning is always that of being late.

If there is no person/thing involved (Es ist zu spät) it almost always means that the time has run out = it is too late.

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I disagree with the two existing answers that claim that "You are late" would translate to "Du bist zu spät". Actually, the proper translation of to be late into German depends on whether something or somebody is late.

Something is late

Here, the situation is simple, because something is late is directly translated to etwas ist spät. For example:

The evening is late.
→ Der Abend ist spät.

Or with an additional degree particle such as too (or very or whatever particle you like):

The evening is too late, to …
→ Der Abend is zu spät, um …

Sombebody is late

The situation is different for somebody is late, because it actually translates to jemand ist spät dran, where the adverb dran is required. For example:

You are late.
→ Du bist spät dran.

This adverb dran can be considered as a placeholder, because as soon as there is information of what the person is late at, this information substitutes dran:

You are home late today.
→ Du bist heute spät zuhause.

In principle, this also holds when a degree particle such as too or very is added:

You are home too late today.
→ Du bist heute zu spät zuhause.

However, often dran is also dropped when there is no information of what the person is late at. But I consider this a special case, where the elliptic phrase (without dran) has become more idiomatic:

You are too late.
→ Du bist zu spät (dran).

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I think there's also a difference between English and German: While in English "You are too late" is probably typical, it would be "Du/Sie sind zu spät um/zu ..." in German, that is there is a reference typically that states the event that was missed or desired (hmm: Don't you say "You are too late for .." in English, too?). That is "too late" is corresponding with "zu spät". In contrast "Ich bin spät" does not really exist, but "Es is (schon) spät" is OK, however.

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