I tried to use ja to express a piece of information known to the recipient of a letter in a school task. This is in line with example 7 on page 104 of Thurmair's Modalpartikeln und ihre Kombinationen.
The context is that I was to respond to a letter from someone, who was persuading me to accept a job. My teacher, however, explained that my usage "didn't feel correct." This is where my error happened:

... und das (der Ort des Arbeitsplatzes) ist ein Bisschen weit weg für mich. Obwohl ich ja am Freitagabend frei habe und wegen meiner Ehrenarbeit bei der Schule ein geschickter Kellner wäre, ist es...

Preceding this, my paragraph is roughly as follows:
  • I read your attachment and I have a few things to say regarding this job. I'm a bit unsure now. On the one hand, I like fish and I want to get to know people as a waiter. I'm also good with people and polite. On the other hand, I can get really mad, if my team is not dedicated or too slow and you know this. Zusätzlich ist der belieberte und berühmte Kulmer (<restaurant) in (suburb) und das ist ein Bisschen weit weg für mich.

I have thought of 2 reasons for my error. Firstly, my word order was incorrect:

Obwohl ich am Freitagabend ja frei habe...

Secondly, I am overfitting the meaning of ja and it is not suitable here, I should have omitted it and instead said something along the lines of:

Sicher, ich habe am Freitagabend frei und wäre ein guter Kellner, allerdings ist es...

Some further context is that my teacher read out just this small fragment (first blockquote) to a classmate who is an at-home speaker, who agreed with her, although admittedly maybe just for the sake of agreeing. Additionally, the original sentence had another error, that being hat instead of habe.


  • 2
    Both placements of ja are okay. I have the impression that your teacher meant that this ja feels odd in the whole context. So this can't be answered without much more context.
    – Janka
    Jan 29 at 2:10
  • @Janka Thanks for the info. I edited my post to add more context. Another possiblity is that my teacher thought I was revealing to the recipient this info or believed the recipient had asked if I was free and this was my answer.
    – Adam
    Jan 29 at 3:48

4 Answers 4


Some thoughts:

  1. A general prejudice against modal particles still lingers on. Before research in the 1980s showed that they serve a double function (expressing mood/attitude and focus), they were often dismissed as meaningless filler words.
  2. Why does the recipient know that the narrator’s Friday evenings are free? This does not seem like something a recipient of a letter would normally know unless there is a good explanation. In general, making assumptions about a recipient’s knowledge may seem impertinent, which is probably why modal particles are avoided in formal registers.
  3. As you already said in your question, the word order might have contributed to the perception that your use of «ja» was incorrect. Putting the focus on «am Freitagabend» may seem strange in the context. The important information is that the person is free.
  4. The uncertainty about modal particles is typical. Their functions are both very subtle. They rely heavily on context. Most native speakers are not even aware of what they do – and can therefore not describe the change in meaning when you drop them or place them differently.

Let me translate the larger context so I understand it better.

Ich habe ihren Anhang gelesen und habe was diesen Job angeht ein paar Dinge anzumerken. Ich bin gerade etwas unschlüssig. Einerseits mag ich die Arbeit mit Fisch und ich möchte auch als Kellner mit Menschen arbeiten. Ich bin auch gut im Umgang mit Menschen und höflich. Andererseits kann ich richtig wütend werden, wenn meine Kollegen sich keine Mühe geben oder zu langsam sind, und Sie wissen das. Zusätzlich ist der beliebte und berühmte Kulmer in Dingsbums und das ist ein bisschen weit weg für mich.

So this is a rant. Perfect for modal particles.

Now that part that your teacher doesn't like.

Obwohl ich ja am Freitagabend frei habe und wegen meiner Ehrenarbeit bei der Schule ein geschickter Kellner wäre, ist es...

I thought a bit about that and the reason why your teacher and that other native speaker don't like it is because obwohl ich ja is a regionalism.

I say that. And many Northerners do. I think. But the more accepted variant is obwohl ich schon with the particle schon. You can combine ja with da, but obwohl goes with schon.

  • This has a high chance of being correct. My teacher is Swiss (learnt "standard german" at school, of course), however left as a teenager. I am given the impression she mostly interacts with the language by speaking with friends and family, who are swiss or disproportionately south Germans. When I get confirmation I will mark this as the answer.
    – Adam
    Jan 30 at 2:15

For me your usage feels wrong.

Let us look at the example from Thurmair, that you use as a model:

A famous actress visits the teacher of her son in school. The teacher's colleagues, who have observed this, later say to the teacher: "Sie haben heute ja hohen Besuch gehabt." [my translation]

Now, what does that sentence mean, and what level of meaning does the ja add to it?

The literal meaning (without ja) is: "You had a high-ranking visitor today."

Thurmair says that that the ja means [bekannt] in this usage: "As we (all) know, you had a high-ranking visitor today."

To me, that is not what the ja adds to the sentence.

When I hear "Sie haben heute ja hohen Besuch gehabt", what I hear is: "You must think you are very important" or "It was unnecessary for that person to come visiting" or something like that. That is, I hear sarcasm.

But even if we assume that ja may mean "as we all know" in this usage, that is not how you can use it in your situation.

Ja, with the meaning [bekannt], is used to refer to the context of the situation in which it is spoken. In the example of the teachers, all the teachers are in the situation in which the visit of the actress has happened, and everyone can understand that the ja points to the situation they are in. But you cannot use ja to refer to something (known) outsite of the present situation.

In your own writing, the fact that you are free on Friday isn't part of the present situation for you and the recipient of your letter. Therefore you cannot refer to it with ja as something that you both know from the situation you are in.

It is part of your common situation that you have told the recipient that you are free on Friday, so what you could write is: "Ich habe Ihnen ja geschrieben, dass ich am Freitag frei habe, aber trotzdem ..." [As I have told you, I am free on Friday. Nevertheless...].

Only when both you and the person that asks you to help are in the same place in person, can you say: "Ich hab ja frei, aber ..." [You know I am free, but...]

At least that is my feeling. Others may disagree.


Using "ja" in either place is fine. Omitting "ja" is fine, too. And so is your alternative sentence "Sicher, …"

What exactly is your question here? You just state as fact that your usage was wrong (according to your teacher). Your teacher should explain why it was wrong, and if you trust your teacher, why are you writing here?

Personally, I would most likely omit the "ja" in a written text, maybe that was what the teacher meant, but that is a matter of style.

Also, depending on the relation to the someone, who was persuading you to accept the job, you normally don't have to defend your decision to reject a job.

  • Sorry. To clarify, by posting here, I was looking for further, more detailed information on why I shouldn't have used ja here; given that my teacher doesn't teach modal particles she largely cannot point out why a usage is wrong, just whether or not it is. I also think this post can provide fruitful and nuanced analysis of their effective usage by a non-native in practice. Iv'e been told while it is a grey area, letters, especially to relatives or close friends, should at least have a spoken quality to them e.g. my emails pretty closely represent my speech via words like "um" "like" "kinda"
    – Adam
    Jan 30 at 2:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.