"Zu" is a word that can create a lot of confusion amongst people that are starting to learn German. It is used as a locative preposition, temporal preposition, causal preposition, adverb and conjunction with different meanings. In our opinion, "zu" is the most complicated German word.
In general, it indicates direction toward a place or person.
It is used for saying that one is going to a person (or their home):
Tino fährt zu dir
Tino is driving to your place
If this person is a professional:
Er fährt zum Arzt
He’s driving to the doctor
It is used to say that one is going to some place, or on the way to that place:
er fährt zum Flughafen
He’s going to the airport
wir gehen zur Schule
We are going to school
this place can be abstract:
er fährt zur Arbeit
He’s going to work
The expression "zu Hause" means to be "at home". Take note that this does not indicate movement as "zu" usually does.
Wir sind zu Hause
We’re at home
As a temporal presposition, "zu" can be translated as "for" or "on" where a period of time is implicit. This can be understood better with some examples:
Was kann ich zu Weihnachten kochen?
What can I cook for Christmas?
Was machst du zu Halloween?
What are you doing on Halloween?
on/for Mother’s Day
on/for New Year’s
"Zu" as a causal preposition can be translated as "to".
was können wir zur Vermeidung von Fehlern tun?
What can we do to avoid mistakes?
"zu" is used very often with the meaning "too much".
Es ist zu kalt
It’s too cold
Er fährt zu schnell
He’s driving too fast
"zu" is used in colloquial German with the meaning of closed
Das Fenster ist zu
The window is closed
ab und zu
once in a while
We are used to modal verbs needing another verb in its infinitive form so that the sentence makes sense:
Ich will tanzen
I want to dance
Something similar happens to many verbs whose meaning can be completed with a subordinate clause with an infinitive. This is called "Infinitivkonstruktion" in German.
Ich weiß nicht, was zu sagen ist
I’d don’t know what to say
Es gibt viel zu tun
There is too much to do
Pay attention to how the separable verbs work in this clause:
Ich fange an, mein Leben zu ändern
I’m starting to change my life
Sometimes, "dass" can be substituted for "zu" to not repeat the subject. The construction with "zu" is more elegant:
Er hat mir gesagt, dass ich in 3 Jahren nochmals kommen sollte
Er hat mir gesagt, in 3 Jahren nochmals zu kommen
He told me to come again in 3 years
Often, verbs are nominalized in German. "Einkaufen" means "to go shopping" as a verb. The nominalized version "Das Einkaufen" means the same thing but is now a noun which is why it is written with capital a letter and is neuter.
Ich gehe zum Einkaufen
I’m going shopping
Ich gehe zum Essen
I’m going to eat
The structure "ohne... zu" + INFINITIVE is the equivalent of "without + gerund" ("without knowing", for example) in English
Ich habe das Auto gekauft, ohne zu überlegen
I bought the car without thinking
Ich weiß nicht wie lange man ohne zu trinken überleben kann
I don’t know how long one can survive without drinking
Ich habe dir wehgetan, ohne es zu wollen
I hurt you without meaning to
Er ist meistens ohne zu frühstücken in die Schule gegangen
He usually went to school without eating breakfast
In subordinate clauses of purpose where the subject of both clauses is the same, "um...zu" is used. If it were different, then "damit" would be used.
Ich lerne Deutsch, um bei einer deutschen Firma zu arbeiten
I’m learning German to work in a German company
But if the subject changes with "damit":
Wir sparen, damit meine Frau ein Auto kaufen kann We are saving money so that my wife can buy a car
Purpose means that the action is carried out in the main clause ("Learning German") to achieve a result ("to work in a German company").
Next, we´ll show some separable verbs with the particle "zu":
"Zu" does not change, just like all prepositions.
Words that follow it have to be decline in the dative (it always takes dative).
"zum" is the contraction of "zu" + "dem".
"zur" is the contraction of "zu" + "der".
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