Best of German Grammar: Wann sagt man eigentlich “eigentlich?”

I was once asked by a learner of German: “Markus, wann sagt man eigentlich eigentlich?”, which translates to English as: “When does one actually say actually?”

Hmm, a good question which native speakers don’t think about very often. Of course, I could have embarked on a lengthy explanation of eigentlich as a modal particle, eigentlich as an adverb and eigentlich as an adjective; however, I doubt somehow that this would have earned me much appreciation. 😉

The other reason that kept me from doing so was that I didn’t know this in great detail myself at the time. Hence, I gathered lots and lots of examples which, hopefully, cleared this up a bit. I kept thinking, kept searching for a good example that demonstrates the actual versatility of this wonderful word. And I think I found it!

Nonetheless, let’s start with a bit of grammar anyway. Eigentlich – its phonetic transcription is: [ˈʔaiɡ(ə)ntlɪç] – can occur as a particle, as an adverb and as an adjective; and it is certainly good to know this. However, what does this mean?

Eigentlich as a particle

…is one of those words which we like to throw into conversations here and there, like an afterthought:

    “Hab’ ich dir eigentlich erzählt, dass…?” – “By the way, did I tell you…?”
    “Weißt Du das eigentlich?” – “Do you know this at all?”

Eigentlich as an adverb

…is used to clarify something in contrast to its appearance:

    “”Ich habe das eigentlich anders gemeint als es bei Dir ankam.” – “I actually didn’t mean it the way it came across.”

    “Er hat eigentlich richtig singen gelernt, auch wenn es nicht so klingt.” – “It mightn’t sound like it, but he actually had singing lessons.”

Eigentlich as an adjective

…refers to the true, factual, literal meaning of something:

    Marilyn Monroes eigentlicher Name war Norma Jeane Baker. – Marilyn Monroe’s real name was Norma Jeane Baker.
    Einige Erfindungen werden anders genutzt als ihr eigentlicher Zweck einmal war. – Many inventions are being used for other things than their original purpose.

“Weißt Du, dass ich Dich liebe?”

No, this was not the example I gave the aforementioned student. 😉 It was much later when I realised that we can put eigentlich after almost every word in this question and thus change its meaning. It is therefore a very good example to demonstrate how versatile eigentlich actually is…eigentlich.

    Weißt Du, dass ich Dich liebe? – Do you know that I love you?
    Weißt eigentlich Du, dass ich Dich liebe? – (Everybody seems to have noticed, but…) Do you actually know that I love you?
    Weißt Du eigentlich, dass ich Dich liebe? – Do you know at all that I love you?
    Weißt Du, dass eigentlich ich Dich liebe? – Do you know that it is actually me who loves you? (…and not my brother, who is generally a flirt.
    Weißt Du, dass ich eigentlich Dich liebe? – Do you know that I actually love you? (..(…and not your sister)
    Weißt Du, dass ich Dich eigentlich liebe? – Do you know that I actually love you? (…even though I’ve acted like a prick sometimes)

Eigentlich not that difficult, is it?


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