If you work in German, you've probably encountered these words before: festlegen and feststellen. While they both ostensibly translate to "to determine" in English, and they have a lot of other similarities, they definitely have distinct meanings.

Let's start with what they have in common:

  1. First off, they're both transitive and regular. 1 Transitive means means the verb needs an object. Regular means you can count on them to follow conjugation rules -- in this case, for all persons and tenses. So no need to memorize the quirks of these two verbs -- es gibt keine!

  2. They are both separable-prefix verbs. You know, those ones whose prepositional component kind of breaks off from the rest of verb and waits patiently at the end of the clause 2, preventing your conversational partner from jumping in and prematurely interjecting. German Wikipedia has some good examples of separable prefix verbs and their permutations if you need a refresher.

  3. You can nounify them both with -ung, which is great, because then you automatically know their gender. -ung is reknowned for its reliable femininity. 3

  4. And they both can be translated as "to determine." Whoa, Nellie. Hold up there a minute.

To determine doesn't always mean the same thing in English. Learning festlegen and feststellen has even helped me to see that some of its meanings are even contradictory.


When you stell something fest, you are putting it firmly in its place, as if it were not a completely known quantity beforehand, but nach der Festellung, both its location and momentum are known. 4 So feststellen means "to determine" in the sense of "solve for x."


This is another beast completely -- one we have bent to our will in the very moment of performing our Festlegung. Here we are not merely passive observers, trying to make sense of the universe. We are determining our own fate, by actively firming (fest) up our path through space and time.

With a little determination, it's clear that determining festlegen and feststellen's separate meanings are neither rocket science nor quantum physics. And it also sheds a little light on the complexities foreign speakers of English face.

1. These are not unrelated attributes, but that's another post.
2. That is, unless we're talking about subordination, natch. Separable prefixes are afraid of subordinating conjunctions, and meekly reattach to the front of the main verb in subordinate clauses.
3. See what I did there?
4. Tip o' the hat to Werner Heisenberg for the example.