In colloquial German, and perhaps online discourse, you would see one of these words used in conversations. Just like other expressions like the infamous bitte, these words have different meanings, and are used in slightly different contexts. Here, we will be looking at the differences between the words genau, eben, and gerade.
In German class, I often hear this word when someone answers the teacher’s question correctly. So this word’s meaning would include a sort of affirmative response. Roughly translating, this word would be the equivalent of “exactly” in English, often without additional connotations.
Sometimes, one would encounter a similar word called stimmt, used in phrases like “ja, stimmt genau“. This is also another affirmative response, with the word stimmt meaning closer to “correct” or “true”, it conveys a similar meaning to genau, but carries an additional connotation of giving thought before the speaker’s reply. Other speakers say that stimmt might carry a connotation of the speaker being convinced as well. Genau, is used more often in small talk, in most cases, contexts that do not necessarily need giving much thought before replying. Stimmt is used less often compared to genau, and so you could get by with using genau.
Here comes a similar word in meaning, but has additional connotations, and alternate meanings as well. Eben has different translations depending on the context in which it is used. When used in similar contexts where genau might also be used, eben and genau carry the meaning of “exactly” or “precisely”. However, eben also carries this connotation “that’s what I have been saying all along”, which sort of implies that the listener in the conversation has “repeated what the speaker said” in some form, but not necessarily verbatim. Given the slightly more specific context that would naturally allow the use of eben, for learners like me, I would stay safe and use genau.
Curiously, eben also carries the meaning of “just”, “for a bit”, or “right now”, so it could be used as some adverbs of time. Perhaps one example of its usage is as such:
- Hey du, bist du zu Hause? (Hey, are you at home?)
- Ja, bin eben rein. (Yeah, I just arrived)
Here, only the temporal meaning of “just” in English applies, which expresses the meaning of “not long ago”, hence referring to the very recent past (on a scale of minutes to seconds, perhaps). Note that the usage for eben to mean “right now” may differ from region to region.
Now, there are other meanings of the word eben, which are like several other expressions here, being more used colloquially. The first exists as a phrase called na eben, which means “of course”, but with a rather specific nuance. This nuance is that moment when you have a problem, and someone suggests a rather simple or obvious solution which you could have simply figured but did not. A meme that maybe conveys this meaning would be this one:
Lastly, there is the eben that means “yeah, whatever”, or “alright”, with the main nuance being that what was suggested was your only second best choice, and you just have to stick with it. But how this eben is articulated in tone could change its implication, from “oh alright” to “geez fine”.
There are perhaps more meanings of eben I have not covered here, but these are the main usages and meanings I could dig up and recall in the months since I started learning German. I would want to learn other usages of such expressions, which I would find useful during my stay here.
With one of its most common meanings being “straight”, my first use of gerade was to give directions to people, in class or otherwise. This finds itself in words like geradeaus, meaning “straight ahead”. But I was about to unpack a whole lot more than just that.
Firstly, gerade could also mean “especially”, or “particularly”, which serves to point out one particular thing that applies in whatever conversation you are having. I have been told that this is another common meaning and usage of gerade, so it is quite helpful to take note of this.
The issue I would struggle with is its combinations. Ja gerade further states this meaning of “precisely”, while nicht gerade would convey a negative connotation, meaning “not particularly”, or “not exactly”. However, when used as gerade so or gerade noch, there is this meaning of “just barely” conveyed. I am not too clear in the differences in their usage, though.
Another meaning for gerade is to convey, in some situations, the meaning of the continuous tenses. The German present tense can convey three different meanings, for example, ich trinke could mean “I drink”, “I am drinking”, or “I usually drink” (as a habit). For example,
- Ich kann gerade nicht telefonieren, ich esse gerade.
- I cannot talk on the phone right now, I’m eating.
Do note that this is perhaps not your safest bet to always express the continuous tenses in German.
In that example sentence, there is another gerade used there, but does not carry either meaning we have mentioned here. This is yet another meaning of gerade, meaning something like “right now” or “just”, quite like those in eben. More colloquially, this could be contracted or shortened to grad, or grade. However, unlike eben, gerade is better used to convey the meaning of “right now”, as in:
- Ich bin grad / gerade noch in der Bahn.
- I am still on the train right now.
This is perhaps one of the usages where gerade and eben could not be used as interchangeably.
Lastly, and more confusingly, is the use of gerade together with eben, but not really in a specific set order. This conveys the meaning of “just a short while ago”. When used as ich wollte eben gerade, or gerade eben, or just gerade or eben, this conveys the meaning of “I was just about to”. Yeah.
All and all, there is perhaps one overarching tip when trying to translate these words when used in different situations, that of:
Gerade, wenn man Wörter wie “gerade”, “genau“, oder “eben” verstehen will, sollte man nicht zu sehr nach 1 zu 1 Übersetzungen suchen.
Especially, when one wants to understand the words “gerade“, “genau“, or “eben“, one should not look too much for 1-to-1 translations.
Yeah colloquial German is kinda hard to grasp from the get-go, but I will get used to it! There are definitely some meanings and usages in addition to their dictionary meanings that I have missed out on, so I would love to be filled in on these! Do share with me in the comments below!