The German Verb "Lassen"

Overview

The German verb lassen is a very useful irregular (strong) verb with the basic meaning of "to allow" or "to let." But it has many other meanings and is used often in everyday German. Below we examine this extremely versatile verb, which can have over a dozen different meanings in English (and German), depending on the context.

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There are a few alternative constructions to the passive voice in German. The verb “lassen” is one of these, which means “to let”; however, it is used differently here than in English. Consider the following examples:

Es lässt sich leicht erklären.
It lets itself be easily explained. (literal translation)

The English translation sounds awkward to any native English speaker — the better equivalent is: “It is easy to explain” or “it can easily be explained.” The passive voice uses past participles in both English and German, but the above formulation is constructed using a present tense reflexive verb and an infinitive (lässt/erklären; is/to explain). This German alternative to the passive voice is used in place of the modal verb “können” in the passive (e.g. Es kann nicht geschrieben werden. = Es lässt sich nicht schreiben.). Below are some more examples to give you an idea of how “lassen” is used:

Ich lasse mich beraten.
I am going to get advised/seek advice.

Lässt du dein Fahrrad reparieren?
Are you going to get/have your bicycle repaired?

Much like in the previous examples, the English equivalents are not word-for-word translations, but they convey approximately the same meaning: in both cases, the subject is not the one doing the activity (beraten, reparieren); but rather, they are having someone else perform those services, i.e. they are arranging for them to be done.

Used as a reflexive verb, “lassen” can refer to letting/allowing something to be done:

Sie lässt sich operieren. 
She is having surgery. (lit. She is letting herself get operated.)

Sie lassen sich scheiden.
They get/are getting divorced. (lit. They are letting themselves get divorced.)

Er lässt sich seine Haare schneiden.
He is getting a haircut. (lit. He is letting himself get his hair cut.)

Im Perfekt

To put the verb “lassen” in the past tense, conjugate the helping verb “haben” and place the infinitive “lassen” after the infinitive form of the main verb, creating a double infinitive. For example,

Sie lässt sich operieren. -> Sie hat sich operieren lassen.
She is having surgery. -> She got/had surgery. 

Ich lasse mein Auto in der Garage stehen. -> Ich habe mein Auto in der Garage stehen lassen.
I am leaving my car parked in the garage. -> I left my car parked in the garage. 

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:

Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Specific Capabilities at this Level

Writing:
I can write simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. I can write personal letters describing experiences and impressions.
Spoken Production:
I can connect phrases in a simple way in order to describe experiences and events, my dreams, hopes and ambitions. I can briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans. I can narrate a story or relate the plot of a book or film and describe my reactions.
Spoken Interaction:
I can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. I can enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life (e.g. family, hobbies, work, travel and current events).
Reading:
I can understand texts that consist mainly of high frequency everyday or job-related language. I can understand the description of events, feelings and wishes in personal letters.
Listening:
I can understand the main points of clear standard speech on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. I can understand the main point of many radio or TV programs on current affairs or topics of personal or professional interest when the delivery is relatively slow and clear.