How to Say “Put” in German

I’d been learning German for a long time before I finally worked out how to say “put”.

There is a lack of resources that explain this topic as one concept, which is why I’ve made this guide to help clarify it for you.

A good place to start is by distinguishing between verbs of position (describing where objects are) and putting (describing where you put them).

The verbs we are going to look at are:

liegen, legen, stehen, stellen, sitzen,
setzen, hängen, stecken, sein, tun

Note that I am only covering the meaning of these verbs as far as the positioning of objects is concerned. They have many other uses which can be found in a dictionary. There are too many subtleties to cover everything here, but if this post provokes some “clicks” for you, then I consider that a success.

Position or Putting?

The verbs covered here can be divided into two broad categories – verbs that describe the position of objects and verbs that describe putting objects somewhere. They usually come in pairs. One verb describes the position e.g. liegen (to lie), and the other describes putting an object into that position, e.g. legen (to lay).

Position verbs only require a subject – die Flasche liegt – whereas putting verbs require a subject and an object – ich lege die Flasche. It makes sense – you can sit but you can’t put.

Note for grammar nerds: You can read what I refer to as “position verbs” as intransitive verbs and what I refer to as “putting verbs” as transitive verbs. I wanted to keep this article accessible for people without knowledge of linguistics.

Dative or Accusative?

It is important to note that these verbs are used with two-way prepositions. They are called two-way because they can be used with the accusative or dative case. The two-way prepositions are: an, auf, hinter, neben, in, über, unter, vor, zwischen. There’s a great EasyGerman video about this here.

When describing the position of an object (no movement), use the dative case. When describing putting an object (movement), use the accusative case.

“Position” Verbs“Putting” VerbsBasic Meaning
liegen, lag, hat gelegenlegen, legte, hat gelegtobjects that lie
stehen, stand, hat gestandenstellen, stellte, hat gestelltobjects that stand
sitzen, saß, hat gesessensetzen, setzte, hat gesetztobjects that sit
hängen, hing, hat gehangenhängen, hängte, hat gehängtobjects that hang
stecken, steckte, hat gestecktstecken, steckte, hat gestecktobjects that “stick” in a small space
sein, war, ist gewesentun, tat, hat getangeneral replacements for most of the above situations

Note than hängen and stecken appear in both categories, and that hängen has different past forms depending on whether it’s a position verb or a putting verb.

Verbs Describing the Position of Objects

In English we usually use the verb “to be” to describe the position of objects: The bottle is on the table. The book is on the desk. The picture is on the wall.

In German you have to be much more precise when describing the position of objects: As well as describing where the object is, you have to specify how it is.

In German, it’s like this:

The book lies on the desk.
The bottle stands on the table.
The picture hangs on the wall.

It depends on the shape of the object and how it is situated (tall or solid objects stand while floppy or horizontal objects lie).

Let’s take a closer look at each verb.

liegen, lag, hat gelegen

liegen describes objects that are situated horizontally. This includes anything that is “floppy” or lies flat e.g. books, documents and items of clothing. It also describes people and animals that are lying down, or objects that were standing but have been knocked over. In fact, liegen should be your default choice for most objects.

Das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch.The book is (lying) on the table.
Eine Bananenschale lag auf dem Bürgersteig.There was a banana skin on the pavement.
Die Frauen liegen am Strand.The women are lying on the beach.
Ich liege im Bett.I am lying in bed.
Weinflaschen sollten liegend gelagert werden.Bottles of wine should be stored horizontally.
Er hat die Vase umgestoßen. Sie liegt jetzt auf dem Boden.He knocked the vase over. It’s now lying on the floor.

stehen, stand, hat gestanden

For objects that are situated taller than they are wide, or have a stable base, stehen is used. This includes things like plates, glasses, buckets, statues, things with legs etc.

Die Bierflasche steht auf dem Tisch.The beer bottle is “standing” on the table.

(Not very stable, but certainly tall and solid.)
Das Essen stand schon auf dem Tisch.The food was already “standing” on the table.

(Plates are indeed wider than tall, but they have a base and are designed to be stable, and therefore stehen.)
Das Buch steht auf dem Regal. (!)The book is “standing” on the shelf.

(Books lie if they are placed flat but stand if they are upright.)
Auf dem Marktplatz steht eine Statue.There is a statue “standing” on the market square.
Eine kleine Kirche steht auf dem Hügel.There is a small church “standing” on the hill.
Zwei Wachsoldaten standen am Eingang zum Palast.There were two guards standing at the entrance to the palace.

sitzen, saß, hat gesessen

sitzen is pretty much only used to describe things with knees that are actually sitting. This includes animals and inanimate humanoid or animal-like objects such as dolls. The main thing is that the knees are bent and the thing sitting is… sitting.

Sie sitzt auf dem Hocker.She is sitting on the stool.
Wir haben vorne gesessen.We sat at the front.
Er sitzt auf der Couch.He is sitting on the couch.
Wir sitzen alle im selben Boot.We’re all “sitting” in the same boat.
Der Student sitzt seit Stunden am Computer.The student has been sitting at the computer for hours.

hängen, hing, hat gehangen

hängen describes, logically, objects that hang. This is mostly limited to things hanging on vertical walls or from a cord, rope or cable etc.

Die Bilder hängen an der Wand.The pictures are hanging on the wall.
Der Kronleuchter hängt von der Decke.The chandelier is hanging from the ceiling.
Sein Leben hängt an einem seidenen Faden.His life is hanging by a thread. (Literally: on a silken thread.)
Die Badetücher haben auf der Leine gehangen.The bath towels were hanging on the line.
Die Kleiderbügel hängen im Schrank.The clothes hangers are hanging in the wardrobe.

stecken, steckte, hat gesteckt

stecken is used to describe objects that are inside something else, inside a tight space, or stuck somewhere.

Mein Handy steckt in meiner Hosentasche.My phone is in my pocket.
Der Schlüssel steckt im Schloss. The key is in the lock.
Der Nagel steckt in der Wand.The nail is stuck in the wall.
Wo stecken die Kinder?
Wo steckt mein Handy?
Where are the children?
Where is my phone?
(A slangy way of asking where something is “hiding” if you can’t find it.)
Die Kugel steckt noch in der Wunde.The bullet is still in the wound.

sein, war, ist gewesen

If you don’t want to be as specific when describing objects, it is also possible to just use sein, as we do English.

You can replace any of the position verbs with sein. Note that if you replace hängen with sein, some meaning is lost. This makes sense when you think about it, because hanging is a special type of positioning involving a cord and usually increased distance, whereas stehen, liegen, sitzen and stecken describe a simpler positioning of an object.

Ich bin auf der Couch.I’m on the couch.
Die Bücher sind auf dem Tisch.The books are on the table.
Das Geld ist in meiner Tasche.The money is in my pocket.
Die Statue ist vor dem Rathaus.The statue is in front of the town hall.
Die Bierkisten sind auf dem Boden.The beer crates are on the floor.

Verbs Describing Putting Objects Somewhere

In English you can use “to put” for pretty much everything.

I put the keys on the table.
I put the picture on the wall.
I put the video on YouTube.
I put my phone back in my pocket.
I put the washing on the line.

Just as with verbs of position, verbs of putting are also more complicated in German.

Don’t forget that you use the accusative case when using putting verbs. To describe the location where you put the object, you use a two-way preposition (the most common prepositions to use with these verbs).

legen, legte, hat gelegt

legen is the counterpart of liegen. If you are putting an object into a position in which liegen will describe its new position (i.e. laying it down), you use legen to describe the act of putting.

Ich lege das Buch auf den Tisch.I place the book onto the table.
Er legte ihr einen Schal um den Hals.He wrapped a scalf around her neck.
Ich lege mich ein paar Minuten aufs Sofa.I’m gonna lie on the sofa for a few minutes.
Wir haben den Schlüssel unter die Fußmatte vor der Tür gelegt.We placed the key under the mat in front of the door.
Wohin hast du die Zeitung gelegt?Where did you put the newspaper?

stellen, stellte, hat gestellt

Just as legen is the counterpart of liegen, stellen is the counterpart of stehen. If you are putting an object into a position in which stehen will describe its new position (i.e. standing it somewhere), you use stellen to describe the act of putting.

Ich habe das Buch ins Regal gestellt.I put the book onto the shelf. (We know the book is standing and not lying, because otherwise you would use legen.)
Er stellt die Leiter an die Wand.He stands the ladder against the wall.
Er stellte sich ans Fenster.He “stood himself” beside the window.
Sie hat die Kisten auf den Boden gestellt.She placed the crates on the ground.

setzen, setzte, hat gesetzt

setzen is the counterpart of sitzen. It is only used with humans, animals and inanimate objects with knees. It is often used reflexively as sich setzen.

Note: Don’t confuse setzen with the verb “to set”, which has 430 different meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sie setzte das Kind auf ihren Schoß.She sat the child on her lap.
Ich habe mich auf die Couch gesetzt.I sat down on the couch.
Meine Schwester hat sich neben mich gesetzt.My sister sat down beside me.
Setz dich doch!Do take a seat!
Er setzte sich an den Tisch.He sat down at the table.

hängen, hängte, hat gehängt

Note that hängen used to describe positions and hängen used to describe putting have the same present tense forms, but the past tense forms are different.

Ich habe das Bild an die Wand gehängt.I hung the picture on the wall.
Ich habe die Wäsche auf die Leine gehängt.I hung the washing on the line.
Er hat den Anhänger an das Auto gehängt.He conneced the trailer to the car.
Warum hängst du das Bild nicht neben das Regal?Why don’t you hang the picture next to the shelves?

stecken, steckte, hat gesteckt

Both the “position” form of stecken and the “putting” form of stecken are the same in all tenses.

Just like all the other verbs here, the “putting” form of stecken is used with the accusative case.

Ich habe mein Handy in die Hosentasche gesteckt.I put my phone in my trouser pocket.
Sie steckte die Hände in die Manteltaschen.She put her hands in her coat pockets.
Er steckte ihr den Ring an den Finger.He put the ring on her finger.
(Literally: He put her the ring on the finger.)
Sie hat den Brief in einen Briefumschlag gesteckt.She put the letter in an envelope.
Die Mutter steckte das kranke Kind ins Bett.The mother put the sick child to bed.

tun, tat, hat getan

tun can be used as a casual replacement for legen and stellen.

Ich habe alles unters Bett getan.I put everything under the bed.
Wohin hast du meine Tasche getan?Where did you put my bag?
Sie tat das Schnitzel in die Pfanne.She put the schnitzel in the pan.
Ihr könnt eure Hausaufgaben in mein Fach tun.You can put your homework in my pigeonhole.
(Said by a teacher.)
Wo hast du die Schlüssel hingetan?Where did you put the keys?
(tun is often used with wohin to emphasise the movement – “to where”. The wo stays at the front and the hin joins the verb.

Separable Verbs

Many of these verbs also occur in separable verbs with slightly modified meanings. I won’t cover them in detail here because there are far too many, but here are a few examples.

etw. aufhängento hang sth. up
etw. hinstellento put sth. in a specific place
sich hinsetzento sit down
etw. hinlegento place sth. down
etw. aufstellento put something up
aufstehento stand up
herumliegento lie around
etw. einsteckento insert/pocket sth.

Summary and Comparison

Position” VerbsPutting” VerbsUse
perfect with habenperfect with haben(South Germany: position verbs sometimes with sein – Die Flasche ist auf dem Tisch gelegen. The bottle lay on the table.)
liegen, lag, hat gelegenlegen, legte, hat gelegtobjects that lie flat, floppy objects, objects that have fallen over
stehen, stand, hat gestandenstellen, stellte, hat gestelltobjects that are tall or have a solid, fixed base
sitzen, saß, hat gesessensetzen, setzte, hat gesetztthings that have knees and can actually sit, including dolls and animals
hängen, hing, hat gehangenhängen, hängte, hat gehängtthings that hang from a cord or are suspended on a vertical surface
stecken, steckte, hat gestecktstecken, steckte, hat gestecktthings in small spaces like pockets, under beds, or which pass through an opening
sein, war, ist gewesentun, tat, hat getandescribing positions and putting generally

Examples Highlighting the Difference

Here is a table comparing each of the “putting” verbs with their “position” counterparts.

Putting” Verb (+acc)Position” Verb (+dat)
Ich stelle die Flasche auf den Tisch.Die Flasche steht jetzt auf dem Tisch.
Ich lege das Buch auf den Tisch.Das Buch liegt jetzt auf dem Tisch.
Ich stelle das Buch ins Regal.Das Buch steht jetzt im Regal.
Ich hänge das Bild an die Wand.Das Bild hängt jetzt an der Wand.
Ich setze mich auf den Stuhl.Ich sitze jetzt auf dem Stuhl.
Ich stecke mein Handy in meine Hosentasche.Mein Handy steckt jetzt in meiner Hosentasche.

Note for grammar nerds: These verbs are essentially pairs of transitive/intransitive verbs. Other similar pairs include steigen/steigern, sinken/senken, wachen/wecken and verschwinden/verschwenden. In some dialects

Final words

Now that you understand these words better, pay attention to how they are used when you encounter them. Ask yourself why that specific verb is used in that specific situation. Try to understand exactly what movement and location the verb refers to. Over time you will develop a more fine-tuned feeling for which one is right.

Feedback/corrections are welcome!