Did you know that “We know us,” “We meet us,” and “We see us” are all incorrect, and are all mistakes often made by German speakers when speaking English?

We and us are like Superman and Clark Kent: you never see them in the same place at the same time!

In German, it’s possible to use wir and uns together with the same verb, which leads German speakers to making mistakes when trying to translate their thoughts into English.

So why do German speakers often make the above mistakes, and why aren’t they possible in English?

To understand, let’s take a quick look at some of the ways German uses the word uns:

1. As a direct/indirect object (=’us’):
Something is done to/for us

German English
Er hat uns gesehen. He saw us.
Er hat uns geholfen. He helped us.

2. With reflexive verbs (=’ourselves’):
I do something to/for myself, and you do something to/for yourself

German English
Wir haben uns in den Spiegeln gesehen.
(Ich habe mich selbst in einem Spiegel gesehen, und du dich selbst in einem anderen.)
We saw ourselves in the mirrors.
(I saw myself in one mirror, and you saw yourself in another.)
Wir haben uns selbst geholfen.
(Ich habe mir selbst geholfen, und du dir auch.)
We helped ourselves.
(I helped myself, and you helped yourself.)

3. With reciprocal verbs (=’each other’):
I do something to/for you, and you do something to/for me

German English
Wir haben uns auf der Straße gesehen.
(or: Wir haben einander auf der Straße gesehen.)
(Ich habe dich gesehen, und du mich auch.)
We saw each other on the street.
(I saw you, and you saw me.)
Wir haben uns gegenseitig geholfen.
(or: Wir haben einander geholfen.)
(Ich habe dir geholfen, und du mir auch.)
We helped each other.
(I helped you, and you helped me.)

So what is correct?
In English, uns only means us in the first of the above cases, and not in the second or third, meaning that uns can be translated not only as us, but also ourselves and each other.

The German expressions “Wir kennen uns”, “Wir sehen uns” and “Wir treffen uns” all fall into the third category (i.e. “Wir kennen einander”, “Wir sehen einander” and “Wir treffen einander” would all be suitable alternatives):

German English
Wir kennen uns sehr gut. We know each other very well.
Wir sehen uns sehr oft. We see each other very often.
Wir treffen uns jede Woche. We meet each other every week.*

*Another important thing to know is that, unlike the German verb treffen (which always needs an object such as mich or uns), the English verb meet is typically used alone (in American English, the preposition with is typically used):

English German
We always meet in front of the cinema. Wir treffen uns immer vor dem Kino.
I met John yesterday.
(British English)
I met with John yesterday.
(American English)
Ich habe mich gestern mit John getroffen.

Although it’s natural to look for simple one-to-one translations in another language, it’s unfortunately never as simple as we think or hope. So don’t forget that uns is not always us, but can be translated in other ways too. And remember this simple rule: We and us can’t be used with the same verb!

If you have any questions about this topic, send me an email at philmarlowenglish@gmail.com

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