Enjoying German: The Difference Between “gern” and “mag”



A question that I receive from my students is the different between ”gern” and “mag“. In my last e-tutoring session I could not further go into details explaining the differences, so here is my attempt to do so in my blog.

Both of the words mean  ’like’  and ’enjoy’; gern is an adverb and mag is originally from the verb “mögen” (to like). Here are a few examples in a context:

Ich mag Sport. (I like sports.)

Ich mache gern Sport.  ( I like doing sports)

Here we have a verb (machen = to do or to make). The adverb gern is emphasizing the like on the activity, in this case the activaity to do sports.

Another example:

Er mag Musik. (I like music)

Er hört gerne Musik. ( He likes to listen to music)

In the first sentence, The subject (er) likes an object, namely Musik.  In the second sentence the adverb gern is relataing the to activaty of the sentence, namely the act of listening to music.

Bottom line: gern can only be used in conjuction with a verb.

Some of you might have seen a senetences like these:

“Er mag Musik hören“(I likes music) or “Ich mag Sport machen” (I like sports.)  Since “Mögen” is a helping/modal verb it may occur with a main verb.

 So, when would you use “mag” and when would you use “gern” ?

Here is a basic guidline:

Whenever you need a verb to express your like/dislike you can use “gern”:
“Ich schwimme gern” (I like swimming), “Ich lese gern” (I like reading). If your making a list it’s shorter with “mögen”: “Ich mag Lesen, Laufen, Schwimmen“. (I like reading, running, swimming)

If it’s about the like or dislike of food and beverages you must use either “mögen” or “gern” in conjunction with “essen/trinken” (to eat/drink):

Ich esse Gemüse gern. (I like eating vegetables). Ich trinke Wein gern. (I like drinking wine.)

The best way to get an understanding of these words is to read German, whether newspaper articles or stories, and to listen to people talking.