When And How To Use зачем And почему In Russian

While studying Russian last year, I remember learning the word почему means "why" and then later learning the word зачем and that it also means "why". In the absence of a clear definition at the time, I just made the assumption that it's a stylistic thing and started swapping them in use to try to develop a "feel" for it.

Over time, I had started to pick up on some usage patterns. I've noticed that "зачем тебе" is often the response to questions that a person finds too personal, and "почему" is usually the response when someone is denied something they want... but operating on these assumptions, and with little additional understanding, I've also managed to occasionally offend people by using the wrong one!

Recently, though, one of my Russian friends pointed out to me that I had used зачем incorrectly, and that these two words are most definitely not interchangeable. (I can't stress how nice it is to have good friends who care about helping you to learn correctly, rather than accepting your mistakes.)

When I pressed her for an explanation, she couldn't give me one on her own, but she did find me this excellent blog post (in Russian) explaining when to choose зачем and почему.

We just say "why"

In English, we just use the word "why" for all questions of causation:

  • Why is he here?
  • Why did you say that?
  • Why are these books in front of the door?

But it turns out that in Russian, you must choose your question more carefully, based on the kind of answer you are expecting.

The word почему literally means by what means, and (as the author of the blog I mentioned describes it) it is more concerned with the past. You ask почему when you want to know why something happened, how it got this way, etc.

The word зачем literally means for what, and it is more concerned with the future. You ask зачем when you are concerned with expected results, etc.

So with the example question why are these books in front of the door?, you can ask two very different questions based on which question word you choose:

Почему лежат эти книги перед дверью?
Why are these books sitting here in front the door? Why did you leave them here? Are you lazy?

Зачем лежат эти книги перед дверью?
Why are these books sitting here in front the door? What is their purpose? Are you trying to prevent the door from opening?

Naturally, the question word you choose will determine the answer you receive:

Q. Почему вы здесь?
Why are you here?

A. Ваш магазин единственный открытый.
Yours is the only store that's open.

Q. Зачем вы здесь?
Why are you here?

A. Масло купить.
To buy some butter.

I love this excellent example from the previously-mentioned blog:

Зачем камень катится с горы? Для того, чтобы спуститься с горы!
Why does a stone roll downhill? In order to descend from the mountains!

If the person asking had correctly used почему, the answer would have been "gravity". But because the queestioner incorrectly chose the word зачем, the correct answer is one of intent.

This also makes it a little more clear how someone could be offended why you choose the wrong word. Почему спрашиваешь? casually asks why do you ask?, whereas зачем спрашиваешь? more combatively asks what are you after with that question?

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  • почему - because of what
    зачем - for whatSimple and clear.I also don't get it how native speakers can't explain their own language. You just have to put it in context in a couple of sentences to get it... Doesn't seem like such a big deal.

  • Thanks for the post, it's fine as usual.One minor correction though - in the sentence about books, one should use the Russian verb лежать, not сидеть. "To sit" in Russian is never used about things simply lying around somewhere. A detail in a mechanism can "sit" in a certain part of the whole thing, or especially garments can "sit" well or badly on a person.

  • Thanks. These little differences are the hardest part for me, since they don't occur in English.

  • I recently found your blog, and I love it!!!Anyway, my Russian teacher and I discussed your blog entry during our last lesson.Почему asks about state of being.Зачем asks what is the purpose that caused the subject of the sentence to do what they did.Why is the sky blue? This sentence asks about state of being.Why did you put the books on the table? This sentence asks about the purpose or the reasoning that lead to a person putting books on the table.The is kind of backed up by the book that I just picked up, "A Handbook of Russian Prepositions" by Frank J. Miller.

  • I generally understand отчего as "since when?"

  • Igor, you can use verb "сидеть" instead of "лежать" in the example about books. In this case that would influence the deeper meaning that would insist on the fact that these books have been sitting there for a while and you kind of want them to be out of there. It's would carry a hidden agenda that you don't like the fact that these books are sitting there because you already asked once to move them away. In a sense, it would add some emotional flavor to this question.

  • Zachem means "what for", pochemu means "why", they're different sometimes, sometimes it's the same thing.
    Pochemu asks for a reason (prior to the present moment), zachem asks for the finality or purpose.

    Ex: Zachem ty zdes? ¿What are you here for? (I want to know what you want to do now that you're here).
    Pochemu ty zdes? ¿Why are you here? (I want to know the reason that brought you here)

  • What about отчего? Is it basically the same as почему?

  • "Лежать" лучше поставить после "этих книг". "Почему эти книги лежат перед дверью?".

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