Do you find that there are certain groups of German words that have only one single translation in your mother tongue? Does that make it harder for you to use them correctly? I am sure that the answer for many learners is “yes,” as I’ve seen this problem in many of my students. Is it zahlen or bezahlen? Können or dürfen? These can be very confusing being that the differences are mostly based on context.
Therefore, in order to address this, I have made a list of eighteen German word pairs and word groups that many foreign learners find confusing, and have provided several examples to make them easier to understand. Some of the differences between them are already distinguishable in English. However, there are also some more complicated ones. So, let’s have a look at my explanations and tips.
Sprechen, reden or sagen?
The meanings of these words are quite similar to “talk,” “speak” and “say.” For instance, the verb sagen just means “to say” or “to tell” in a short, single action. This verb can also be directed at someone in particular (I told him / I said that to her), but it's not necessary. I will demonstrate this using some examples:
- Sag mir jetzt die Wahrheit!: Tell me the truth now! (I have just asked somebody to do this, but the person hasn’t answered yet).
- Er hat gesagt, dass wir auch kommen sollen: He said that we should also come / He told us to come too.
In terms of the verb sprechen, it implies that the act of speaking is somewhat longer. However, there doesn't actually have to be any interaction between people (that's how I imagine it). Let’s look at an example:
- Er hat gestern vor der ganzen Klasse über den Klimawandel gesprochen: He talked about climate change in front of the whole class yesterday.
In this case, “talked” implies that this person spoke about it for a while, though there is no assurance that anyone actually listened to him. In other words, no interaction was needed.
So, what about the differences between sprechen and reden. These two verbs can almost be considered synonyms. However, if you really want to know what makes them different, sprechen is used more to talk about the ability to speak or to use languages. For example:
- Er kann sprechen: He can speak.
- Er spricht Deutsch / Er kann Deutsch (sprechen): He speaks German / He can speak German.
You can also say ja, ja, er kann Deutsch! being that there's nothing grammatically wrong with saying “he can German.”
- Wir haben viel gesprochen / Wir haben viel geredet: We talked a lot.
Germans will say the two phrases above interchangeably without making any distinction between these two verbs. However, if you want to make a deep comparison between the two, geredet usually implies an exchange of information. For example:
- Wir haben viel gesprochen.
This means that either everyone was just speaking to themselves and that no one was listening to each other, or that people were just practicing their ability to speak with no exchange of information, world views, etc.
- Wir haben viel geredet.
This means that there was surely some kind of exchange of information, thoughts, or maybe even a discussion; the people listened to each other.
However, sprechen and reden are synonyms. I must say it again: Germans use them interchangeably. The only thing I would draw your attention to is an important, stylistic difference.
The verb sprechen is a “prettier” word, and it emphasizes a more correct and sensible way of speaking. On the other hand, reden can imply something along the lines of chatting. As such, nobody uses this verb in formal letters!
Tauschen, wechseln, austauschen, umtauschen or auswechseln?
You use tauschen if you give something away in exhange for something new. In other words, it implies that there is a trade. That's why we say rollen tauschen (to change roles) and not wechseln. Other examples include Karten tauschen (to exchange cards) and das auto tauschen (to exchange a car).
On the contrary, the verb wechseln means “to leave one’s state of being and acquire a new one.” Examples of this include die hose wechseln (to change trousers), den verein wechseln (to change clubs), geld wechseln (to change money) and Motoröl wechseln (to change motor oil).
Next we have Austauschen, which means that both people get something they haven't had before without losing anything. Examples of this include informationen austauschen (to exchange information), erfahrungen austauschen (to exchange experiences) and der studentenaustausch (student exchange).
Then, there is Umtauschen, which refers to exchanging something that you have bought to get another item from the same shop. It also can be used to talk about exchanging money / currency (euro in / gegen dollar umtauschen, but also: umwechseln / einwechseln). For example:
- Ich will das neue Hemd gegen ein anderes umtauschen, weil mir die Farbe zu grell ist: I want to exchange this new shirt for another one because the colour is too bright for me.
Finally, Auswechseln means to replace something with another (perhaps new) thing. Examples include Zündkerzen (spark plugs) and spieler auswechseln (to exchange players).
Treffen or begegnen?
Let’s look at an example with treffen:
- Jemanden (akkusativ) / sich mit jemandem (Dativ) ‘treffen.’
Here, the meeting isn't an accident; we made an appointment with somebody. Let’s check out another example:
- Ich treffe mich mit der ganzen familie am wochenende, weil wir omas geburtstag zusammen feiern wollen. I'm meeting my whole family on the weekend, because we want to celebrate grandma's birthday together.
In contrast, we use begegnen if we run into someone accidentally. It's a tricky verb because it's connected with the dativ (while treffen is connected with the akkusativ) and it has to be used with the helping verb sein in the past form of the perfekt and plusquamperfekt. For instance:
- Ich habe mich mit einem guten freund von mir getroffen / Ich habe einen guten freund von mir getroffen. I met a good friend of mine (the helping verb haben and treffen itself are connected to the akkusativ: einen guten freund).
- Ich bin einem guten Freund von mir begegnet. I accidentally met a good friend of mine (the helping verb sein, ich bin, as well as begegnen itself are connected to the dativ: einem guten Freund).
Sich erkundigen or erfahren?
Sich erkundigen: This verb refers to a person taking the initiative to ask about something because he/she wants information. For example:
- Der Mann erkundigt sich nach dem richtigen Weg bei der Frau am Schalter: The man asked the woman at the counter about the correct directions to….
Erfahren: This verb implies that someone told me something that I didn't ask about or have any influence on. For instance:
- Ich habe gestern erfahren, dass seine Mutter gestorben ist: I heard yesterday that his mother is dead
Neidisch or eifersüchtig?
The major difference between these two words is that eifersüchtig (die Eifersucht) relates to a painful emotion, such as what is felt in a relationship. For example, if your partner was unfaithful and you wanted them back, you would feel eifersüchtig. Similarly, if you saw them spending time at work with another person and you didn't like it, you could be full of eifersucht.
On the other hand, Der Neid / neidisch is a negative emotion that relates more to material things that you can't have or can't afford, even though you'd like to:
- Du bist doch nur neidisch auf seine Leistungen: You're just jealous of his results!
Schlimm or schlecht? Bad, not good, poor
If we say that something is schlecht, then there must be a possibility that this thing is also good. Therefore, it means “being bad” in a more neutral way. For example: eine schlechte Mannschaft means “a bad team,” but a team can be good too.
On the contrary, the word schlimm means that something is truly wrong; that it's bad from the start and it can only get worse. You should note that there are in fact cases where you could use either schlecht or schlimm. However, many times you can only use one word or the other. Some examples are die Wunde (wound) and die Krankheit (disease). As you can imagine, these things can only be schlimm.
Bringen or holen?
Bringen means “to bring, and it refers moving something in only one direction. For example:
- Bring mir bitte ein Bier.
Imagine that I'm saying this to a person who is in the kitchen right now and I'm asking her to bring me a beer from that room. She could only bring the beer in one direction.
In contrast, Holen means “to get somebody something” and it implies that someone will move in more than one direction. For instance:
- Hol mir bitte ein Bier.
Imagine now that my friend and I are sitting on a couch in front of the TV and I ask my friend to get me a beer from the kitchen. My friend will walk in two directions.
These verbs are also interchangable in many situations. However, if you want to stress the direction, you should choose the right one. I, myself, am from Poland and I know that many Poles don't see any real difference between these verbs without being given this explanation on directions.
Können or dürfen?
Können refers to an ability or possibility:
- Ich kann sehr gut singen:I can sing very well (ability).
- Ich kann Deutsch (sprechen): I can (speak) German (ability).
- Ich kann im Sommer nach Deutschland fahren: I can go to Germany in the summer (possibility).
Dürfen means “to have permission” or “to be allowed”:
- Darf man hier drinnen rauchen?: May I smoke inside here?
- Mama, darf ich heute ausgehen?: Mom, can I go out today?
- Nicht dürfen: Not to be allowed, mustn't.
Der oder das Teil?
Der Teil means “a part of a whole.” Examples of this are der Erdteil - continent, der Stadtteil (part of a town / district), der Elternteil (parent) and der vordere/hintere Zugeil (the front part of the train / the back of the train).
On the other hand, Das Teil refers to “a loose piece.” For instance: das Puzzleteil, das Plastikteil (plastic piece), das Ersatzteil (replacement part), das Einzelteil (separate / individual part) and das Oberteil (the top part of clothing).
However, BE CAREFUL!! das Teil is also a word for “penis.”
Allein or selbst?
Allein means “alone” and emphasizes that you are the only person carrying out an activity.
Selbst means “on one's own / by oneself” and stresses a person’s ability to do something without anybody's help.
- Ich koche allein: I cook alone (without any company).
- Ich koche selbst: I cook by myself (I can cook by myself, I don't need anybody to do it for me).
Lohn or Gehalt?
Der Lohn means “wage,” or the money that an employee gets based on the number of hours worked multiplied by their hourly rate of pay.
Das Gehalt means “salary,” or the money that an employee recieves on a yearly basis.
As far as I know, not every language distinguishes between these two words.
Rosa or pink?
“Pink” is the English word for the color rosa. It's also used in the German language.
Violine or Geige?
I must add this one being I am a string insrumentalist myself. Die Violine and die Geige refer to the same instrument. The only difference is that the term Violine came from Italian and French, while the origins of the word Geige are mostly unknown.
Bezahlen or zahlen?
Both of these can be translated as “to pay.” However, the verb bezahlen usually sounds more polite or formal than zahlen, which is more casual. Zahlen is also more general (Firma X? Ja, die zahlen gut. Company X? Yeah, they pay well), but in many cases, these two words can be used interchangeably. There are sometimes differences though. For example:
It's impossible to use zahlen with a person as the direct object in the standard language:
- Sie hat nicht vor, einen Klempner zu bezahlen: She doesn't want to pay a plumber.
- Ich bezahle dich dafür: I'll pay it for you.
Furthermore, zahlen is more preferable in situations that involve payment: Lass mal, ich zahle! (Please, don't! It is my treat!).
Mieten or vermieten?
Mieten means “to rent.” It is used in regards to the person who pays rent. For example: Michael mietet eine Wohnung (Michael rents a flat: he pays rent).
On the contrary, Vermieten means “to rent out.” Thus, this is used in reference to the person who gets money or rent from another person. For example: Meine Eltern vermieten diese Wohnung (My parents rent out this flat: they get paid for renting it out).
Bearbeiten or verarbeiten?
Bearbeiten refers to something that is changed without adding any new material. Examples of this include: den Text bearbeiten, Fotos bearbeiten.
Verarbeiten refers to something that is changed into a new thing, along with another material. For example: Eisen zu Stahl verarbeiten (to make iron into steel), Fleisch zu Wurst verarbeiten (to turn meat into sausage) and einen Buch zum Film verarbeiten (to turn a book into a movie).
Bekommen or erhalten?
Bekommen is a more informal way to say “to get” or “to receive.”
Erhalten is formal and it is used in the standard language. For example:
- Ich habe einen Brief bekommen.
This is more typically used in everyday language.
- Ich habe einen Brief erhalten.
This could be used in a formal letter or in an e-mail to someone. However, nobody actually speaks like this in normal, colloquial speech.
Benutzen, nutzen, anwenden or verwenden?
Benutzen - konkrete sachen is informal. An example would be: Ich benutze meine Zahnbürste (I use my toothbrush).
Nutzen - abstrakte sachen is informal. An example would be: die Gelegenheit/die Zeit nutzen (to use an opportunity or time).
Verwenden is very similar in meaning to benutzen and nutzen, but it's more formal (and prettier sounding).
Anwenden means something similar to “apply.” For example: ein Medikament/ein Mittel anwenden (to apply a medicine or a method).
The differences between all these words are small though. They can mostly be used interchangeably (with the occasional exception of anwenden).
And we could go on... but that is enough for one day!
It must be said that it is very difficult for foreign learners to remember all these rules and start using these confusing nouns and verbs properly. Sometimes the differences are hard to explain even for native speakers who know how to use the words correctly!
So, my best advice for anyone who has read this article and still feels confused is that you should learn everything from context! If you hear a new word, observe when and how it was used. Try to understand the context and practice using it yourself more often.
There are also some rules that regulate the meanings of verbs that start with be-, an-, ver-, aus-, ab-... but that is something for my next article. For now, you need to observe and think about how native speakers use these words. Thanks very much for your attention!