The meaning of “rechnen” (and its prefix version)

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. And you had better be ready, for the day of reckoning has come.
Dut dut dunnnnn.
Well, okay… actually it’s more the day of “mathening”. Because today, we’ll look at



Rechnen is the German brother of to reckon but unlike to reckon, which is mostly used figuratively, rechnen is still about making actual calculations with actual numbers.
Yeah… yawn.
But what’s even more yawn are the countless prefix versions of rechnen like (anrechnen, abrechnen, ausrechnen, vorrechnen,… ) which all give us information about how or why or where or at what temperature Fahrenheit a calculation is being made.

But at least if you’re planning on living in Germany for some time, it’s paramount really good to have a rough idea about the rechnen-family because these words are all over the place and can get confusing. So let’s get bored together…

A quick look at where they come from first: rechnen and to reckon actually come from the jawdroppingly ancient Indo-European root *reg, the same root that right and recht are from. The core idea of the family was simply a straight line, and the original idea  of rechnen and reckon was a rather broad sense of setting the record straight.
And at some point this notion of computation came in but English preferred to compute and calculate for the number stuff. No surprise there, because English is HUUGE fan boy of Latin. Yup, calling you out, English. I bet when  you were a teenager, you had a room full of posters of Latin. Latin looking pensive, Latin on a Skateboard, Latin shirtless, showing abdominals.
But German, too, is a fan boy – a fan boy of words that sounds like something is stuck in your throat. So it is no surprise that rechnen REALLY took off and became the standard verb for doing calculations – both, in a sense of actually doing math and in a figurative sense of expecting a result based on what you know.

  • “Alter, weißt du, was ich mich die ganze Zeit frage… wenn 2 Bier 7 Euro kosten, wie viel kosten dann 5 Bier?”
    “Warte mal, das rechne ich im Kopf.”
  • “Bro, you know what I’m asking myself the whole time… if 2 beers are 7 Euros, how much do 5 beers cost?”
    “Hold on, I’ll do that math in my head.”
  • Ich habe nicht damit gerechnet, dass du so früh kommst.
  • I didn’t think you would come this early.
  • In Alaskas Wäldern muss man mit Bären rechnen.
  • In the forests of Alaska, bears are to be reckoned with/to be expected.

The last one is probably the closest rechnen and to reckon come.  You definitely DON’T use rechnen as that idiomatic “I reckon” that you can find in English (is that an American thing, by the way, or do Brits also reckon stuff)? The best German translation I can think of is annehmen (to suppose).

  • You want a beer, I reckon.
  • Du willst ein Bier, rechne ich... NOOOOPE
  • Du willst ein Bier, nehm ich (mal) an.

You might also be wondering about the noun reckoning. Well, we’ll see what that is later, but it’s definitely NOT die Rechnung. Rechnung is actually a pretty important word, because not only can be a general calculation, it’s also the German word for an invoice AND for the bill in a restaurant (sounds a bit fancy, so not to be used in a bar).

  • Camille fragt Will nach der Rechnung.
  • Camille asks Will for the bill.
    (couldn’t resist, sorry :)
  • Ich brauche eine Rechnung.
  • I need an invoice.

Oh and while we’re at nouns let’s also mention der Rechner which is the German word for a computer, either desktop or laptop…. NOT tablet.

  • “Dürfen wir beim TestDaF einen Taschenrechner benutzen?”
    “Ja, klar.”
  • “Are we allowed to use a pocket calculator during TestDaF exam?”
    “Of course.”
  • Es ist schwer, am Rechner zu sitzen, wenn draußen die Sonne scheint.
  • It is hard to sit at the computer if the sun is shining outside.

So this was the first impression of rechnen versions and what exactly they mean.
Are you pumped?!
I can’t hear you! ARE YOU PU… okay, whatever. Let’s just get it over with.

ausrechnen, errechnen and berechnen

The first two, ausrechnen and errechnen are basically cousins in that both prefixes shift the focus to the result of the calculation. The  difference is pretty much only tone. Er- often has an epic vibe to it, and so er- verbs tend to not be used for mundane, everyday stuff.

  • Wir müssen ausrechnen, wer wie viel für die Party zahlen muss.
  • We have to calculate who has to pay how much for the party.
  • Wissenschaftler haben errechnet, dass in 20 Jahren mehr Einhörner als Menschen auf dem Mond leben werden.
  • The scientists have calculated (lit.: “found through calculating“) that in 2067 more unicorns living on the moon than people.

Neither of the two verbs has a noun, but the the ge-form of ausrechnen, ausgerechnet, is also used as a stand alone expressing the idea of “out of all things/options it HAD to be this one?!“, usually in contexts where you complain.

  • Warum musst du ausgerechnet dann eine Dinner-Party machen, wenn ich Fastenwoche mache?
  • Why do you have to to a dinner party exactly when I am fasting for a week?
  • “Wir müssen reden.”
    “Oh, warum ausgerechnet jetzt?”
    “Weil wir gerade einen TedTalk geben, du Idiot.”
  • “We have to talk.”
    “Oh, why now of all times?”
    “Because we’re giving a TedTalk, you idiot.”

The third one, berechnen is also more result focused than just rechnen. But it sounds more technical and computational.

  • Der Mathematiker berechnet die Flugbahn des Kometen.
  • The mathematician calculates the trajectory of the comet.

But it’s not limited to heavy number crunching. And the adjective berechnend is actually a negative word for a person who is calculating in the sense of they’re not really being authentic but have a hidden agenda.

  • Thomas kann sehr berechnend sein.
  • Thomas can be very calculating.

Next up, we have abrechnen.


This one might be the most important one of all of them.
Just like the ones we’ve seen so far, abrechnen is focused on the end of the calculating, but the focus is a little different:  it’s  the idea of closure. Kind of like abschließen (to lock).
You usually find abrechnen in contexts where there some sort of debt to settle; two contexts in particular: payback in the sense of revenge. And paying in the sense of paying a salary (thus settling the debt for the work). That’s why at the end of a month, as an employee you get a Abrechnung.

  • Die Spesen werden separat abgerechnet.
  • The expenses are billed separately.
  • In seiner Autobiografie rechnet der Schauspieler mit Hollywood ab.
  • In his autobiography, the actor settles a score with Hollywood (in the sense of saying bad things).
  • Ich habe meine Monatsabrechnung für Mai noch nicht.
  • I don’t have my monthly earnings statement for May yet.
  • Heute ist Tag der Abrechnung.
  • Today is the day of reckoning.

Oh and since quite a few of you are students…. if you’re working in a bar or restaurant, counting your wallet at the end of a shift is also called abrechnen or Abrechnung machen.

  • Der Kellner macht seine Abrechnung.
  • The waiter is doing his billing.

Moving on to the next group which could be called transformational rechnen.

transformational rechnen

Sounds kind of cool. Like… finding your life purpose or something. But it’s not as epic. It’s just a bunch of verbs that talk about how you transform something by doing math.
The most important verb is umrechnen which is German for to convert. In the context of numbers, not in context of God.

  • Gibt es einen Trick, wie man Ounces in Liter umrechnet?
  • Is there a hack how to convert ounces to liters?

The other ones are more or less self explanatory… reinrechnen means to include something into an actual equation, rausrechnen means to remove something through by making calculations, kleinrechnen means to make small through calculations and schönrechnen means to make pretty through calculations.
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“Emanuel, can you PLEASE continue with the article.”
Oh… uh… sorry… do you want examples for these verbs?
“No, we’re good. Are there anymore prefix verbs for rechnen we should know?”
Gee… why you in such a hurry? Learning German isn’t a race. It’s more like a life time companion.
Seriously though, the last one we really do need to mention is verrechnen.

(sich) verrechnen

Ver- lends its idea of wrong to the rechnen, so sich verrechnen means to miscalculate. And as so often with meanings that are based on the wrong-ver, you do need the self reference there

  • Der Kellner hat sich dreimal verrechnet.
  • The waiter miscalculated three times.
  • Wenn du gedacht hast, dass ich deinen dreckigen Topf abwasche, dann hast du dich verrechnet.
  • If you thought I was going to clean your dirty pot you “miscalculated” /were wrong.

But if you’ve read my article on ver- , you’ll know that ver- has four notions to offer. So it is no surprise that verrechnen has a second meaning. It can also express the somewhat hard to describe idea of making something go away by doing calculations. Usually, it is used if two parties owe each other amounts of money and instead of paying back and forth, you calculate them together.

  • Der Mietpreis für das Auto wird mit der Kaution verrechnet.
  • The cost for the rent of the car gets subtracted from the deposit.
    (the idea is mingling the sums together in some way, can mean subtracted or added)

But yeah… actually it’s not that important. Just keep it somewhere in the back of your head that verrechnen is ALWAYS about miscalculating.
Cool, and that’s it for today, I think.
This was our look at the various versions of rechnen. Once again, my lovely unpaid assistant made a great little quiz so you can check if you remember the important points. And as always, if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Oh and don’t forget to sign up for my beauty-course. It’s epic.


** vocab **

rechnen – calculate
mit etwas rechnen – expect something/have something in the equation

die Rechnung – the invoice, the bill, the calculation
der Rechner – the computer (laptop, desktop)

ausrechnen – calculate (focus on result)
ausgerechnet – common way for the idea of “of all things” in negative contexts
errechnen – calculate (focus on result, epic)

abrechnen – to calculate, to settle a score 
die Abrechnung – the closing statement, the reckoning

berechnen – calculate
berechnend – calculating (for people who have “plans”)

umrechnen – to convert (numbers)

schönrechnen – make pretty by making calculations

sich verrechnen – miscalulate
etwas mit etwas verrechnen – weird calculation stuff


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