What is the Difference – “verwirren vs. verwechseln”

verwirren-verwechseln-diffeHello everyone,

and welcome to another Word of the Day, or to be more precise a What is the difference special. And today we’ll look two words that both mean to confuse.
Today, we’ll look at the difference between

verwirren and verwechseln


And since that difference isn’t a big deal at all we’ll also take a look at how to say confusing and confused because there’s a lot of …  confusion.
So, are you ready to untangle some hair, to descramble some eggs, to un-… erm… unravel some Debussy?
Are you ready for all this?

Let’s start with the look at verwechseln.

The Meaning  and use of “verwechseln”

Of course it is a combination of the infamous ver-prefix and the basic verb wechseln. And in case you didn’t know… chs is the German way to spell out the “x“-sound. For example the German title of one of these superhero movies is:

“Chs-Men – Days of future past.”

Okay not really… but there are plenty of words with chs sounding like x. Now, wechseln has been around for a while and it hasn’t changed much in meaning. It comes from an old old root that roughly expressed the idea of one for the other and this root came from an even olderer root – the Indo European *weik, which meant to bend. One of the many aspects of bending is making way. A twig bends aside making way for the wind. Something makes way for something else. And this is the core idea if wechseln... one (in exchange) for the other. And not only for wechseln. Also vice-  and week (Woche)  (both related to vicarious) come from there. For vice-president that totally makes sense… one president for the other. As for week … well,I’ve read that it is something about succession…like, one day after another. I don’t really know.
But anyway, what matters is that wechseln is based on the idea one for the other. And it has stayed true to that.

  • Der Vize-Präsident wechselt sein T-Shirt.
  • The vice president changes his shirt.

English is really like… “Context… fill in the details for me!”. I mean… “changes his shirt”… maybe I mean that he cuts off the collar to make it cooler.
The German wechseln is crystal clear. He exchanges one shirt for the other.
And that is always what wechseln is about… abwechseln is alternate, auswechseln implying that one thing is gone after, einwechseln implies that one thing is in after, durchwechseln implies that every item or person gets a turn. Wechselhaftes Wetter is weather that changes from clouds to sun to rain and back to sun. Wechselgeld is the money you get back along with your purchase, Wechselkurs is the exchange rate. I think whatever you see with wechseln... you can probably guess it with the “one for the other”-idea in mind.
All right.
Now let’s see what the  ver-prefix adds to the verb. If you’ve read the article on ver– (link below) then you know that it has 4 possible ideas. For wechseln it is… the wrong-idea. So if wechseln is to take one for the other, then verwechseln is to mistake one for the other. That is just the idea behind the verb, the core. As usual, the actual translations vary :).

  • Ich verwechsele oft “sensitive” und “sensible”.
  • I often  mix up “sensitive” and “sensible”.
  • Thomas sieht Brad Pitt zum Verwechseln ähnlich.
  • Thomas is the spitting image of Brad Pitt.
  • “Elisa?! Mensch, was für ein Zufall. Wir haben uns ja ewig nicht gesehen.”
    “Äh… kennen wir uns?”
    “Oh… äh… tut mir leid. Ich habe Sie verwechselt
  • “Eliza?! Maaaan, what a coincidence. We haven’t seen each other in ages”
    “Uh… do we know each other?”
    “Oh… uh… I thought you were someone else.”

So… it can certainly be quite confusing to verwechseln something, but it is always about two alternatives.
Real confusion looks different. And that’s where verwirren comes in.

The Meaning of “verwirren”

The core of verwirren is the word wirr. Dict.cc gives a lot of translations but the essence of all of them is in disorder.My hair can be wirr,  I can babble wirres Zeug (incoherent stuff), and on my desk there can be a Wirr Warr (chaos, jumble).
Now, just like with verwechseln we have the ver-prefix but for verwirren it doesn’t add the idea of wrong, it adds the idea of change. Verbessern for example means to make better (to improve) and verwirren works just the same… it literally means “to make or bring into disorder”.

  • Meine Haare verwirren sich immer ganz schnell.
  • My hair brings itself into disorder very quickly (lit.)
  • My hair gets shaggy very quickly.

This example was kind of an exception though, because verwirren isn’t actually used for things… at least only very rarely. The standard word is durcheinander bringen.

  • Ich bringe die DVD-Sammlung von meiner Freundin durcheinander.
  • I mess up my girlfriend’s DVD-collection.

Verwirren has a very strong focus on people’s minds. That’s what’s being put into disorder.

  • Es verwirrt mich total, wenn jemand, während ich zähle, irgendwelche Zahlen sagt.
  • It confuses me extremely, if someone says random numbers while I’m counting.
  • Was mein Chef im Meeting gesagt hat, hat mich ziemlich verwirrt.
  • What my boss said in the meeting confused me quite a bit.
  • Hör auf, mich zu verwirren!
  • Stop confusing me!

So … this is verwirren, and actually… before we move on let’s looks at verwirren and verwechseln back to back.

  • German cases confuse me.
  • I confuse German cases.

Do you know which is which?
Exactly… the first one is verwirren because the cases bring my mind into general disorder. They second one is verwechseln. Cases are a thing so verwirren wouldn’t  really the best word anyway. But what we mean is that we take one case instead of another… and that is verwechseln.
I hope you can see that the words are quite different and you shouldn’t mix them up.

  • Die Deutschen Fälle verwechseln mich.

That makes no sense at all and I would be super confused.
And that bring us right to our next point … confusing and confused.

verwirrend vs verwirrt

I don’t really know why, but for some reason  people often get confused when they try to say that in German. So instead of just checking the translations let’s dig a little deeper and do some theory.
Like any other verb, to confuse has several different forms. And two very important forms are confusing and confused. Actually, confused are two different forms that look identical but let’s not get into that now. In grammar terms confusing is called the present participle and confused is called past participle. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that these are really just forms… they can have different functions. Just like, say, ice… it is a form of water, but we can use it for ice skating or cooling our drink. For today, it doesn’t matter what functions these forms have, exactly. We just need to know the core-idea:

  • The present participle is always about what something does.
  • The past participle  is roughly about how something is.

One quick example:

  • The painting tree… that is a tree that paints.
  • The painted tree … that is a tree that is painted.

German has the same forms. The past participle is the famous ge-form … the one we need for the spoken past.. but let’s not get into how the forms are called or how they’re built. They exist and they have the same ideas.
Now, if your teacher rambles on about the n-declension and you want to say that your mind is in serious disorder… which form do you need? This one:

  • Ich bin sehr verwirrt.
  • I am very confused.

because it talks about how something is.  The following sentence is not wrong:

  • Ich bin sehr verwirrend.
  • I am very confusing.

and yes, it does say “I am” in there, but in essence it talks about what you do… you confuse people.
This form would be perfect if we want to talk about the n-declension. Because that’s what the n-declension does… it confused the hell out of people.

  • N-Deklination ist sehr verwirrend.
  • N-declension is very confusing.

Again, using verwirrt (confused) wouldn’t be wrong… but then we would say that the n-declension’s mind is in disorder.
All right.
Now some people may be asking “Wait a minute, what is the n-declension that sounds interesting?” And my answer is, the n-declension is a ginormous pimple on our butt. It’s good to know that it’s there because then we know where the pain comes from but we shouldn’t try to squeeze  it (into our minds) if it’s not “ripe”. It’ll hurt worse after so let’s not waste our time. The brain will take it in when it’s ready… just like pus will come o… you get the idea :).
So … again  here are the forms:

  • confusing – verwirrend 
  • confused  –  verwirrt 

Oh I almost forgot… earlier we had durcheinander bringen as to confuse for things.Remember? This phrasing actually works for both… minds and things and so durcheinander is also a good and common translation for confused.

  • Ich bin heute ein bisschen durcheinander.
  • I’m a little confused today

Bu wait… what about verwechseln? Can’t this also translate to confusing and confused? In theory, yes, verwechseln does have the same forms but usually confused and confusing are about the disorder of the mind… not about one thing being mistaken for another thing. So most of the time the verwirren-words are the ones you need.

Last but not least one word about confusion. It can be either – die Verwechselung and die Verwirrung – but I think it should be easy to say which is which to use if you keep in mind the core of the word… verwechseln is to mistake one for the other, verwirren is to cause (mental) disorder.

  • Der Konzern will seine Marke “re-branden” um die Verwirrungsgefahr zu minimieren.
  • The company intends to rebrand their brand to minimize the likelihood of confusion.
  • Dass Thomas bei der Party mit Sabine knutschte und nicht mit Melanie, sorgte bei der für reichlich Verwechselung.
  • The fact that Thomas was tongue kissing with Sabine at the party and not with Melanie made for a lot of confusion.

Wait… is that correct? I think I might have confused something. But don’t let me confuse you ;).
So… I think that’s it for today. That was our German Word of the Day – What is the Difference special about verwirren and verwechseln. And because theory is nice, but practice is the real deal, I actually also have an exercise ready for you. It was part of one our epic Advent Calendars and you can find it here:

verwirren, verwechseln – The exercise

And of course, if you’re still confused about something or if you want to try out your own examples just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Further reading:

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7 years ago

Hey, thanks so much for you website! There really is nothing like it, wish someone would do this for French or another language too! Do you think you could do more examples of the durcheinander bringen? I was thinking of a lady at work- sie ist immer wirklich verwirrt und sie bringt immer die dinge durcheinander dass wir die mesite benutzen muessen, wie die stellen von diesen dinge. Or is mixing up the placement a given, and it is just WHAT you are mixing up that you would add information for? Hmm..

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader
7 years ago

Um alle Anfänger weiter zu verwirren, gibt es auch “verworren” :)

7 years ago

Saw a nice verwechsel in a newspaper article about Leonard Cohen – seine stimme ist unverwechsalbar, d.h. unmistakable. That made me realize that the translation is simply “to mistake”, which in English doesn’t mean “to make a mistake” but already has this specific and exclusive meaning you mention, to mistake one thing for another.

Ich verwechsele immer die Lieder von Leonard Cohen und die von Celine Dion

= I always mistake Leonard Cohen’s songs for those of Celine Dion

7 years ago

I missed the possibly hypothetical pole. But please cover “nicht”. It wanders around my sentences like a drunken whack-a-mole, popping up in unexpected locations.

I second the F-word suggestion. I like how you humorously use it, but it is a crude and rough word and it can immediately turn people off stone cold (likewise shit!!).

7 years ago

My 0.02 USD for becoming rich one coin at a time: obwohl die kanadischen 25-Cent-Stücke ein bisschen kleiner sind, als die Amerikanischen, verwechselten manche Waschautomaten in den USA doch die Münzen.

Es war mir am Anfang verwirrend, mit den Zahlen Schritt zu halten, als sie im Jahre 2005 sechs (chs-x) Nullen von der türkischen Lira gelöscht haben.

Münzen in der Tasche zu tragen mag ich gar nicht, weil sie meine Zahlungskalkulationen durcheinanderbringen: ich muss erstmal für die optimale Summe suchen, zufolge der ich die niedrigste Zahl von Münzen zurück bekomme und die höchste Zahl von Münzen weggebe.

After reading about the relationship between the German “chs” and English “x” in your article, I looked up the word “ox” in the German dictionary. Satisfaction ensued.

7 years ago

A very nice post. Vielen Dank. I suggest that you try to eliminate, or if possible erradicate, such words as ,, fucking” and its relatives in your posts. Many sorts of people are reading and benefiting from your posts and it would be better and respectful to always take that into consideration . Otherwise people may verwechseln you with somebody else and they end up being verwirrt. Teachers (or at least any one who offers to teach) must always keep in mind their audience. Here is a piece from the post: (This form would be perfect if we want to talk about the n-declension. Because that’s what the n-declension fucking doe… oh, I shouldn’t swear, I’m sorry)

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thank you very much for your professional response. I agree with you. I am also working hard to do away with my bad habits and as you said , temptations keep visiting me. Eradication is more radical than elimination. Consider this citation ,, In 1998, Dowdle proposed a definition of control as a reduction in the incidence, prevalence, morbidity or mortality of an infectious disease to a locally acceptable level; elimination as reduction to zero of the incidence of disease or infection in a defined geographical area; and eradication as permanent reduction to zero of the worldwide incidence of infection.( Dowdle WR. The principles of disease elimination and eradication. Bull World Health Organ 1998;76 Suppl 2:23-5.). Ich lese gerne Ihre POSTS und leiter sie an Freunde weiter. It is like am at your language school. I am just waiting for my certificate!!! The truth is I print out and read almost every post of yours. Ob das mir bzw Ihnen eine urheberrechtliche Gefahr darstellt, ahne ich gar nicht.

7 years ago

i’m indonesian… i have green project in Indonesia… need advices from everyone…

7 years ago

Just discovered your site and it’s great…useful..and example heavy (which is good). I visit Austria frequently in work and though there are slight differences, your site meets a need I haven’t found elsewhere.
Two questions: how can I search for a word you used in earlier posts. Like today wanted to use “miss” as in an event and online trans kept using verfehlen, verpassen, or vermissen, and in Googling my ques got to your site but now would like to go from verfehlen “day” to “verpassen”
Second, can’t get paypal to work on iPad. Is your site set to donate only with desktop/laptops?

7 years ago

Meiner Versuch, um das ganze Beispiel zu übersetzen:

Na Scheiße… Nun habe ich Curry und Zimt verwechselt. Danke schön, dass du meinen Gewürtzbord durcheinander gebracht hast.
Naja… Seh das bloß an, was du gerade nimmst.
Doch…. In voller Absicht habe ich ein System eingesetzt und, wenn es nicht so steht, wie es stehen sollte, dann verwirrt es mich.

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Honestly my use of doch comes from music. Look at Traum by Cro. Es gibt so viele girls, die behaupten, sie wären du, doch ich sage ‘mann das stimmt doch nicht’. Look at Regner’s ‘Der erste Schritt’: ‘So volle Hoffnung doch ohne großen Plan’.

I don’t get why these counter a negative statement. To me it just means ‘on the contrary’

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

So I should have said: In voller Absicht habe ich DOCH ein System eingesetzt….? Das stimmt?

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I think I get it. And in speaking, the in the sentence the stress would be on the EIN SYSTEM eingesetzt, oder?

Ich habe doch in voller Absicht ein SYSTEM eingesetzt (didn’t you know its there, are you blind?)

7 years ago

Der Debussy-Ravel-Witz war nicht nur ausgezeichnet, aber ich habe es ein bisschen romantisch gefunden ;)

Dein Witz war ja besser…

7 years ago

Thanks for the article and all your hard work with this.
My proposal for the quiz would be:
Na toll, jetzt hab’ ich Curry und Zimt verwechselt. Danke, dass du mein Gewürzregal durcheinander gebracht hast.”
“Guck doch einfach hin, was du nimmst.”
“Nee… ich hatte da extra ein System, und wenn das nicht so steht, wie es stehen soll, verwirrend ist”.

A small matter of English orthography,
Wir haben uns ja ewig nicht gesehen.
“We haven’t seen each other in ages” or “We haven’t met for ages” or “Long time no see” or “I haven’t seen you like forevuh”.

7 years ago
Reply to  MacFeagel

That would be my answer too, except maybe for the last sentence:
“Nee… ich hatte da extra ein System, und wenn das nicht so steht, wie es stehen soll, dann bin ich verwirrt”.

7 years ago
Reply to  Roland

Ja, und wahrscheinlich meine Version fehlt ein ‘es’: “Nee… ich hatte da extra ein System, und wenn das nicht so steht, wie es stehen soll, es verwirrend ist”.