What is the Difference- “verschieden, anders, unterschiedlich”

anders-verschieden-differenHello everyone,

and welcome to something we haven’t had in a loooong time… a  “What is the difference”-special. And today’s special is especially special , because we’ll look at the differences between the different German words for different.

anders, verschieden and unterschiedlich

How does that sound to you, studio cat?
“Mrrreeeeow!”
Studio cat approves. Perfect.
And before I confuse you more, let’s dive right in into the world of differences

The difference between those words and knowing when to use which is a problem for many learners. The good news is that there is a very very clear distinction. At least between anders and the other two. So here it comes… imagine you have two sets of something, A and B.

Anders is about comparing items of one set with items of another, an external set. It is external. 

verschieden and unterschiedlich are about comparing items within one set. They are internal. 

And that makes total sense when you look at the origin of the words. Anders (and of course also andere/n/m/r/s) as well as the English other come from the a turbo old root that was about…  the other one. Us vs them kind of thing.
Unterschiedlich and verschieden on the other hand belong to the family of shed. Now, this family is super crazy and you won’t believe what words belong to it. But we’ll actually do a whole post on it so for today, let’s say that the ones with shit in them are about discerning, telling apart.  Oh… I mean the ones with schied… crap… I think I just spoiled something.
So, anders is about items of one set vs items of another. The schied-words are about discerning, differentiating within a set. And because now everybody is like “Uhm… okay… can we do an example?” we’ll do an example :). Take the following sentence.

  • In the second bar, I tried different beers.

We have two bars here, the first one and the second one. Those are our two sets and the items in the set are the beers I tried at the place.
Now, if we use andere (I hope you don’t mind that I already added the proper adjective ending) we’re pitting the beers I had in the first bar with those I had in the second.  Like… in the first bar, I tried PBR and  PBR Light and PBR Zero Taste®  while in the second bar I tried Beck’s and Guinness and Crew Ale.
If we use either of the schied-words on the other hand, we’re comparing the beers I had in the second bar.

  • In der zweiten Bar habe ich andere Biere probiert.
  • In the second bar I tried different/other beers (than in the first one… inferred by context)
  • In der zweiten Bar habe ich verschiedene/unterschiedliche Biere probiert.
  • In the second bar I tried several different/a few different beers (so I didn’t just drink 3 of a kind)

Let’ do another example

  • I’ve tried different things to solve the problem.
  • Ich habe andere Sachen versucht, um das Problem zu lösen.
  • Ich habe verschiedene/unterschiedliche Sachen versucht, ….

Again, we have no context here so both versions are possible. Can you guess what the difference is?
Exactly, the first version means that I tried other things than someone else. The second version merely means that I’ve tried a bunch of things that were somewhat diverse.
Cool. Another one? Yeah, let’s do one more.

  • Maria and her sister are very different.
  • Maria und ihre Schwester sind sehr anders.
  • Maria und ihre Schwester sind sehr verschieden/unterschiedlich. 

I’m pretty sure you got it right: the first version means that Maria and her sister are different than some other group of people, maybe some other pair of siblings. The second one means that Maria is very different from her sister. Anders groups them up and compares them with an external set, verschienden looks for differences within the items.

Now, in the examples we had so far, both option were possible. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the context only allows for one.

  • My bike is different.

Okay, this is not exactly a lot of context and still we only have one option here:

  • Mein Fahrrad ist anders.

Why? Well, it would sound quite odd to use verschieden here because we only have one item in the group. I mean how can it be verschieden… it’s only one. No, anders is the way to go and it compares Pink Flash from Hell with all those boring stock bikes out there. What?… Pink Flash? Oh.. uh… that’s just the name of my bike. I didn’t mean to say that. Try to ignore it, okay?

Anyways, now let’s look at an example where anders doesn’t work.

  • Talking and doing are two different things.

This one is not as clear as the one with the bike but still context strongly suggests that we need verschieden. The goal of the sentence is very likely a comparison of talking and doing. So we are comparing two items of one set. Technically, we could say andere but then everybody would be like “Different than what? Sleeping?”. Andere would bundle them up and compare them to something external while verschieden looks for difference between them.

verschieden vs unterschiedlich

Verschieden is the ge-form of the verscheiden but that is super rare and has nothing to do with differences anymore. Unterschiedlich is based on the noun der Unterschied. Der Unterschied means difference and it’s based on the verb (sich) unterscheiden, which means to differentiate, to be different. But they’re definitely akin. If one doesn’t work, nor will the other and as a matter of fact, on a superficial level, on a level of meaning, the two are interchangeable.

  • “Wann hast du normalerweise Feierabend?”
    “Oh, das ist verschieden/unterschiedlich.”
  • “When do you usually finish work?”
    “Oh, that varies.”
  • Das Wetter an der Ostsee ist sehr verschieden/unterschiedlich.
  • The weather at the coast of the Baltic Sea is very changeable/varies a lot.
    (I feel like “different” would be out of place here… natives correct me please :)

The difference between the two is not the meaning but the “feel”.
For one thing, the words vibe kind of mirrors their sound. I know this might sound stupid but bear with me please. Verschieden sounds rather straight forward, orderly and direct. At least compared to unterschiedlich, which is all over the place. U, A, sch, I, d, l, ch. The tongue has to move around a lot here. Like a butterfly. Yeah, that’s a nice image… verschieden is the flight of a bee, unterschiedlich is a butterfly. Both are erratic but the latter is a lot more chaotic. And that’s kind of the vibe of the words.

  • Ich habe verschiedene Ideen.

This sounds like a bunch of idea, that are somewhat different from each other.

  • Ich habe unterschiedliche Ideen.

This sounds a little more like the result of brain-storming – or at least a little tiny bit more random.

  • Ich höre verschiedene Musikstile.
  • Ich höre unterschiedliche Musikstile.

The second one sounds like a more eclectic collection to me. I don’t know… maybe that’s just me though and other German speakers don’t feel that.
Anyways… there’s another difference between the verschieden and unterschiedlich.
In the example with the Baltic Sea weather we’ve seen that both words can carry the idea of divers(e). like… I have a bunch of diverse items in the group.
But sometimes we have groups within a group… uhm… yeah… I don’t know what that’s supposed to say either. Quick, we need an example:

  • Thomas und Maria haben verschiedene/unterschiedliche Ideen für das Projekt.

The thing is… we have two people so within the group, there are two subgroups. The ideas Thomas and the ideas of Maria. And that means there are two possible ways of comparisons. We can compare the ideas in general and we can compare his idea with her ideas.

  • Thomas and Maria have a bunch of different ideas for the project.
  • Thomas and Maria have different ideas for the project.

Unterschiedlich leans toward the second while verschieden could express either.
But this is really more of a nuance and it rarely comes to bear.

  • Thomas und Maria haben unterschiedliche/verschiedene Vorstellungen davon ,was ein gelungener Urlaub ist.
  • Thomas and Maria have different ideas of what constitutes a “successful” vacation.

Here, the context leaves little doubt that we’re comparing his ideas to her ideas and they’re different.
So, bottom line…  unterschiedlich and verschieden are not exactly the same but the differences are small and rarely affect the meaning so you shouldn’t worry about it too much.
What really matters is that you understand the difference between verschieden and unterschiedlich on the one hand and anders on the other. Anders compares to something external, something that is often not part of the sentence. The schied-words look at the elements inside a group and try to discern them, make out differences between them.
Here’s a somewhat more practical rule of thumb

Use ander- if the different in your sentence could be extended to a
“different than something” 

Use verschieden-/unterschiedlich- if you can replace different with divers(e) without completely altering the meaning.

And that’s it for today. I’ve prepared a little quiz for you so you can try out what you’ve learned. If you want you can post your translation in the comments and I’ll correct it. But you can also just try to figure out which word to use. And of course if anything is unclear just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

  1. The shirt is nice but I need a different size.
  2. The vibe Berlin is very different than in München.
  3. The weather in Berlin varies a lot.
  4. “Verschieden” and “anders” have different meanings.
  5. That looks very different to when I first saw it.
  6. Maria and I, we have different ideas of what a clean kitchen is.
  7. Oh, in that case it’s something different.
  8. Live your style. Be different.
  9. At that bar they have 20 different beers.
  10. I don’t understand why you have to have three different phones.(I’ll post the solutions as a comment)

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