Schwer or Schwierig, Einfach or Leicht?

A Common German Mistake

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Schwer or schwierig?

This mistake is so common even among Germans that many don't realize they interchange these two adjectives when they actually shouldn't. The most obvious reason is that these two words sound so much alike. Another is the meaning and the associations that people make with these two words. For instance, in the physical sense, schwer means heavy and schwierig means difficult, and though these are two distinct definitions, many people attribute carrying something heavy as something difficult and thereby mix these two words up when expressing this intent.

For example, you will sometimes hear:  Diese Tasche ist so schwer! ('This bag is so difficult' instead of 'This bag is so heavy') 

So before we go into the possible uses and differences between schwierig and schwer, the definitions of these two words should be made clear, as there is overlap in their meanings:

schwer:

  • heavy - Du bist aber schwer!
  • severe - Es war ein langer, schwerer Winter
  • hard, difficult - Sein Leben ist schwer
  • schwer geprüft sein  

schwierig, (adj., adv.): difficult

Now that the definitions have been set, let's look at possible uses of schwer and schwierig

You can interchange schwer with schwierig in:

ein schwieriger Fall/ ein schwerer Fall

ein schwieriges Thema/  ein schweres Thema.

ein schwieriges Problem/ ein schwerer Problem

Deutsch ist schwer/ Deutsch ist schwierig

Es ist schwer zu sagen/ Es ist schwierig zu sagen

Be aware that sometimes interchanging  schwierig and schwer, changes the meaning completely:

Ein schwieriger Kopf  - a complicated person

Ein schwerer Kopf - to have a hangover

Don't always use logic! Some expressions use schwer even when logically schwierig would be a better fit:

schwer erziehbaren Kindern - difficult to raise children

 schwer verständlich - difficult to understand

Some expressions with schwer:

schweren Herzens - heavy heart

schwerer Junge - a criminal

schwer von Begriff - to not be very bright

schweren Mutes - to be discouraged

schwere Zeiten - hard times

das Leben schwer machen - to make one's life difficult

eine Sache schwer nehmen - to take it hard

Common expressions with schwierig:

sau schwierig/ total schwierig - extremely difficult

schwierig verlaufen - to not go well

Einfach  or leicht?

Less common are mistakes made with einfach or leicht, though these two words do get mixed up at times due to similar reasons. Like schwer/ schwierig, einfach and leicht  can get interchanged for phrases depicting the physical trait of light, as in not heavy. For instance, you can not say, Meine Tasche is einfach,as you are saying that your bag is easy. You need to state Meine Tasche ist leicht, which means that your bag is light.

However, you can express:

 Die Aufgabe ist leicht. or

 Die Aufgabe ist einfach.

They both mean the same thing: This task is easy.

In a nutshell, these are the definitions for leicht and einfach:

leicht: easy; light (not heavy)

einfach: easy, simple

Expressions with leicht:

einen leichten Gang haben   -   to have an easy walk 

mit leichter Hand   -   lightly,  effortlessly 

eine leichte Hand mit jemandem/für etwas haben   -   to have a way with somebody/something 

leichten Fußes   -    with a spring in one's step 

gewogen und zu leicht befunden   -  tried and found wanting 

jemanden um einiges leichter machen   -   to relieve somebody of some of his money  

Expressions with einfach:

einmal einfach -  one-way ticket please 

einfach falten - folded once 

einfach gemein  - downright mean

 Das gehört einfach dazu -  It comes with the territory

Einfach nur das Beste - Simply the best

 Um es einfach auszudrücken -  to put it simply