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I came across these two sentences recently:

Ich versuche, Kohlenhydrate zu meiden

Wir hatten versucht, den Verkehr zu vermeiden

What's the difference between the two verbs in regards to what type of situation they avoid, or the type of avoidance they represent?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 3 down vote accepted

They are, obviously, quite close in meaning and there are certainly many cases where you can use both of them.

Meiden means that you try to avoid someone or something. Vermeiden means that you try not to do something or that you act so that something won't happen.

So, the similarity and their overlap is quite obvious. For example, if I try not to look into your eyes, I can use both. Both definitions can be applied: I try to act so that an eye contact won't happen, and I try to avoid eye contact.

That makes it hard, to tell which word to use in these cases. Native speaker might have a tendency to one over the other with certain collocation. With reference to the eye contact example, vermeiden is way more common.

That said, actually you just need to think of which definition you can apply and if one of those is not possible, you certainly go with the other one.

In your second example, you can use both words meiden and vermeiden. Meiden is much more common but I heard vermeiden there quite a lot, too.
Actually, now that I read other answers, I agree that meiden is here the general rule (so I try to avoid the traffic everyday) and vermeiden is rather associated with my current situation (so I try to avoid the traffic right now).
This can be applied to other examples as well.

Your first example, however, is somewhat ... odd. Kohlenhydrate is nothing I would meiden or vermeiden. I'd rather say something like:

Ich vermeide es, zuviele Kohlenhydrate zu mir zu nehmen.

Actually, when ever you start a sentence like that (i.e. using the expletive es), you use vermeiden. There are some hits on Google for "Ich meide es", but they're all quite weird.

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meiden versus vermeiden

Though I am German I find it is not so easy to make the difference clear in a few words.
Vermeiden can be used

  1. as a transitive verb: Man kann versuchen, Fehler zu vermeiden – meaning not to make mistakes.

    Ich will den Stoßverkehr am späten Nachmittag vermeiden. (meaning to avoid)

  2. vermeiden + zu + Infinitiv

    Ich möchte vermeiden, meine alten Eltern aufzuregen. (meaning to avoid doing)

  3. vermeiden + dass Nebensatz

    Ich will vermeiden, dass ich zu spät komme. (meaning avoid being late)

meiden
Actually this verb is only used as a transitive verb with different objects.

  1. Man kann einen unangenehmen Mensch meiden. – Meaning to have no contact with him
  2. Man kann gewisse Speisen meiden, weil sie einem nicht bekommen. – Meaning to avoid eating certain dishes
  3. Man kann eine zwielichtige Gegend meiden. – Meaning you never go there because it is a dubious area.

Perhaps there is someone who can explain the difference in use better than I. PS Now, thinking longer about this problem, I see that there may be a small overlapping area.
You can say: "Ich meide den Stoßverkehr." That is a general habit. I never drive during rush hours.
And you can say: "Ich fahre heute früher los. Ich will den Stoßverkehr vermeiden." This describes a momentary situation, not a general habit.

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As has already been pointed out by others, the difference is quite subtle.

I'd say you would use "meiden" if you avoid something generally/over an extended period/as a rule:

Ich meide Kohlenhydrate.

Ich meide morgens die Autobahn, weil sie immer so voll ist.

Ich meide große Konzerte, weil da immer so viele Menschen sind.

"vermeiden", by contrast, is generally used when you avoid something that particular time.

Ich fahre über die Landstraße um den Stau zu vermeiden.


A real difference in meaning is that vermeiden can mean to prevent something from happening. Meiden can't mean that, it just means to stay away from something. Compare:

Wir müssen uns zusammentun, um das große Konzert in unserem schönen Stadtpark zu vermeiden.

Wenn es aber doch stattfindet, werde ich es meiden.

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The difference between the two is subtle, and I'm confused by your second example, as I would also use meiden there.

meiden: avoid to come in contact (can't think of a better way to describe this) with something or someone.

Wir versuchen, den Stau auf der Autobahn zu meiden.

vermeiden: avoid something to happen

Wir sollten vermeiden, dass das passiert.

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There is very little discernible difference. 'ver-' often adds a pejorative connotation to the primary meaning of a verb (e.g. 'zählen' vs. 'verzählen'), but 'meiden' (avoid) already tends toward the negative, so there is little additional effect.

The main difference today seems to be that the compound verb is used more often overall, while the stem verb may be on the road to becoming archaic. Certainly, when e.g. the Amish shun someone, it's always 'Meidung' and never 'Vermeidung', while some modern constructions such as 'Vermeiden Sie es, in das Laserlicht zu sehen' work only with the compound verb.

(There may be a tendency of 'meiden' to occur specifically with unpleasant people or dangerous places, but such impressions are subjective and often not born out by corpus analyses.)

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