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What exactly is the difference between

  • putzen
  • säubern
  • reinigen
  • sauber machen

What I research them in leo they all point to the word 'clean'. Some say that putzen can be used for 'to clean', while reinigen is used for 'cleaning something not physical - such as cleaning the soul', while sauber machen is not clear whether it is identical to putzen.

However, some of my colleagues say that reinigen is same as putzen. Hence the confusion.

When and how to use them. If you could provide with some examples, it will be very helpful.

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Could you please provide some research! What did you find out? What's still unclear after your research. – In order to answer your question: There's no difference at all. It's basically just about register, and–maybe–one of those word may be used in a particular context only (I mean collocations). Not sure about this; but this wouldn't help you anyways. –  Em1 May 21 at 10:45
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I have now updated my research –  Joe May 21 at 11:24
    
You'll find some further information about putzen and reinigen here. I suggest reading the second (older) article first. –  Em1 May 21 at 11:36

3 Answers 3

All of the words you provided can be translated as to clean something. In almost all situations they are synonyms.

Subtle differences:

If something is sauber it means that it is not dirty, so säubern and sauber machen both mean that something is put (back) to a clean state. This at least requires removal of any visible dirt.

Rein is a bit stronger, it means to be pure, there is no impurity left, be it visible or not. Reinigen can be used for cleaning clothes, but also for applying chemical cleaning agents to machine parts etc.

Putzen is often used for physically scrubbing something to remove dirt and make it shine again (shoes, windows, but it is also used describing animals grooming their fur). This does not mean that it isn't also used in other contexts (eg. "Putzerei" is used synonymously to "(Textil-)Reinigung" for a shop offering to clean your clothes here in Austria (as indicated in the linked Duden article, this meaning seems to be exclusive to Austian German). It can also be used in a very general way as in die Wohnung/das Auto putzen, where it would imply performing all the activities reqired to put the object/place back to a clean state (washing, scrubbing, vacuuming or whatever else needs to be done)

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I disagree with the last part. "Putzen" is used very generally for "cleaning something", at least in northern Germany (e.g. "Wohnung putzen"). It doesn't have to involve physical scrubbing. On the other hand I never heard "Putzerei" before, so I'd like to outline that it's probably austrian dialect and might not be understood elsewhere ;-) –  André Stannek May 21 at 12:53
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@AndréStannek well, Putzerei may be special to Austrian German and I indicated that, but it is not dialect - my "Österreichisches Wörterbuch, 39. Auflage" contains an entry on it, so it is (or at the very least was in 2005) perfectly standard in Austria ;-) But I'll amend my last paragraph to make it more general. –  Hulk May 21 at 15:17

Connotations differ slightly.

  • "Putzen" typically describes cleaning surfaces.

    For example "Auto putzen" would imply cleaning the outside, dusting the dashboard and maybe vacuuming the carpets.

  • "Reinigen" implies a more thorough cleaning that may involve taking things apart.

    Running with the example, "Auto reinigen" implies (dry)cleaning all fabrics thoroughly and opening every nook and cranny. Basically, you reset to "as new".

  • "Säubern" and "sauber machen" are more general. I don't think "säubern" is used as often; to me, it implies improvement but not necessarily a clean end result.

In some specific use cases, only some choices are valid. For instance:

  • "Zähne putzen" is what you do yourself everyday. "Zähne reinigen", on the other hand, would be what a dentist does. "Zähne waschen/säubern" is not used.

  • Man putzt sich die Nase/Ohren, aber man wäscht sich die Hände/Füße/Haare.

    I don't think "reinigen" or "säubern" are used much in the context of cleaning yourself. If you said, "Ich habe meinen Sohn gereinigt", you'd imply that he was so filthy you practically had to clean him like like you would an object.

  • When you give clothes to the cleaners, it's "Reinigung", but doing your laundry means "Wäsche machen".

All to my knowledge, obviously.

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+1 for the Zähne putzen vs. Zähne reinigen example. Reinigen is often used for a very thorough cleaning performed by a professional of some kind. –  Hulk May 21 at 15:33

putzen

Katzen putzen sich. Putzfrauen putzen. Usually superficial. Putzen is dusting off furniture or using a broom to sweep the floor or maybe hover the floor. Afterwards the floor is clean but not necessarily clean enough to eat off of it.

säubern

Waschmaschinen waschen Wäsche biss Sie sauber ist. Sauber means not dirty but not sterile either.

reinigen

Reinigungskräfte reinigen. Waschmaschinen waschen Wäsche biss Sie rein ist. Rein the word itself is an equivalent to pure in english. Meaning unspoiled. Reinigen means putzen oder säubern until it's spottless. Rein.

sauber machen

Ein Produkt säubern bis es sauber ist. Machen is a way of being lazy. Like in english you can make a lot of stuff like bread, cake whisky. But you actually bake bread, bake cake and distill whisky.

So sauber machen = säubern just the lazy mans expression.

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