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Can someone shed some light on when to use "schlimm" and when to use "schlecht"?

I've found an explanation here that tries to clarify the issue, but in my opinion does a fairly poor job. Every example it gives of one word, it gives (what seems to me) an interchangeable example with the other.

The only concrete thing I was able to take away from the article was that, when referring to body parts, "schlecht" means "poor" whereas "schlimm" implies "injured."

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The examples look fine for me. Hardly one, which could be formed with the other term. Sie sieht schlimm aus. would be possible too, and would mean ill/damaged, while schlecht can mean the opposite of beautyful, without implying ill. –  user unknown Sep 11 '11 at 0:10

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Schlecht is a word that means bad, not good, poor in a fairly neutral way - it's simply the opposite of good. Schlimm can also mean all those things, but carries connotations of something being threateningly wrong or having serious consequences.

The English word "bad" can have both connotations, the neutral "not good" or the "uh oh, this is bad" one, so it may be more helpful to see whether you can translate it with "not good" - things can only be schlecht if they can also be gut, so if good/not good that doesn't work, schlecht is probably the wrong word.

Let me give some examples that will hopefully help pin down the different connotations.

Examples where both words could be used:

Er hat schlechte Noten.

"He has bad grades." / "His grades aren't good."

Er hat schlimme Noten.

"His grades are so bad I'm worried about it."

Das ist schlecht.

"This is bad." / "This isn't good."

Das ist schlimm.

"This is seriously bad."

Examples where only one word makes sense:

Das ist eine schlimme Wunde.

"This is a seriously bad wound."

This is one of those cases where you can tell schlecht doesn't work because not good doesn't work as a translation. "This wound isn't good?" Duh. A wound can't be good, so you don't need to tell us it's not. It can just be really extra bad.

Das ist ein schlechtes Lied.

"This is a bad song." / "This song is not good."

Schlimm doesn't really work here if you're just talking song quality, because the fact that the singer is screechy and the lyrics are insipid will hardly have dire consequences. Of course you could call a song schlimm if it was misogynistic and racist, or a piece of propaganda for a dictator.

It's a really hard difference to explain, and I suspect I didn't cover all edge cases, but I hope that helped narrow it down some.

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+1, agree with almost everything. But I probably wouldn't say "Er hat schlimme Noten" but something along the lines "Er hat so schlechte Noten, das ist schon echt schlimm" (which is rather colloquial, of course). –  Hendrik Vogt Sep 11 '11 at 7:19
    
@Hendrik: You're right, something more colloquial would probably sound more natural, but I think the parallel structure illustrates the point better. I figured the difference was confusing enough without also going into the finer pints of how schlimm can sound kind of old-fashioned or weird if you don't get it exactly right. –  Cass Sep 11 '11 at 7:57
    
Agreed, I would still understand what you mean when you say "Er hat schlimme Noten". –  Hendrik Vogt Sep 11 '11 at 8:03
1  
+1, great examples. I think "Seine Noten werden immer schlimmer" may be an alternative to the sentence in discussion :) –  OregonGhost Sep 11 '11 at 15:28

There is in my opinion a very simple rule of thumb:

  • use schlimm if something feels bad, affects you emotionally in a very negative sense
  • use schlecht to judge objectively something which doesnt affect you emotionally, like grade.

A teacher would say objectively to a mother:

Ihr Sohn hat schlechte Noten und fällt eventuell durch.

while the mother feeling with her son may respond with:

Das ist ja schlimmer als ich gedacht habe/Das ist ja schlimm!

But the teacher wouldn't and shouldn't use schlimme Noten. He should stay objectively as maybe the level of a course/school is just too high for her son. Then its actually better the son leaves this school if he already learned frequently...

Another simple example which shows the difference is

Wir sind in einer schlechten Ausgangslage

judging objectively a special sitation to solve a problem while you often hear

Die Lage ist schlimm

when the solution didnt work and everybody involved has to fear directly consequences (see Fukushima before and after the meltdown)

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"Schlecht" is used when you put the focus on the comparism. It means poor quality, less-than average character/health/perfomance/choice ... etc. It describes a snapshot at the moment of measurement. Whether anything good or bad comes out of "schlecht" is everyone's guess.

"Schlimm" is when you want to emphasize the negative consequences or implications of the described object. A wound that can leave scars after healing, a behaviour that made others sad or that can put you into prison etc. It has a longer timeframe than "schlecht". It is extremely unlikely that anything good comes out of "schlimm".

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Here is an example, where only schlecht, but not schlimm can be used:

Ich sehe schlecht, daher muß ich eine Brille tragen.

In another aspect, schlecht may be a moral judgement, where schlimm mereless notes undesirability or looming undesirable consequences:

Es ist schlecht, daß die Deutschen kein Geld für Griechenland ausgeben wollen.

Es ist schlimm für Griechenland, wenn kein Geld aus Deutschland kommt.

  1. A third usage of schlecht has the meaning of spoiled, rotten. Here, one cannot use schlimm:

Das Hackfleisch ist bereits schlecht.

Wenn du es ißt, wird das schlimme Folgen haben.

I think the best translation for schlimm would be fatal.

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