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Wiktionary lists the following meanings for the words raten and erraten in the sense "to guess":

  • raten: "versuchen, eine Antwort zu finden"
  • erraten: "die Antwort auf eine Frage ohne die Antwort zu wissen, richtig beantworten"

I find this distinction often is difficult to make. For example, which word would be the best for the following sentences?

  • "Can you guess?" -- Does this ask whether you are capable of guessing (raten) or have a chance to guess right (erraten)?
  • "Guess!" -- Is this a command to guess (raten) or a command to guess right (erraten)?
  • "He made a guess." -- Would this depend on whether the narrator knows the answer to the question?
  • "I thought you would never guess." -- Feels like raten and erraten would yield different meanings: "... never try to guess" (raten) and "... never get it right" (erraten).

Could someone explain the difference in another way?

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I thought that "raten" means "Eine Antwort geben, ohne zu wissen, dass die Antwort richtig ist." "Versuchen, eine Antwort zu finden" can also mean that you simply search with google for the answer someone asked you. I think that that would in some way be the opposite of "raten". –  Johannes Schaub - litb Jun 2 '11 at 16:58
    
@Johannes: That's indeed a weird wording. Duden agrees on that definition: "die richtige Antwort auf eine Frage zu finden versuchen, indem man aus den denkbaren Antworten die wahrscheinlichste auswählt" –  Tim N Jun 2 '11 at 17:20

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Erraten is the successful execution of raten.

EDIT:

You're right about the distinction being subtle, and you probably won't raise eyebrows if you use raten instead of erraten (but not the other way around). As to your examples:

  • "Can you guess?" would very probably not ask whether the other person is capable of expressing a guess (most people are, even mutes), so in that case, i guess it's short for "can you guess the right answer?" - so erraten.

  • "Guess!" can mean both "Take a wild guess!" (rate!) or "guess the right answer!" (errate es!).

  • "He made a guess" makes no claim as to the outcome, so raten.

  • You're right about your last example. "I thought you would never guess" is probably more often used in the sense of "I thought you would never guess right" (Ich dachte, du würdest es nie erraten), but could also be used to mean "I thought you would never venture a guess" (Ich dachte, du würdest nie raten).

Erraten needs an object: Du kannst also einfach so raten, aber du kannst nur etwas erraten.

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+1 for shortest possible explanation. But be sincere: Hast du es erraten? ;) –  splattne Jun 2 '11 at 16:48
    
That's just what I've written. I looked the words up before asking, as you can see in the question. I also asked how to decide whether it was a successful execution or not in a couple of situations, and for an other explanation. –  Tim N Jun 2 '11 at 16:48
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@splattne Habe ich es *er*raten? Das kann ich nicht beurteilen, das müsste ein Experte entscheiden. Ich habe allenfalls *ge*raten (hab ich aber nicht :p). –  fzwo Jun 2 '11 at 17:05
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@Tim I don't really understand how to help you there, then: Judging whether an attempt was successful has nothing to do with language, and needs to be decided on a per-case basis. But you're right, I neglected your examples; I'll edit the shortness out of my answer for you :) –  fzwo Jun 2 '11 at 17:08
    
Thanks, that's much more useful :) –  Tim N Jun 2 '11 at 17:17
  • Can you guess?
    Kannst du es erraten?
  • Guess!
    Rate mal!
  • He made a guess.
    Er riet (einfach).
  • I thought you would never guess.
    Ich dachte, du würdest es nie erraten

Whether to choose raten or erraten just depends on the (in English hidden) meaning. Try to understand if what's the intention of the English sentence is changing them:

  • Can you make a correct guess? → erraten
  • Make a guess! → raten
  • He made a (maybe correct/incorrect) guess → raten
  • I thought you would never make a correct guess → erraten
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