According to Leo.org, treiben translates to to float, to chase, to drift, to drive and many other various English verbs that seem unalike. What are its possible meanings and how can I tell which one is used in a particular context?

Also in this German sentence:

Im Verein kann man Sport im Freien und in der Halle treiben.

doesn’t it mean to practise?

  • Yes, Leo lists "Sport treiben" as "to do sports".
    – Carsten S
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 20:14
  • 7
    To all close voters: This is what our help center says: "If your question could be answered by a dictionary, a grammar book, or another general reference, consult these. Explain why this did not help you when asking your question." This is clearly what the OP did. Contrary to what we had said in a now self-deleted comment the dictionary the OP consulted lists "Sport treiben" as a possible use of treiben only far down a list only diplayed after two further clicks. The entries there may confuse beginners when it comes to the apporpriate use. We should not auto-close all those questions.
    – Takkat
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 8:15
  • Also see: meta.german.stackexchange.com/questions/840/…
    – Takkat
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 9:06
  • According to Duden, the verb treiben has 14 different meanings in German with various subentries. The exhaustive list of all corresponding English translations may be too long for this format. You may want to consider adding details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.
    – user9551
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 11:31
  • 2
    The answer you don't want to hear is that you should consult a reference dictionary, such as the unabridged New Muret Sanders. That's what they are for. The various senses are treated separately, allowing you to see the breadth of usage of the entry word.
    – Ornello
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 18:33

5 Answers 5


There is a transitive and an intransitive version of "treiben".

The transitive "treiben" generally means imparting a more or less constant movement to somebody, in the sense of chasing or startling them, or something, mostly of a more abstract kind, as an occupation, a craft, a sport, etc.


Ich treibe Sport (I do sports; I think practise isn't a bad equivalent here)
Was treibst du so? (Anything from "What have you been doing lately?" to "Long time no see")
Du treibst mich zur Verzweiflung ("You're driving me to desperation", "You're driving me mad")
Du treibst es zu weit (you go too far)
es miteinander treiben (having sex)
Die Bäume treiben Blätter (the trees are branching), Knospen treiben (to bud)
Metall treiben (Metall mit dem Hammer etc. bearbeiten, shaping or embossing metal)

It's more frequent with prefixes, e.g.:

antreiben (to impel, push on)
betreiben (to keep a facility, plant, workshop, business etc. going)
austreiben (e.g. böse Geister austreiben, to cast out evil spirits)
eintreiben (e.g. Geld eintreiben, to collect money by force)
auftreiben (e.g. Geld auftreiben, to raise money, jemanden auftreiben, to find somebody)

The intransitive "treiben" means floating, thus being moved (den Fluss hinunter treiben) or just staying afloat (an der Wasseroberfläche treiben).

austreiben (die Blätter treiben aus)

In between a transitive and an intransitive meaning goes the idiom "sich treiben lassen", which is something like drifting without a goal.


"Treiben" is related to "to drive" and "to drift" and the core idea can be expressed as

to (make something) move

If you're able to think abstract you can find that in all of the (very divers) uses for the word. Here are a few examples:

to float, drift : moving forward on the water; the element of "not by one's own force" is a random addition

Sport treiben: this is a bit abstract but "to make something move" is kind of "to make something happen" and that can be seen very generally as "to do". There's no particular reason why it's "treiben". Could have been "tun" as well.

antreiben: to drive forward. This can be used for the engine of a car as well as for a boss at a meeting. The idea is the same.


Sport treiben is in fact a commonly used short form. The actual root of "Sport treiben" ist "Sport betreiben", which - by pure coincidence ;) - is translated as "to practice AE/to practise BE" in leo. Nearly no one would say "Ich betreibe Sport" in Germany any more, my grandma was the last one, I guess.

  • Das erscheint mir falsch. Hast Du Belege?
    – Carsten S
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 9:57
  • @CarstenSchultz Wenn ich Onkel Google frage, erscheint mir der letzte Satz "no one would say ... anymore" jetzt auch falsch... aber ich hatte diesen Ausdruck bisher ernsthaft nur bei meiner Oma gehört, und die hat viele ältere Ausdrücke/Formen/Redewendungen benützt.
    – Alexander
    Commented Feb 10, 2015 at 8:22
  • Hmm, interessant. Ich hätte deutlicher sein sollen, mein Zweifel war ein anderer. Ich hatte eher angezweifelt, dass „Sport betreiben“ die ältere Form ist. Ich denke, man „treibt Sport“, aber man „betreibt“ eine spezifische Sportart oder Sport zu einem bestimmten Zweck. Die Googleergebnisse belegen diese Trennung aber nicht. Und selbst wenn, dann könnte es immer noch sein, dass Du damit recht hast, dass „Sport treiben“ eine Verkürzung ist.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Feb 10, 2015 at 8:54

The different meanings for the verb treiben I can think of are:

Im Wasser treiben translated as to float

Sport treiben translated as to do sports

Etwas voran treiben translated as to push something forward (e. g. a project)

Eine Herde (voran) treiben translated by leo.org as to drive

So, all in all, there is no main meaning for treiben, it depends on the context.


treiben means 'to do' in the context of whatever verb is used in the sentence.

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