According to Duden online the suggested spelling of the verb is kennenlernen.

Why is it written as composite and not as separate words like every other combination of verbs with lernen?

lesen lernen, schwimmen lernen

Is there a general concept for compound words that explains why they are not written as single words?

3 Answers 3


My sprachgefühl (feel for the language) tells me that it makes sense: In the case of lesen lernen and schwimmen lernen you learn to read and to swin. If you say kennenlernen, then you don't learn to know. You can also say

Ich lerne das Lesen; ich lerne das Schwimmen

but you can't say

*Ich lerne das Kennen.

Thus, kennenlernen carries a meaning that is not just the plain combination of kennen and lernen. For this reason, I'd always write it as a compound word.

Another example is sitzenbleiben (for repeating a class at school) versus sitzen bleiben (e.g. for continuing to sit on a chair).

  • This makes a lot of sense. Do you know other examples like kennenlernen?
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 7:41
  • @Tim: See my edit. I can't think of more examples at the moment. Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 7:56
  • 1
    Rule 55 of the Duden also mentions that repeating a class can be both sitzen bleiben and sitzenbleiben because the term doesn't have literal but figurative meaning.
    – musiKk
    Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 8:52
  • 1
    For the same reason that most people would prefer »kennenlernen« [citation needed], »sitzenbleiben« would be preferred if it means “to repeat a schoolyear”, and »sitzen bleiben« if it means “to remain seated”. But I admit that it should be clear from context in most cases which meaning is intended. Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 7:20

The Duden says in its rules of separate and compound spelling that it isn't always unambiguous how to write words:

Die Unterscheidung von getrennt geschriebenen Wortgruppen und zusammengeschriebenen Zusammensetzungen ist nicht immer eindeutig möglich. Wo die nachstehenden Hinweise und das amtliche Regelwerk keine Klarheit schaffen, sollte sowohl Getrenntschreibung als auch Zusammenschreibung toleriert werden.

In fact rule 55 explicitly mentions that kennenlernen can be spelled both separate and compound:

Bei der Verbindung aus „kennen" und „lernen" ist sowohl die Getrennt- als auch die Zusammenschreibung möglich.

I think its arbitrary that the entry for kennenlernen recommends compound spelling.

  • 4
    I'm not convinced that it's arbitrary. maybe "kennen" isn't something like "lesen" or "schwimmen". Learning to "know" something isn't the same as learning to write or to swim.
    – splattne
    Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 7:33
  • Maybe. Still it is a bit too strong to imply that "it is written compound and not as separate words" when both spellings are proper.
    – musiKk
    Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 8:24
  • Sure, I was just wondering; it's just a guess. There must be a reason why it's not lesenlernen or schwimmenlernen, don't you think these are very different expressions?
    – splattne
    Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 8:30
  • 2
    Of course. In a way they are. Kennenlernen cannot be without an object ("Ich lerne kennen."?), lesen lernen, schwimmen lernen can ("Ich lerne schwimmen.") (isn't there a term for that kind of verb?). Maybe this could be an indicator.
    – musiKk
    Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 8:53
  • I think it's important to note that the spelling rules don't always make sense for the history of specific words. I very much agree with the first answer, "kennenlernen" (in its meaning) is completely different from constructions like "schwimmen lernen". But they had to come to a rule on how to spell these constructions and went with it. I think it is just one of these "that's the rules and we abide by them" cases. Commented Aug 19, 2011 at 1:52

I think it might have to do with the order of events. That is, when you get acquainted with someone (kennen), you learn who s/he is. Therefore, "lernen" is the result of "kennen," so you put kennen in front, and make a compound word.

Whereas when man lernt zu lesen oder zu schwimmen, one learns first, and reads or swims, second. Lernen is the cause, and the other is the result, so you use separate words.

  • Re you edit: it should read "um kennenzulernen" and "um lesen zu lernen". Commented Aug 19, 2011 at 6:23
  • @Hendrik Vogt: That's a bad example, so I deleted it. But my interpretation remains. To take off on your answer, one "knows in order to learn" (get acquainted) rather than "learning to know."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 19, 2011 at 21:14

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