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There may be other verbs that might also mean to continue. Whenever I practice my writing, I find these very confusing.
What are the difference between these verbs? I initially thought that they are rather interchangeable but it seems not be the case.

  • It's not like the English word continue is out there all alone. You can carry on, move on, proceed, keep to, pursue, … Having multiple words meaning very similar things is a feature in probably every language. – Jan Mar 25 '15 at 22:45
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Those verbs differ in use and connotation, and some in meaning, too.

To begin with, fortfahren , weitermachen, and weitergehen are intransitive verbs. Fortsetzen and fortführen are transitive.

All those expressions can have both the meaning of a task, process etc. resuming after a break or going on without interruption, depending on the context.

Fortfahren and weitermachen indicate that a person or group is keeping up something, carrying on with a task, etc., and you have to add mit ... to include the task itself.

Use Fortfahren (to proceed) in a more elevated context, weitermachen (to carry on), on the other hand, on a more casual or colloquial level or as part of a journalistic jargon. Furthermore, to my experience, weitermachen is more often used for resuming a task after an interruption:

Fahren Sie bitte mit Ihren Ausführungen fort.

Sie fuhr fort, mir mit gerichtlichen Verfügungen das Leben schwer zu machen.

Mach weiter mit der Reparatur, wo ich gestern aufgehört habe.

Die Regierung macht einfach weiter, ohne an Reformen auch nur zu denken.

Weitermachen! (used to be, at least in the Austrian military, the German expression for the English "as you were!")

Weitergehen indicates the process itself going on, often after an interruption or some kind of break:

Nach dem Stromausfall ging das Fest ungestört weiter.

Fortsetzen and fortführen mean "a person/ a group etc. continue doing sth.", but again, "fortführen" is on a higher level and/or usually indicates a larger scale than fortsetzen:

Sie setzten ihre Angriffe bis zum Morgengrauen fort.

Er setzte seine Reise am nächsten Tag fort.

but:

Das Unternehmen wurde auch nach dem Ausscheiden des Gründers mit Erfolg fortgeführt.

Die Familie führte diese Tradition noch lange fort.

(Fortfahren of course has also the meaning to go/drive away, weitergehen also means to move on, with fortführen you can also say "to lead away".)

  • hmm... I get weitergehen but still quite unsure about the distinction between fortsetzen / fortführen group and fortfahren / weitermachen group. – Josh Mar 26 '15 at 5:11
  • I think it would be good if you have said that fortfahren is transitive while fortsetzen is intransitive. – Josh Mar 26 '15 at 5:14
  • Anyway all answers were excellent but I think this encompasses everything that I want to know about these verbs. – Josh Mar 26 '15 at 5:20
  • @Josh As to the distinction between transitive and intransitive, I actually mentioned that in the second line of my answer. I have tried to find rough guidelines how to make the best choice among fortsetzen / fortführen and fortfahren / weitermachen in the given context, but of course there always are situations where you would balance between both. Best thing to do in my view is to monitor as many examples as possible. – Martin Schwehla Mar 26 '15 at 7:14
  • oh sorry I did not notice that :) thank you you did a great job on this – Josh Mar 26 '15 at 12:06
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They're confusing because they encode differences that you, as an English speaker who uses the verb "continue", doesn't make.

In your experience, a performance may continue, or the audience may continue clapping, but those are really two different syntactic constructions. "weitergehen" corresponds to the first construction, the other to the second one. There's your first source of trouble.

Among the others, "fortsetzen" takes a noun complement. This corresponds to "I continued my career at BogusCorp". "fortfahren" usually takes "mit":

Wir fahren mit Tagesordnungspunkt 2 fort.

which corresponds to "We'll continue with agenda item no. 2." "weitermachen" does the same, but can also be used without any complement, corresponding to "Let's continue".

"fortführen", again, takes a noun complement, usually one denoting an activity or occupation:

Nachdem der Weltuntergang abgewendet ist, können wir nun unsere Geschäfte fortführen.

Comparing this, you begin to see how versatile "continue" really is.

(However, note that all of these German verbs also have additional, non-metaphorical senses that have little or nothing to do with continuing anything. Closely related languages usually have similar complexity in such things, it just manifests in different specific places.)

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They are all very close in meaning and the most appropriate use is usually driven by context rather than meaning.

Fortfahren (literally forth-driving) is usually in reference to a process or procedure such as a speech or work process: "Kann ich jetzt bitte mit meiner Rede fortfahren?";

Fortsetzen (literally forth-setting or set forth) can refer to a process but more commonly is used in reference to a movement or journey: "Wollen wir die Reise jetzt endlich fortsetzen?";

Weitermachen (literally further-making) is best used when prompting or referring to someone else to continue a process they previously interrupted: "Mach deine Hausaufgaben weiter!"

Weitergehen (literally further-walking) indicates that an interruption has taken place or may be about to take place but the previous activity should be resumed: "Bitte weitergehen, hier gibt es nichts zu sehen!"

Fortführen (literally forth-leading or lead forth) can mean to continue but also to lead someone or something away: "Sie führt die Kinder fort von hier"

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There's indeed no difference between those words. The all mean to continue something you've already started.
The only 'difference' is simply a matter of being idiomatic in a certain context. And perhaps a question of register. I suspect that weitermachen is used most often in colloquial.

A few notes on some words:

Note that weitergehen is usually used like this:

(Und) weiter geht's.

Other than that, it's not used (much) in this sense I guess. It is used, however, for continue walking:

Komm! Lasst uns weitergehen.

And it is used if a road or street continues:

Die Straße geht noch 15 km weiter.

Or if a story is not finished yet:

Die Geschichte geht noch weiter.

And so on and so forth.

Fortfahren can also refer to drive away or to transport someone somewhere else. But you won't confuse it:

Wir fuhren mit dem Auto fort. (->to drive away)
Wir fuhren die Gefangenen fort. (->to transport someone)
Wir fuhren mit dem Projekt fort. (->to continue)

Fortführen does also cover the second use case of fortfahren, but while fortfahren connotes that you drive, fortführen doesn't add any hints in that respect.

Wir führten die Gefangenen fort. (->to lead away)
Wir führten das Projekt fort. (->to continue)

Weitermachen and fortsetzen do not have any further meanings.

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