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Could someone explain a practical difference between brechen and zerbrechen?

The meaning for both is “to break”. But talking to a German friend, apparently they cannot be used in the same context. He gave me two examples where these verbs are correct:

  • Ich breche das Glas in Stücke.
  • Ich zerbreche das Glas.

It gave me the impression that difference is that we use brechen when we provide a description of how something is broken. Is that right? Is there any grammar that explains it?

6

I guess there’s little to no difference between brechen and zerbrechen. Well, at least to those shared meanings; brechen is much broader in sense.

It’s worth looking at the meaning of the prefix zer-.

It means auseinander, kaputt, that is apart and broken, respectively.

Look at the examples in the link above. Beißen means to bite, zerbeißen means “to bite something to bits”; to crunch and to chew are possible translations.

Now when it comes to the combination of zer- + brechen, the thing is that brechen already means to break apart. There’s not much to add.

If a glass drops down to the floor, you can basically say both:

Das Glas brach (in Stücke).
Das Glas zerbrach (in Stücke).

Note, however, that zerbrach is somewhat more idiomatic in this context. Same is especially true when you deliberately dropped the glass.

Ich brach das Glas.
Ich zerbrach das Glas.

Brechen sounds odd in the context of “intentionally dropping the glass in order to break it”. But in another context the sentence is perfectly fine.

Really, it much depends on context. If I’m very angry, I’d use zerbrechen. Another example:

Aus Wut zerbrach ich den Stock.

But if I use the stick for something (e.g. a fire), I’d rather go with brechen:

Brich den Stock in Stücke und schmeiß ihn ins Feuer.

I doubt there’s really a rule of thumb which helps figuring out when to use which one. Probably you need to develop some language feel for that. But I guess the two examples I just gave (anger and purpose) are a good point to start with.
Actually I think another difference is in how careful I break the glass. If I try to cut the glass into regular pieces, brechen might be a bit more idiomatic. Though, “Zerbrich es in gleich große Stücke” is not wrong either.
And also the opposite is not a real indicator for using one over the other. If I don’t care to how many pieces the glass breaks, I might go with zerbrechen, and again “Das Glas brach in tausend Stücke” is equally fine.
I’m mentioning this because I feel I see a slight tendency towards brechen when doing with care.

About your examples, they both sound quite good. The first one (“Ich breche das Glas in Stücke”) suggests that I break it into pieces for doing something with it.
The second one (“Ich zerbreche das Glas”), on the other hand, doesn’t imply a meaningful purpose. Anger might be the reason, but not necessarily. Maybe I’m just bored.

  • 2
    That's exactly the kind of answer I was expecting. The context you provided seems to be a very reliable one, as there is no grammar to base on. Thanks very much. – Dumb admin Oct 8 '15 at 10:57
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    "Das Glas zerbrach in Stücke." You wouldn't say that. Its redundant and sounds odd. You either say "Das Glas brach in Stücke" or "Das Glas zerbrach". "Das Glas brach" does not mean that it broke apart and is in pieces, it means that it has a crack, but till largely one piece. Thats the difference to "zerbrach". – Polygnome Jan 21 '17 at 14:58
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Ich denke es gibt einen Unterschied, auch wenn die Bedeutungen in der Alltagssprache sehr, sehr ähnlich sein mögen.

  • das Brot brechen – das Brot teilen, nah an zerbrechen
  • das Fasten brechen – das Fasten abbrechen oder unterbrechen
  • eine Rose brechen – eine Rose pflücken
  • mit seinem Partner brechen – sich von seinem Partner trennen

In all den genannten Fällen kann nicht ersatzweise zerbrechen benutzt werden.

6

Verbs have prefixes to specify the action (although this might not always be evident). The prefix zer- refers to the outcome. As Em1 has pointed out, it generally means auseinander (usually more than two pieces) and kaputt (broken beyond further use or outright destroyed).

So the general difference is quite simply this:

brechen (intransitive): something breaks, when not flexible enough to resist the exerted pressure. brechen (transitive): something or somebody exerts pressure and thus breaks something not flexible enough to resist the pressure.
zerbrechen (transitive and intransitive): brechen beyond repair (fact or impression), usually but not necessarily in many pieces, always in a way that the thing cannot fulfill its function anymore.

Example:
“Oh, entschuldige bitte! Ich habe deine (Ton)Vase zerbrochen!” „Das macht nichts. Sie ist nur in drei Teile gebrochen, ich kann sie kleben. Undicht war sie schon vorher.“

For those who wish for a more detailed explanation, here it is:

Use "brechen":
1. if you intend to put at least one of the remaining pieces to further use:

Ich breche das bunte Glas in kleine Stücke (, um daraus ein Mosaik zu machen).
Ich breche den Zweig (, um mit den Stücken ein Bild zu legen).
Ich breche Brot (, um ein Stück davon zu essen / , um es mit euch zu teilen).
Ich habe eine Blume gebrochen (und sie in eine Vase gestellt).

  1. when talking about a part of a machine, an apparatus or an organism:

Die Achse droht zu brechen. The axle is on the verge of breaking.
Das Rad ist gebrochen (Kutsche). The wheel has broken. Viele Äste brachen unter der Schneelast.
Die Metallfeder kann leicht brechen. The spring can break easily.
Er hat sich das Bein gebrochen. He broke his leg.

  1. "Brechen" is also used in some figures of speech:

jemandem das Herz brechen
jemandes Willen brechen
ein Versprechen brechen
sein Wort brechen
das Schweigen brechen
einen Bann brechen
über jemanden den Stab brechen - condemn someone
einen Fluch brechen
das Eis brechen
für jemanden eine Lanze brechen - take up the cudgels for someone
mit einem anderen Menschen brechen - end a relationship with somebody completely

Use "zerbrechen" if at least the functional capability of something is destroyed (two remaining pieces might do the thing) - the transitive present tense or future tense always indicates the intention to destroy.

der Zauberstab ist zerbrochen - the wizard’s wand has/is broken
ich zerbreche das Glas
Am Selbstmord des Sohnes ist die Familie zerbrochen.
Der Vater ist am Selbstmord seines Sohnes zerbrochen. - His son’s suicide broke the father.
(But: Er ist ein gebrochener Mann)

Expressions:
Sich (über etwas) den Kopf zerbrechen - think so intensely (and unfruitfully) that it gives headaches
Porzellan zerbrechen - do or say something that damages a relationship slightly but permanently

Synonymous use:
If your intention is to break something in pieces just to make it shorter or smaller, you can use brechen as well as zerbrechen. In the first case you would indeed have to add in (kleine) Stücke.

Ich zerbreche den Zweig (und werfe die Stücke ins Feuer) Ich breche den Zweig in Stücke (und werfe sie ins Feuer)

Meine Großmutter hat Spaghetti vor dem Kochen immer zerbrochen (, damit sie leichter zu essen waren)
Meine Großmutter hat Spaghetti vor dem Kochen immer in Stücke gebrochen (…)

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Zerbrechen impliziert gleich, dass ein bestimmter Gegenstand in Stücke gebrochen wird. Zerbrechen würde ich mit "in Stücke brechen" gleich setzen.

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    Servus und willkommen beim Stackexchange der deutschen Sprache. Wenn du möchtest, kannst du eine tour der Seite nehmen. Wie sie funktioniert, erfährst du im help center. Ich sehe an dieser Antwort nichts, was nicht in Em1’s Antwort steht; als solche könnte sie als Duplikat gelten und ggf. entfernt werden. Wir legen hier Wert auf ausführliche, gute und neue Antworten. Ansonsten freue ich mich auf deine weiteren Beiträge ;) – Jan Oct 8 '15 at 17:31
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"Brechen" means somethings breaks in a general sense. For example breaking the law "zerbrechen" describes the active action of breaking something, at least most of the time. For example breaking a piece of glass.

  • »Brich das Glas entzwei!«? – Jan Jan 21 '17 at 19:14
  • '"Brechen" means somethings breaks in a general sense.' Can be anything you want, as I said. – Narwaro Jan 21 '17 at 21:31

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