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Many dictionaries translate Ehrgeiz as Ambition, but I have heard about it in some conversations in a negative way, and I was wondering if there are any special connotation that I should be aware of, as I do not think of Ambition as a negative thing.

Are there any subtle differences between these 2 terms? Or are they complete synonyms?

  • 2
    Being ambitious is not necessarily a good thing in German - but I assume that is more of a cultural difference. .. – Gerhard Mar 20 '16 at 1:16
  • If you want something with positive connotations, there are options like Mühe/mühsam, but they are not literal translations of ambition. (There is also Ambition by the way.) – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 20 '16 at 7:17
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I'm a native speaker as well. As far as I know and often hear there is a little difference.

Ambition

In my region (north and middle of Germany), it's normally used in a positive way. When you want something and it is reachable. Or if you want to explain plans. Another possibility is to use it to explain that you are something a bit more serious than other people.

Examples:

  1. Ich habe die Ambition mein Abitur zu machen.
  2. Ich bin ein ambitionierter Geigenspieler.

For the first example Ehrgeiz is also common. The meaning is then absolutely positiv and more or less the same.

Ehrgeiz

It is used with positive and negative meaning. Normally, it's a bit stronger than Ambition.

Examples:

  1. Ich bin viel zu ehrgeizig. (Negative)
  2. Ich bin ein ehrgeiziger Student. (Both)

For (1) it means that you nearly do everything for your work (for example) and nearly nothing else. (2) can be positive or negative. Negative if you mean you are selfish in studying etc.

  • I guess then it is an intensitiy issue, between the 2 words. Thanks. – Enrique Moreno Tent Mar 21 '16 at 9:25
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For starters, Ambition is mostly used in the plural (Ambitionen) whereas Ehrgeiz, like most abstract concepts, is a singular-only noun.

Er ist ambitioniert. Sie hat Ambitionen. Ich habe keinerlei Ambition(en).
Er ist ehrgeizig. Sie hat Ehrgeiz. Ich habe keinerlei Ehrgeiz.

These adjectives and nouns are near synonymous. The subtle differene between the two in my understanding is that you can have Ambitionen without showing Ehrgeiz, because the former is more about the potential goal and the latter more about the actual path there. This lack of evidence is why Ambition can have negative connotations. Ehrgeiz can be used in a negative way, too, e.g. if it’s connected to competiveness that harms oneself and others, but it’s usually phrased as übertriebener or falscher Ehrgeiz then.

  • What i meant in my question is that Ehrgeiz was used with negative connotations, not Ambition – Enrique Moreno Tent Mar 20 '16 at 9:07
  • I disagree with your explanation of the difference. Of course you can have Ambition (or Ehrgeiz) without showing it (Ehrgeiz or Ambition), but you can not have Ambition without having Ehrgeiz. If to have Ambitionen is used in a context where the goal is known, the goal may be left out like you did in the example. But that doesn't mean the term Ambition(en) is more about the goal. If you add the goal to the example, you can have Ambitionen (to become president) without showing Ehrgeiz and you can have Ehrgeiz (to become president) without showing Ambitionen, too. Both are exchangeable. – Awita Mar 20 '16 at 17:28
  • @Awita It’s a small difference and I didn’t back it up with references, so it’s certainly expected that some people will disagree. For me having Ambitionen to become president means having the chance and the desire, whereas having Ehrgeiz emphasizes working hard to get there. – Crissov Mar 20 '16 at 20:38
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They are synonyms (at least as a native speaker I can think of no difference).

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