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I'm using it in a computer program field that allows a description for many items. Do I give these input controls a label Umschreibung: or Beschreibung:?

The 'best answer' in the Yahoo discussion Was ist der Unterschied zwischen "umschreiben" und "beschreiben"? leaves me with the question: do I follow 1b or 2b?:

  1. "umschreiben" hat schon zwei Bedeutungen, a) Ich habe einen Text geschrieben, und der gefällt meinem Chef nicht (wenn ich z.B. Journalist bin), dann muss ich den Text umschreiben, sprachlich anders formulieren. Und b) Ich will die Dinge NICHT beim Namen nennen, deswegen umschreibe ich sie.
  2. "beschreiben" hat auch zwei Bedeutungen a) Ich beschreibe ein Blatt Papier mit Buchstaben (natürlich besser: ich schreibe auf ein Blatt Papier.) b) es präzisiert: Ich beschreibe eine Person, einen Vorfall, ein Bild, einen Gegenstand etc. Hier kommt es Genauigkeit an.

The German.SE question Verbs that are both separable and inseparable touches on the different pronunciations (stress on the prefix or not) of umschreiben related to its meaning:

umschreiben (separable) – It’s writing with the purpose of changing something (um signifies some sort of change here)
umschreiben (inseparable) – Very similar to the always inseparable beschreiben: The action is in the focus, and um qualifies it as going around (compare with to circumscribe) looking from different angles to get the picture.

In my case that would be the umschreiben version, but since it says very similar to it does not bring me further.

Note: I'm translating from Dutch which also has a 'beschrijven' and 'omschrijven', which are very close but seem similar to the 'best answer' in the Yahoo discussion.

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The words are indeed closely linked, but I'd say the difference is the purpose for which they are used.

When you use beschreiben, you provide more or less detailed information about something. This can go to any level of detail, and can be meant for any purpose. The information could be helpful for identifying the described item, but that would normally imply that you have no explicit way of referring to the item.

When you use umschreiben (the inseparable verb with the stress on the schrei syllable, as you correctly surmised the separable umschreiben has a different meaning, anyway), that implies you are trying to identify something while explicitly avoiding to provide its name. Imaginable contexts include:

  • a game where you must not use certain taboo words
  • a text that must not criticize something or someone explicitly, but is allowed to include thinly veiled criticism

A few further data points:

  • A Beschreibung is not always, but usually rather longer than an Umschreibung.
  • An Umschreibung consists of more than a single word, usually at least a small phrase.
  • Still, an Umschreibung tends to be minimal for its purpose.

Therefore, for a description of items in a software, Beschreibung is almost always the correct choice. The only situation in which Umschreibung might make any sense would be items that also have a name, which sometimes needs to be replaced with a short text, with the explicit purpose of not showing the item's name.

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A description is translated as Beschreibung. It's the account of something that has happened or of what something is like.

Use beschreiben when you describe something.

Richter: Beschreiben sie den Tathergang.

Use umschreiben when you change the wording. Either to make things simpler or to avoid saying it in a certain way (e.g. because it could be misunderstood or you are ashamed of something and don't want to give too much details).

Richter: Ich konnte den genauen Tathergang noch nicht nachvollziehen. Können sie das nochmal umschreiben[=anders beschreiben]?


This example is intended to show the contrast in meaning. However, you wouldn't really use umschreiben in that example. Umformulieren(=reword) is the better choice.

  • You are using the separable verb umschreiben, although the OP already recognized that if anything, they may need the inseparable verb umschreiben. – O. R. Mapper Sep 23 '16 at 3:22
  • @O.R.Mapper Well, no. Only the addendum about changing a written text mentions the separable verb. But the answer itself (so the part before the horizontal line) is about the inseparable verb. You can't say "Schreib den Sachverhalt um." but you say "Umschreibe den Sachverhalt.". I'll go ahead and remove the addendum, though, in order to not confuse you or anyone else. – Em1 Sep 23 '16 at 7:27
  • But would you say, in the example above the horizontal line: "Umschreiben Sie Ihre Aussage."? In that example, "Schreiben Sie Ihre Aussage um." (i.e. using the separable verb) would sound more fitting to me, but maybe it's an ambiguous case where both options are valid. – O. R. Mapper Sep 23 '16 at 12:02
  • @O.R.Mapper Oh, you are thinking of a written statement? I didn't intend to refer to that. I was thinking of a oral statement, and in that case the separable verb can't be used whatsoever. I just changed the example a bit. – Em1 Sep 23 '16 at 12:09
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Umschreiben and beschreiben can both be loosely translated as "writing around." In that respect, they are somewhat "similar. But their contexts are rather different.

Beschreiben means to "write around" (about, actually), the underlying content. The usual English translation is "to describe."

Umschreiben means to "write around" in the sense of "cutting and pasting" individual words.

The word you want is beschreiben, because you are describing various aspects of the computer program, rather than "rewriting" it, in the "cut and paste" sense.

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