Is there a difference between these two terms? I'm asking especially thinking about the grammatical/language sphere, but if you're aware of other important differences, you can post them.

My dictionary mentions other types of mistakes (legal, human, printing) but not mistakes related to the language sphere: typos, syntax, wrong verb conjugation, etc...

  • 1
    I think machines make errors (der Fehler) but humans make mistakes (der Irrtum). This article might help.
    – user508
    Commented Jan 31, 2012 at 18:07

4 Answers 4


Like user unknown already said, "Irrtümer" are about believing in something which is untrue, "Fehler" means doing things wrong. In everyday life, an Irrtum often leads to a Fehler: If you think your coworker does not need a piece of paper anymore (which is wrong, this would be an Irrtum) and you throw it away, this action would be the wrong thing to do (a Fehler).

Typos are called "Tippfehler"; we call spelling mistakes "Rechtschreibfehler". If a teacher makes corrections to an exam, he/she will mark and count also the number of "Fehler". It does not matter if the "Fehler" are based on an "Irrtum" (e.g. you thinking the river "Rhein" is spelled without the "h"), it is the action of writing the wrong letters which make this a Fehler rather than an "Irrtum".

What about computers, machines and similar items? These can only make "Fehler" (maybe some will argue that artificial intelligences could also have misconceptions, and therefore the term "Irrtum" would be appropriate).

Small defects in materials are called "Materialfehler", deviations in a measurement are "Messfehler".

Jede Messung besitzt/hat einen Messfehler.

A bottle of wine has a corky smell? It has a "Weinfehler". Note the difference in the verb in the last examples, maybe this example helps:

Peter machte einen Fehler: Er vergaß das Messgerät richtig einzustellen. Als Ergebnis hatte die Messung einen großen Messfehler.

  • I think you made a Fehler, you wrote "a artificial intelligence"... :P Great explanation by the way +1... So only typos and spelling mistakes are "lucky" to have a noun all for themselves? What about other grammatical mistakes? This is out of curiosity... If I understood well, I can use Fehler in all cases (related to language)? Is there something to mention about spoken vs written language? Sorry for the tons of questions, I find these differences important and interesting. :D
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jan 31, 2012 at 18:12
  • Nicht jeder Flüchtigkeitsfehler ist ein Tippfehler. Ein Tippfehler ist es, wenn man die falsche Taste getroffen hat, die Taste nidcht richtig getroffen hat, oder eine zusätzlche Taste getroffem hat. Nicht darauf geachtet zu haben, dass artificial ein an erfordert, obwohl man die Regel kennt, und meist richtig befolgt, wäre ein Flüchtigkeitsfehler, kein Tippfehler. Ein Tippfehler ist hier also nicht ausgeschlossen - wahrscheinlicher aber ist es ein Flüchtigkeitsfehler. Commented Jan 31, 2012 at 20:10
  • Tatsächlich ein Flüchtigkeitsfehler, ich bin übrigens keinem böse wenn er sowas editiert, genauso wie bei irgendwelchen zweifelhaften Grammatikkonstruktionen, die ich im Englischen öfters mal produziere.
    – 0x6d64
    Commented Jan 31, 2012 at 22:26
  • @0x6d64 Did you see my comment? :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Feb 1, 2012 at 17:44

Irrtum is always a cognitive mistake. Fehler can be any other mistake too, like moral, or a physical mistake like in sports. Examples below.

Ein Irrtum betrifft immer das Wissen, das Bewusstsein. Fehler können auch andere Gebiete betreffen, wie etwa absichtliche Regelverstöße.

Beispiele für Fehler, die kein Irrtum sind:

  • Rockerpräsident Waldt gab zu, durch Tragen der Kutte des Nachbarclubs einen unverzeihlichen Fehler begangen zu haben.
  • Stürmer Schmitt vom SVE unterlief ein haarsträubender Fehler, insofern er vor dem leeren Tor der roten Teufel ausrutschte.
  • Oberamtsrat Gschaftlhuber musste einräumen, dass sein wiederholtes Parken im Halteverbot ein Fehler ist, auch wenn dort selten jemand behindert wird, denn im Falle eines Brandes sind lebensnotwendige Rettungswege so versperrt.
  • 1
    Could you expand your answer adding examples, differences, etc, and addressing my question?
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jan 31, 2012 at 16:36
  • Yes thanks. Use the blockquote so they're visible (I suggest using it in the German version too). :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jan 31, 2012 at 16:58
  • "einem Irrtum aufliegen" matches cognitive mistake exactly. First thing that came into my mind... A Irrtum happens, the mistake is then the following human wrong action caused by it. Wrong assumption (Irrtum), wrong conclusion (Fehler). "Das war der grösste Irrtum(Politiker sind glaubwürdig)/Fehler(Steffi nicht geheiratet zu haben) meines Lebens" :)
    – Hauser
    Commented Feb 1, 2012 at 1:44

An Irrtum is when you think something is true, but actually it is false.

Irrtum always refers to thoughts, opinions, ideas, beliefs, perceptions,..

The assumption was a mistake. → Irrtum

An Irrtum can happen if

  • you are inattentive
  • you don't have the power of judgment
  • your power of imagination is misleading, mistaken
  • your power of imagination and/or your knowledge is lacking or is deficient

A Fehler is much more general. It encompasses all kind of mistakes:

  • typos
  • wrong settings (machine)
  • security holes (in the end they are errors)
  • wrong decisions (some of them can stem from an Irrtum)

I would say:

A Fehler is the "bad" result of an erroneous, faulty or deficient action. An Irrtum is not a result, but a wrong condition/association in someone's mind. A Fehler can result from an Irrtum, but not necessarily so.


An "Irrtum" is a mis- conception (of belief). A "Fehler" is a mis- deed or "mistake."

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