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Those two words anschauen and ansehen both mean to look at and are synonyms in English but what's the difference? Are there cases where only one would be used?

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    There's not really a difference. – πάντα ῥεῖ Dec 12 '18 at 14:07
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    As a verb, there is hardly a difference (see answers). But the noun Ansehen (Reputation) has no Anschauen as equivalent. This is very likely related to the verb ansehen in the sentence with Einstein in the accepted answer (i.e. angesehen sein als = have a reputation as or to be considered to be). – Rudy Velthuis Dec 12 '18 at 22:25
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There is almost no difference in meaning. According to Duden Online, anschauen is used mostly in the southern part of Germany (Bavarian, Alemannic) and in Austria, Switzerland, or in literature, with the meaning of ansehen. Ansehen is more standard, and used in all types of media. Same for schauen, which is used in those regions for sehen sometimes.

Only exception I can think of so far: "Albert Einstein wird als der größte Physiker des 20. Jahrhunderts angesehen." (= considered to be...). With this meaning, one can not use anschauen .

Please hold in mind that the adjectives anschaulich (concrete, clear) and ansehnlich (good-looking, considerable) hold very different meanings.

Also, if you search in this StackExchange, you can find related posts like this Etwas anschauen vs. ansehen = to look at?

  • Yes, I would almost perceive that as a duplicate target. – Jan Dec 12 '18 at 16:07
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    Good observation about anschaulich vs. ansehnlich! Compare also beschaulich and ersichtlich. – Christian Geiselmann Dec 12 '18 at 18:53
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    And where in the south people use "anschauen" for "to watch (on TV)" in the north we would rather say "angucken". – Volker Landgraf Dec 13 '18 at 15:07
  • "In all types of media" (in Bildern, Stummfilmen?) oder "for all types of media" wie Radio, Zeitung? – user unknown Dec 15 '18 at 23:42
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Apart from regionally different usage, there's one difference between ansehen and anschauen that has not been mentioned yet.

Ansehen can also have the meaning of to be visible in a concrete or a figurative sense, thus to be observable (etw. ist wahrnehmbar / erkennbar). Examples:

Sie ist weit über 70, aber man sieht ihr ihr Alter nicht an.

Letztes Jahr ist seine Frau gestorben; man sieht ihm den Kummer an.

Du lügst doch! Das sehe ich dir an der Nasenspitze an!

These sentences could never take anschauen, because anschauen always implies the act of intentionally looking at sth., whereas ansehen can imply an intention, but need not.

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