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While conversing with 2 native German speakers I said:

Anna beklagt sich über großen Schmerz im Mund.

and they corrected me to:

Anna beklagt sich über große Schmerzen im Mund.

While investigating the usage of Schmerz(en) in references, there did not appear to any correspondence between English and German as to when to use the singular and when the plural. In Reverso I find these, for example:

  • ihre Schmerzen
    her pain
  • chronische Schmerzen
    chronic pain
  • dumpfer Schmerz
    ache
  • stechender Schmerz
    stabbing pain
  • sie schrie vor Schmerzen
    she cried out in pain
  • Schmerzen haben
    to be in pain

I am at a loss to know when to use each. Any advice?

3 Answers 3

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You already gave yourself the answer to your question: In German you normally use the noun »Schmerzen« in plural. You can use it in singular too if you want, so your sentence is not wrong. But it's unusual.

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"Schmerz" as singular is used for a single event, regarding time and/or location:

Er fühlte einen stechenden Schmerz, als ihn das Messer traf.

"Schmerzen" in plural is used when the pain occurs over a range of time and/or a region of the body:

Sie hat Schmerzen im Mund.

In the latter example, the mouth is seen as a region of the body and not so much as a singular location. Also, the person will probably experience the pain over a period of time (hopefully, a small period, but a period nonetheless) and not only at a specific point on the time scale.

2

In cases of mental pain we usually use the singular.

Der Schmerz, versagt zu haben, nagte drei Wochen an ihr.
(The pain of failure gnawed at her for three weeks.)

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  • 2
    In diesem Fall kann möchte ich auf die Tour zu dieser Site und den entsprechenden Eintrag im Hilfezentrum verweisen: "If you are not comfortable with the idea of your contributions being collaboratively edited by other trusted users, this may not be the site for you." Nov 14, 2021 at 16:58
  • @HenningKockerbeck: Die Anforderungen »clear, relevant, and up-to-date« sind in meiner Antwort schon erfüllt.
    – Pollitzer
    Nov 14, 2021 at 20:17
  • 1
    Ich halte die Formulierung "mental pain" nach wie vor für mindestens missverständlich. Was Du vermutlich meinst, ist eher "emotional pain". Nov 14, 2021 at 21:06
  • 1
    @HenningKockerbeck: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_pain
    – Pollitzer
    Nov 15, 2021 at 6:58
  • Interessant. Das ist mir im Sprachgebrauch noch nie so begegnet, da hätte ich "mental pain" eher mit "mental illness" in Verbindung gebracht als mit dem emotionalen Schmerz wie in Deinem Beispiel. Wieder etwas gelernt, danke. Nov 15, 2021 at 9:22

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