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Are aufwischen and abwischen synonymous, or do they have distinct uses? Duden says: abwischen: durch Wischen entfernen, and aufwischen: wischend entfernen. If there is a distinction here, I do not understand it.

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The object that goes with "aufwischen" is the substance that gets removed. "Abwischen" usually targets the object that is being cleaned. So if there is say milk spilled on a table, one could either talk about "die Milch aufwischen" or "den Tisch abwischen", both referring to the act of cleaning the table of the spilled milk.

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    You already alluded to it by using "usually", but it may be helpful to note explicitly that "abwischen" can be used both ways, so to speak. If for example some juice was spilled on the table, you can say "Ich wischen den Tisch ab" as well as "Ich wische den Saft vom Tisch ab". The English equivalents would be "to wipe down (the table)" and "to wipe off (the juice from the table)", respectively. Mar 16, 2023 at 19:25
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The prefix auf signals a direction, so for example something spilled (which trickled downwards before, to complement the picture). Ab also signals a direction, unfortunately it is not exactly downward, but may also be towards any side, as e.g. something written to a whiteboard, sweat from the forehead, dirt from a car.

I recommend looking at the Typische Verbindungen section of the relevant DWDS article or Wortprofil for more examples.

In total, I can't find an example, where both verbs could be used, so no, they are no synonyms.

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  • Sorry, but I do not understand what you are saying. Are you saying that, if aufwischen can be used, because the wiping is being done horizontally, then it must be used. And only if the surface is not horizontal that abwischen is then used? Why can one not substitute for the other?
    – user44591
    Mar 16, 2023 at 15:46
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    aufwischen targets the (spilled) liquid. This tends to be more. While abwischen targets the item being cleaned. Not too much liquid or dust can cling on non-horizontal surfaces. Mar 16, 2023 at 16:10
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    I'd say the ab in abwischen does not signal a downwards direction (as in abwärts) but the direction "away" from the object (as in abgehen, abnehmen, abrücken, abheben). Mar 16, 2023 at 21:49
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    Ja, meist kann man beides benutzen, aber je nach dem ob und welches Objekt man in den Fokus rücken will, wischt man den Kaffeeklecks auf oder den Tisch ab. Im seltenen Fall, dass man an der Flüssigkeit interessiert ist, vielleicht Goldkrümel enthaltenden Abschliff in einem Zahnlabor müsste man "aufwischen" benutzen. Mar 17, 2023 at 0:09
  • The German prefix ab- translates to English off most of the times. I guess they are even cognate.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Mar 20, 2023 at 13:49
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In addition to the differeces between surface and substance highlighted in the other answers, there is another (regionally used) construction: aufwischen can be used without the object, to designate the activity of "mopping up", i.e., wet-cleaning a floor:

Ich muss heute noch aufwischen.

And you even can "add back" the object, but this time it designates the place that is mopped:

Ich muss heute noch die Küche aufwischen.

On the other hand, you can never use abwischen without an object.

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    I think that's a regionalism, I've only ever heard aufwaschen or aufwischen (in your use case, not the spilled milk one) in Baden-Württemberg. Mar 17, 2023 at 19:50

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