It’s bad, but is it schlimm or schlecht?

When you want to write in German that something is bad, do you use schlimm or schlecht?

I think I can hear your answer:”I checked my dictionary and both words mean bad, so I can use either, right?”

Sadly no. There are differences.

‘Schlecht’ is something that can also be good. So, people, programmes, suggestions … can be good or bad.
‘Schlimm’ is something that cannot be good, but only bad or worse.

So, you can say ‘mir ist schlecht’ when you feel ill, but not ‘mir ist schlimm’. But if you’re not getting better, you can say ‘es wird immer schlimmer’.
Or: Die Suppe ist schlecht. Dein Kochen ist schlimm. You could not say ‘die Suppe ist schlimm’, but as the other person’s cooking could be good as well, you could, in this case also use ‘schlecht’.

Something that can only be negative would be an accident. In English we might say ‘That was a bad accident’ emphasising that the accident (which in itself is a bad thing) was really bad. In German, however, we cannot say ‘Das war ein schlechter Unfall’. That would assume that there could be good accidents as well.

Der Kaffee schmeckt schlecht. That sentence is fine as usually the coffee tastes good, but on this occasion it doesn’t.

If somebody was a bad liar, would he be ‘ein schlechter Lügner’ or ‘ein schlimmer Lügner’?
That depends!

Ein schlechter Lügner means that that person is bad at lying and you would probably find out pretty quickly.
Ein schlimmer Lügner is somebody who is good at it, because you didn’t find out he was lying.

In a nutshell:
Schlecht refers to a negative quality of an object.
Schlimm refers to a negative situation or deed.

That was the easy explanation, but – as German learners you probably know what comes next – there are exceptions. 😉

Ich kann morgen nicht unterrichten. If the students aren’t bothered that I can’t teach tomorrow, they might say ‘das ist nicht schlimm’ meaning ‘don’t worry, we don’t mind’. If they wanted the lesson, they could say ‘das ist schlecht’ because it’s bad for them. They could even say ‘das ist schlimm’ because it’s really bad for them (maybe the lesson would be the last one before an exam). If, however, they would say ‘das ist nicht schlecht’ then they are quite happy that I can’t teach tomorrow and they most likely wouldn’t say it to my face but behind my back. 😄

Imagine you went to this woman’s presentation and it was bad. You could say ‘Ihre Präsentation war schlecht’. But you could also say ‘Ihre Präsentation war schlimm.’ Both sentences mean something slightly different.

‘Ihre Präsentation war schlecht’ is talking about HOW she spoke. It was a good topic but the way she presented it made it really hard for you to carry on listening.

‘Ihre Präsentation war schlimm’ means WHAT she talked about was complete rubbish.

I’ll leave you with some phrases/ idioms worth knowing:

  • Halb so schlimm – could be worse
  • Ist nicht schlimm! – No problem!
  • Es ist nicht so schlimm. – Worse things happen at sea!
  • Das ist wirklich schlimm! – How awful!
  • Es hat mich schlimm erwischt! – I got it bad!
  • Nicht schlecht! – Not bad!
  • Das ist gar nicht so schlecht! – That’s not all that bad!
  • So schlecht kann es doch gar nicht sein. – Things can’t be that bad.

Schlimm, was? Oder doch nicht so schlecht?
Bad, huh? Or not so bad after all?

What do you think?

Do you need help reaching your goal of German fluency? I can help you. Message me

Pin it now, read it later!

Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.