“Das Gleiche” Is Not Always “Dasselbe” – What Do the Germans Mean by That?

There is such a nice saying in German: “Wenn zwei das Gleiche tun, ist es noch lange nicht dasselbe.” Find out what it’s all about and how you can handle it with a very simple “Eselsbrücke “.

What does “gleich” mean?

You go to the store and buy a T-shirt. The next day, you meet your best friend wearing a T-shirt that looks exactly like yours. After you have clarified that the brand is identical, you can say, “Wir haben das gleiche T-Shirt.”

Two things that look the same or are identical are “gleich”.

They can also be recurring situations that you want to describe as the same. Then you say, “Das ist ja das Gleiche wie letztes Mal.”

Remember the equation

x = y when x = 1 and y = 1

What does “dasselbe” mean?

Today you wear a blue T-shirt. Tomorrow you put on a blue T-shirt again. It could be that you have the same T-shirt twice or you are wearing the same T-shirt you wore the previous day.
In case you wore the T-shirt twice, you can say: “Ich trage heute dasselbe T-Shirt wie gestern.”

“Dasselbe” always refers to one thing. There is no second of it.

The nice bartender from last weekend welcomes you again. That is not “der gleiche Barkeeper” but derselbe. He/she is only one person.

Again, to use an illustrative example from mathematics, let’s think of a simple coordinate system with a quadrant:
The point (x / y) and the point (a / b) are the same point when x = a and y = b.

They are on top of each other. This point exists only once.

The points would be equal in value, although two different points are described, if we imagine a quadrilateral coordinate-cross and the points are:
(x / y) and (-a / -b) where IxI = I-aI and IyI = I-bI

The grammar behind “selbe” und “gleiche”:

Grammatically, “gleich” is an adjective. It describes how something is.

The word “selbe/r” is, strictly speaking, only one part of the word. Because it demands a demonstrative pronoun. “Selbe/r” is then written together with the second demonstrative pronoun:

“Derselbe” – “Es bedient derselbe Barkeeper wie letzte Woche.”
“Dieselbe” – “Es ist dieselbe Krankenschwester wie bei meinem letzten Arztbesuch.”
“Dasselbe” – “Hast Du das gleiche T-Shirt zweimal? Nein, ich habe nur eins. Das hier ist dasselbe wie gestern.”

If something is the same, use “derselbe/dieselbe/dasselbe”.
If something exists in an identical shape/way multiple times, use “das gleiche”.

An “Eselsbrücke” for you:

The saying from the beginning now makes sense: “Wenn zwei Individuen das Gleiche tun, beispielsweise diäten, ist es noch lange nicht dasselbe.” They do not both do it the same way.

Wenn ihr mit einem Kumpel Deutsch lernt, tut ihr zwar das Gleiche, aber es ist nicht dasselbe. Jeder von euch lernt anders.

Incidentally, the phrase is actually used to indicate that consequences are not always measured by scale. If two siblings come home too late, they will both face different penalties.

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