derselbe vs. der gleiche

Introduction

In German, the words derselbe/dieselbe/dasselbe and der/die/das gleiche are often confused, even native speakers have problems with them. It depends on whether we are really talking about one and the same thing or two things that are very similar.

Anna ist oft in diesem Café. Sie setzt sich gern an ein und denselben Tisch und bestellt sich das gleiche Getränk: eine Eisschokolade.

Die Kellner tragen immer die gleiche Uniform. Dieser Kellner wird morgen aber nicht dieselbe Schürze anlegen können, weil er sie gerade mit Eis befleckt hat.

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Usage

We use the demonstrative pronouns derselbe/dieselbe/dasselbe when we talk about one and the same thing.

Example:
Anna setzt sich gern jeden Tag an denselben Tisch.Anna likes to sit at the same table everyday.

It is always this one table.

We use the adjective (der/die/das) gleiche when we talk about multiple things that are very similar (e. g. look the same).

Example:
Die Kellner tragen die gleiche Uniform.The waiters wear the same uniform.

Every waiter has their own uniform and the uniforms all look the same.

The more abstract the noun is, the harder it is to say if we are talking about one specific thing or multiple things. In this case we can often use derselbe as well as der gleiche.

Example:
Anna bestellt sich immer das gleiche Getränk.Anna always orders the same drink.

Although Anna always orders an iced chocolate, she receives a new one everytime – it is not one and the same drink.

Anna bestellt sich immer dasselbe Getränk.Anna always orders the same drink.

The recipe is always the same therefore Anna orders one and the same drink everytime.

Spelling

Selbe

We normally write the demonstrative pronouns derselbe/dieselbe/dasselbe and their declined forms together as one word.

Example:
Anna sitzt heute wieder in demselben Café wie gestern.Anna is sitting in the same café as yesterday.

In connection with specific prepositions there are two possibilities: we simply put the preposition before the demonstrative pronoun, or we write the preposition and article together as one word, but separate from selbe.

Example:
Anna sitzt heute in demselben/im selben Café wie gestern. Anna is sitting in the same café as yesterday.
Sie wird von demselben/vom selben Kellner wie immer bedient.She will be served by the same waiter as always.

Gleiche

Der/die/das gleiche is always written separately.

As an adjective, gleiche is written in lower case. It refers to a noun that is mostly written after it (or has previously been mentioned).

Example:
Alle Kellner tragen die gleiche Uniform. Kellner A trägt die gleiche wie Kellner B.All the waiters are wearing the same uniform. Waiter A is wearing the same as waiter B.

If there is no noun to which the word gleiche refers, then Gleiche becomes a noun and is written in upper case.

Example:
Alle Kellner tragen das Gleiche.All the waiters wear the same (uniform).