Differences between att bättra & att förbättra?

I'm doing some memrise courses to expand my vocabulary further, and I've noticed that some verbs can be prefixed with för. The two off the top of my head being att bättra and att förbättra, and att ändra and att förändra.

There exist wiktionary articles for all of these verbs, but the meanings given are nearly identical. Can someone explain what's going on here? Where do I use what? And what other verbs behave like this? Are there verbs like this but use other prepositions, such as the åt in en åtgärd?

A similar disparity exists in the nouns, too, such as en förändring and en ändring, though their differences are easier to understand.

June 10, 2016


This is possibly one of the best and hardest questions I've ever seen on these forums.

I understand that checking wiktionary (which is a truly great resource!) doesn't make things much clearer for a learner in this case. After a little though, I think this is how I perceive it as a native speaker.

Ändring, to me, is more direct and physical. Förändring is more sophisticated and abstract. There is overlap, however, and there might be cases where either works fine but one or the other is preferred because of idiomacy. But I don't think people would give you funny looks for using one or the other in a certain situation. The differences regarding the verbs translate to the nouns as well.

In the case of bättra and förbättra, I think the short answer is that you should generally go with förbättra. I've really only seen bättra as either 1) the reflexive verb bättra sig, which means to improve one's behaviour or actions, such as might follow an apoligy or owning up to a mistake: förlåt, jag ska bättra mig, or 2) the phrasal verb bättra på, meaning to improve something. It is largely synonymous with förbättra, but has a more colloquial tone to it.

Yes, there are lots of verbs that go with a certain preposition. Your example åtgärda (to fix, adjust, take measures against) is one of them. This part of Swedish is very irregular and has to be learned by heart.

Hope that helps a little.

June 10, 2016

I agree with you about the difference between ändra ~ förändra. The core difference is between concrete vs. abstract change. Perhaps the difference could be illustrated as that of "make changes to" and "transform", which can both be replaced by "change" in certain contexts. Some examples:

  • Han vill ändra klänningen innan bröllopet - He wants to change (make changes to) the dress before the wedding.

  • Hon vill förändra tidningens stil - She wants to change (transform) the style of the magazine.

June 11, 2016

@Zmrzlina and @Frozlix both wrote great responses.

I'm a native German speaker, which has exact equivalents to these Swedish verbs : bessern/verbessern and ändern/verändern. As such I wanted to add that the variants of the Swedish verbs that begin with "för" also carry a (sometimes subtle) implication that the process of improvement, respectively change involves an active agent of change. Something can improve or change as a result of circumstance and what have you. However if these are the direct result of someone's doing, presumably because they willed it, then "förbättra" and "förändra" are the better word choice.

June 10, 2016

I would say that "ändra" is a smal change and "förändra" is a larger overall change. For example:

Ändra denna detalj så är allt klart - Change this detail and everything is done.

Vi måste förändra vårt arbetsätt - We need to change the way we work.

I doubt this will work as a general explanation for the prefix "för" though.

June 10, 2016
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Thanks Frozlix and all others for very good explanations. Reading your comment another use of bättra/förbättra that illustrates this struck me:

Jag bättrar på färgen/målningen [Just some minor paint fixes/åtgärder on the house]

Jag förbättrar målningen [more like rework of painting (possibly removing old paint or maybe even selecting a new colour scheme for the entire house)]

June 19, 2016
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