Danish expression of the day: Spænder ben

Have you ever (figuratively) stumbled around trying to find the right turn of phrase in Danish? Today's expression of the day could be just the thing for you.

What is spænder ben?

The verb at spænde means to stretch something to its full length, making it tense, perhaps by fixing it to two points (it should not be confused with the noun et spænde, meaning a clip which holds things together).

It can also have the figurative meaning of squeezing as much use or potential out of something as possible, as in han spændte ugens madbudget så effektivt, at han først skulle handle igen ni dage senere (“he stretched that week’s food budget so efficiently that he didn’t need to shop again for nine days”).

Ben is the Danish word for “leg” (and does not change between singular and plural form), so to spænde ben is literally to stretch a leg. 

Why do I need to know spænder ben?

A more accurate translation of at spænde ben would be to “stick a leg out”, with the implicit intention of tripping someone up. 

The phrase is not just used to describe juvenile practical jokes though, and also has a figurative use meaning to present an obstacle or difficulty in the way of what you or someone else may be trying to achieve.

As such, Denmark has an equivalent phrase for trying to trip someone up, but an object or situation can also “stick a leg out”, something that wouldn’t make sense in the English language usage of the phrase.

You can even spænde ben for yourself by hindering your overall progress through your actions, conjuring up images of contorted limbs as you try to get one of your legs in the way of the rest of your body.


Du spænder kun ben for dig selv, hvis du ikke finder et relevant praktikforløb under din uddannelse.

You’re just holding yourself back if you don’t find a relevant work placement during your studies.

EU regler spænder ben for regeringens ønske om at indføre et forbud mod at sælge cigaretter.

EU rules are providing an obstacle to the government’s plan to introduce a ban on selling cigarettes.

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Danish expression of the day: Det ligner

It looks like an obvious choice for the word of the day. But is it?

Danish expression of the day: Det ligner

What is det ligner?

The verb at ligne is another example of a word that enables Danes to say something in fewer words than the equivalent sentence in English.

Meaning “to look like”, it normally has a straightforward use: han ligner sin mor, for example: “he looks like his mother”.

Arguably, there is an English verb directly equivalent to at ligne which would allow you to say the above sentence in neither more nor fewer words than the Danish version. “He resembles his mother” would also be an acceptable translation of han ligner sin mor. 

Despite this, I’d argue “looks like” is more accurate in most situations and contexts, because at ligne does not have the formal feel of written language that “resemble” conjures up.

Why do I need to know det ligner?

When you put the pronoun det (“it”) in front of the verb, making it “it looks like”, the use of at ligne can take on a different meaning.

In the sentence det ligner at det bliver regnvejr hele weekenden (“it looks like it will rain all weekend”), ligner drops its equivalence to “resemble” and, similar to “looks like”, can be used to make a prediction.

According to language regulator Dansk Sprognævn, this alternative use of det ligner has emerged in the last 20-25 years. That being the case, you could speculate that it has occurred as a result of an English phrase being adopted in Danish, even though it makes less sense in Danish in its original guise.

This is not necessarily true. Another way of talking about an uncertain future event in Danish is to say det ser ud til, approximately “it looks as though”. Det ser ud til at det bliver regnvejr is, in fact, probably closer to “it looks like it will rain” than any translation that uses det ligner.

Nevertheless, det ligner is a concise way of talking about something that looks likely to happen in the future. You would normally say it based on some form of evidence, rather than your own instinct: in the examples above, darkening grey clouds on the horizon would probably get people saying det ligner regnvejr.


Det lignede en sikker sejr for hjemmeholdet, men så lukkede de tre mål ind i anden halvleg.

It looked like a comfortable victory for the home team, but they conceded three goals in the second half.

Er du okay? Du ligner slet ikke dig selv.

Are you ok? You don’t look yourself at all.