What’s a language without punctuation?
It becomes a jumbled mess without pauses structure or endings you see
Ah! Let’s get some order back in here.
Thanks to our friends the comma, the period and many other types of punctuation, our writing makes sense and has a natural rhythm. Just like in your native language, you’ll need proper German punctuation to write anything from emails to essays without driving your reader crazy.
Luckily, German punctuation marks are practically identical to ones found across other Western languages, especially English. There are just a handful of important differences, which we’ll teach you in this post to make you a German punctuation pro in no time.
Similarities Between English and German Punctuation
If you’ve been learning German for some time, then you’ve probably noticed it’s pretty darn similar to English in many aspects. Sometimes discovering cognates makes it seem like German is just the language you never knew you knew.
So before stressing out that there’s a whole other part to the German language that you need to worry about before being able to write, take a look at what you already know!
The Apostroph, Komma, Semikolon (apostrophe, comma, semicolon) and other punctuation marks are just some similarities that you may already recognize from the names alone.
Even the punctuation usage is the same as in English in many cases. Our trusty Punkt (period) also serves to end sentences in German, although there are several unique functions that we’ll get into later. Items in lists are still separated with the Komma (comma) and questions are designated with a Fragezeichen (question mark) at the end.
There are luckily no strange upside-down question marks, confusing squiggles or backwards commas to decode.
The Fastest Way to Master German Punctuation, Period! Learn These 4 Tricky Marks
There are myriad other German punctuation marks like the parentheses, dash and semicolon, but for now we’ll focus on the beloved Punkt (period), Komma (comma), Apostroph (apostrophe) and Anführungszeichen (quotation marks). That’s because these marks display distinct characteristics in German and appear so frequently that you can’t really become a German writing master without them.
After wrapping up here, you can cement your punctuation knowledge using a variety of reading resources. Reading diverse texts, such as scientific writing, news stories and narratives with quoted speech will expose you to a number of different ways that German punctuation is used in its natural habitat.
Now, as you journey through the land of dots, dashes and lines, there are a few punctuation giants that you’ll benefit most from learning!
1. Perfecting the Period
Am 5. Mai um 20.20 Uhr feiern wir mit 20.000 Margaritas. (On May 5th at 8:20 p.m., we celebrate with 20,000 margaritas.)
Periods get a lot more use in German than in English, where the mark is typically just used to end sentences. As you can see in the above example, this little dot indicates ordinal numbers, tells time and substitutes the comma in numbers past the hundreds.
Here’s how to use the period in those varied settings.
Periods in Ordinal Numbers and Dates
Ordinal numbers are numbers that show order, such as “1st” or “3rd.” In written German, a period follows the digit to turn it into an ordinal number. Ordinal numbers are widely seen in dates, as in the examples below.
- Weihnachten ist am 25. Dezember. (Christmas is on the 25th of December.)
- Ich habe am 16. Geburtstag. (My birthday is on the 16th.)
- 29.9.1996 (September 29th, 1996)
- Attention, Americans! In Germany, dates are written out in the European style, as day.month.year.
Periods for Telling Time
Periods are occasionally used to tell time in German.
Up until the mid-1990s, using a period to separate time was standard in Germany, until this later changed to a standard colon. Both a colon (as in English) and periods are still used interchangeably to separate hour from minutes, so just know that either one goes!
- 13.57 (1:57 p.m.)
Germany uses the 24-hour clock (a.k.a. military time).
- 5.38 (5:38 a.m.)
Periods in Large Numbers
If you’ve ever had much experience with German numbers, you may’ve noticed a peculiarity once numbers seep over the hundreds.
Whereas you might commonly expect the number “one thousand twenty-eight” to be written as 1,028, in German the period swaps with the comma and you get 1.028. The same switch takes place with the decimal point, which then becomes a comma as we’ll cover in the next section!
2. Conquering the Comma
Setz dich hin, wir essen, Fabian! (Sit down, we’re eating, Fabian!)
Fabian is late for dinner.
Setz dich hin, wir essen Fabian! (Sit down, we’re eating Fabian!)
Fabian should be worried.
If you’ve been lazy with your commas so far, the examples above may show you just how important the smallest details are. That tiny mark makes a difference between making sure everyone gets to the dinner table and everyone thinking you’re a cannibal.
Commas seem like a pretty straightforward tool, until you run into head scratching German word order, and everything you thought you knew about basic punctuation flies out the window. This formidable opponent makes an appearance in relative clauses, in numbers and after subordinate clauses.
The bright side is that there’s a method to the madness!
Commas in Relative Clauses
Relative clauses describe a noun with an additional snippet of information. Having a comma before the relative clause indicates that you’re further describing that noun, rather than just continuing on with your sentence. Further, because relative pronouns sometimes resemble articles (der, die, das) a comma helps differentiate the two.
Here’s how to structure and punctuate sentences with relative clauses:
First part of sentence ending with noun + comma + noun descriptor
Longer sentences may look like this:
First part of sentence ending with noun + comma + noun descriptor + comma + rest of sentence
Here are some sentences to illustrate comma placement in relative clauses:
- Ich habe eine streunende Katze, die erschreckt und hungrig war, im Garten gesehen. (I saw a stray cat that was scared and hungry in the garden.)
- Er kann nur zuhause lernen, wo es immer ganz ruhig ist. (He can only study at home, where it’s always really quiet.)
Commas Used as Decimal Points
As explained above with periods, punctuation used with numbers in German is switched from English. Commas after thousands places become periods, and decimal points are expressed with commas.
Mistaking one Euro and twenty-three cents for one thousand two hundred thirty Euros is kind of a big deal!
- 1,00 (German) = 1.00 (English)
- 1,23 (German) = 1.23 (English)
- 1.230 (German) = 1,230 (English)
Commas in Subordinate Clauses
The comma plays an important role in subordinate clauses, where it comes before a subordinating conjunction like ob (whether), bevor (before), bis (until), seit (since) or weil (because).
These subordinate clauses can describe causation, as with weil or da (because), or conditions, like with wenn (“when” used in the sense of “if”) or falls (if), among other cases. There are tons of subjunctive conjunctions that require a comma partner, but the best way to learn is to memorize a few of the most used ones.
A few useful subordinate clauses to get you started:
- Als ich nach Hause gegangen bin, hat es geregnet. (As I walked home, it rained.)
- Wir haben vier Hunde, obwohl ich allergisch bin. (We have four dogs, although I’m allergic.)
- Max bringt seinen Regenschirm, falls es wieder regnet. (Max brings his umbrella in case it rains again.)
3. Appreciating the Apostrophe
Compared with other punctuation marks, the Apostroph doesn’t make as big an appearance as our other contenders. However, there are still plenty of cases in which this little line pops up that you should know.
Apostrophes in Contractions
First up are contractions, when two words are smushed together to make a conveniently shortened version with an apostrophe separating the two bits.
German is known for having some of the longest words in the world, such as Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit)—which, mind you, is actually short in the grand scheme of things. Contractions can therefore bring much wanted relief by shortening your sentences ever so slightly.
Note that the apostrophe is not used in contractions with an article and preposition, such as am (on/at the), aufs (on/at the) or beim (by/with the).
A few common German contractions are:
- Wie geht’s? (How’s it going?)
- Ku’damm = Kurfürstendamm (a popular shopping street in Berlin)
- Wie war’s? (How was it?)
Apostrophes in Possessives
Now, you may be tempted to show that a ball belongs to Monika by slapping on an apostrophe and an s after her name. Monika’s Ball. Easy, right?
Be warned that using an apostrophe to show possession only works with names in German that already end in s or an s-sounding letter. Otherwise, possessive names are built just with an s at the end, but no apostrophe!
- Monikas Ball is correct, but Monika’s Ball is technically not.
- Matthias’ Ball is the correct, because the name Matthias already ends with s.
4. Questioning the Quotation Marks
Everything has seemed fairly agreeable so far. The period, apostrophe and trusty comma we’ve seen before in various other languages are making sense. But for anyone who’s ever read speech in German books, you may’ve run into »these quotation marks« or „this bizarre alternative“.
Essentially, German quotation marks maintain the same function as quotation marks in English—to report direct speech within text or to highlight words, phrases or an excerpt from another text. They just look a little bit different.
The Gänsefüßchen (literally “little geese feet”) are the inverted and upright 99-looking quotation marks: „ “. You might see these in print news articles, for example (online writing in German often uses the non-inverted quotation marks we’re used to).
The double inward facing arrows »« are called Chevrons and serve the same purpose but are commonly used in literature and novels.
- „Das kann wohl sein,” sagt Heike, „aber ich glaube das nicht.” (“That may very well be,” says Heike, “but I don’t believe that.”)
- »Dumme Gans«, sagte die Alte, »die Öffnung ist groß genug, siehst du wohl, ich könnte selbst hinein.« (“Dumb goose,” said the old woman, “the opening is big enough, take a look, I could even go in myself.”)
Bookworms may recognize the quote above from “Hänsel und Gretel.”
One quirk of reporting speech in German: when the speaker is introduced first, a colon comes before the speech. But if the speaker is mentioned in between or after the speech, a comma is used.
- Peter sagt: „Ich bin den ganzen Tag herumgelaufen.” (Peter says, “I have been running around all day.” )
- „Was machst du da?“, fragt Maria. (“What are you doing there?” asks Maria)
Now you’re ready to become the next great Goethe and write a German novel!
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