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It was my understanding that 'ß' is a double 's' and can be written with as 'ss', especially for computer applications which don't offer the 'ß' character. However, why are some words with 'ss' not written with a 'ß'? (z.B. müssen, not müßen?) And is it incorrect for me to write müßen? To be honest, I ask because I like using the 'ß' character due to the novelty.

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Gruselige Geschichte. Man denke da nur an Muße, Muse und Mus. –  Raphael May 28 at 14:24
    
Von Maßen und Massen mal ganz zu schweigen. –  elena May 28 at 14:32
    
@elena: Da ist immerhin das 'a' unterschiedlich lang... –  Raphael May 28 at 18:02
    
related: german.stackexchange.com/questions/255/… –  Takkat May 28 at 18:55

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It was my understanding that 'ß' is a double 's' and can be written with as 'ss', especially for computer applications which don't offer the 'ß' character.

Well, no. ß is a ligature (s + z, in case you were wondering) and must be used for certain words (with the exception of Switzerland, who abolished it quite some time ago and simply use ss everywhere instead.) If your keyboard does not have it (or you are writing IN ALL CAPS) you may use ss (SS) instead, but that's really an exception.

However, why are some words with 'ss' not written with a 'ß'? (z.B. müssen, not müßen?)

Before the orthography reform of 1996 the use of ß was much more widespread. These days, it's only used following a long vowel, as a rule. It's probably best to pick up the correct spelling when learning a new word. In that sense it might be easier than for native speakers who went to school ages ago, like yours truly :)

And is it incorrect for me to write müßen?

Yes, it's müssen.

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Wow, that's embarrassing. Yes, I meant müssen. –  MrUser May 28 at 14:34
    
Edited my reply to conform with the subsequent editing of the question. –  Ingmar May 29 at 12:06

According to Zwiebelfisch, there are four rules:

  1. Hinter kurzen Vokalen steht grundsätzlich ss, auch am Wortende: "Das Fass war nass nach der Fahrt im Fluss." Wörter, die auf -nis enden (Hindernis, Erkenntnis) oder auf -ismus (Nationalismus, Liberalismus) werden am Ende selbstverständlich weiterhin nur mit einfachem s geschrieben.

  2. Hinter langen Vokalen steht grundsätzlich ß: "Das große Floß trieb träge dahin."

  3. Hinter Doppellauten (Diphthongen), das sind au, äu, eu und ei, steht grundsätzlich ein ß, da sie die Natur von langen Vokalen haben: "Ich weiß von nichts."

  4. In VERSALIENSCHREIBUNG wird das ß grundsätzlich als SS dargestellt: "ACHTUNG! SCHIESSÜBUNGSGELÄNDE!" niemals: "MIT FREUNDLICHEN GRÜßEN"

There is an interesting exception (that very few people are aware of): In case of a possible misunderstanding, SZ is used to replace ß when writing in capitals: "ER TRANK IN MASZEN"

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Recently an uppercase ß has been gaining popularity, too: german.stackexchange.com/questions/11443/… –  Ingmar May 28 at 13:47

As an American Student who is constantly struggling with my German grammer, I would like to point out that the use ss in place of ß (Eszett [das]) in many words (e.g. müssen) is only since the latest Rechtschreibreform mentioned above. In fact, just before the official publication of the Rechtschreibreform, there was a website titled (translated): "Save the Eszett".

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This doesn't really answer the question, consider improving it or posting it as a comment. –  Grantwalzer Jul 26 at 16:10
    
BTW, even with the old rules, "müßen" was wrong; only at the end of the word or before consonants was "ss" converted to "ß" according to the old rules. (Also note that the name "Eszett" for that letter is only used in Northern Germany, in Southern Germany the letter is called "scharfes S", that is, "sharp S".) –  celtschk Jul 28 at 20:21

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