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It's clear in the case of compound nouns, double s should be used e.g. Bundesstraße, but with other words I cannot see a pattern.

To me it appears to be used somewhat randomly, e.g.:

besser
das Maß
die Masse
beißen

I also remember daß that was deprecated in favour of dass. Is there an aesthetic or practical reason behind these spelling conventions?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Since the 1996 reform, the rule is very simple:

Use

  • an ß when following a long vowel (Maß, Spaß)

  • ss when it follows a short vowel (Bass, Kasse, Essen)

But only after splitting the word into morphemes*:

Essen is made up of the morphemes "ess" and "en". Aßen is formed by first splitting up the word according to its morphemes and then applying any ß-rules. The new morphemes are "Aß" (long vowel) and "en". Consider a word like Ausschusssitzung, which when split along it's morphemes (aus-schuss-sitz-ung) doesn't leave any double-s to be replaced. In the first case we have "ess", and in the second case we have "aus".

* Note that the morphemes aren't the same as the syllables:
  Consider words like zer-leg-en (or zer-le-gen). Morphemes are found by deconstructing the meaning of the word.

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3  
I think this might be different in Switzerland. –  Stefano Palazzo May 25 '11 at 11:59
    
Yes, Switzerland has its own rules concerning the ß. –  swegi May 25 '11 at 12:03
16  
Switzerland's rule for ß is that there is no ß. :) –  splattne May 25 '11 at 12:11
1  
@Alenanno no, there was no reform to delete the ß in Germany. There was just a reform on how to use the ß. And the capitalization of nouns was introduced centuries ago and is valid in all conuntries. –  splattne May 25 '11 at 18:39
1  
@TheBlastOne: There has never been any serious suggestion to eliminate the ß and it has never been declared optional. –  Wrzlprmft Jul 26 at 18:04

Yes, there is a rule, which was introduced with the latest spelling reform.

If the vowel before is short/open, then you'll use ss.

  • Ass, Klasse, Schlüssel, Essen, Ross, Russland, Riss, vergessen, hässlich, dass

If the vowel before is long/closed, you'll use ß.

  • Füße, Ruß, Kloß, groß, genießen, Maßband, Schweiß

Diphtongs (ie/ei/au/eu are) are usually considered long.

Beware, this rule doesn't help you to know if there's an ss/ß in at all. Many similar sounding words have only one s in them. That's just something you have to learn. (And it's very hard for German dyslexics, too!)

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Looking at this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_phonology I can see that there are short/closed vowels as well as dipthongs (example: außen). How does the rule handle those? –  z7sg Ѫ May 25 '11 at 11:58
    
you're asking for the diphtongs? As I said, they are usually long. Can't think of an exception atm. –  ladybug May 25 '11 at 12:00
    
it's ok, you extended your answer at the same time as I commented! I will try it out. –  z7sg Ѫ May 25 '11 at 12:02
    
okay. :) just realized after you're question that my comment on umlauts was plain wrong, so thanks for asking anyway. –  ladybug May 25 '11 at 12:03

This is tricky. A general rule is:

  • short vowel before the ess => ss (as in besser)
  • long vowel before an unvoiced ess => ß (as in Maß)
  • long vowel before a voiced ess => s (as in Vase)

I think there are still exceptions but these rules apply most of the time. The biggest problem for a foreigner might be to distinguish between voiced and unvoiced esses. I have no solution for that. As a native speaker only one of the two versions sounds right.

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I don't know many German native speakers who actually make a difference between unvoiced and voiced s. I found this very hard to learn in foreign languages, actually. So I would consider the difference between single s and ss/ß rather irregular. There is no 100% rule for that, only for the ß or ss question. –  ladybug May 25 '11 at 11:55
1  
@ladybug: Yes, this is not easy. But in my opinion it's not irregular. For example ss is always pronounced unvoiced. If you force yourself to pronounce e.g. besser voiced, you'll notice how silly it sounds. Of course with s/ß the difference is more subtle but imho it's perfectly there. –  musiKk May 25 '11 at 12:03
    
Yeah, but "Erlebnis" with voiced s sounds silly to me, too. ;) –  ladybug May 25 '11 at 12:04
1  
The general rule only distincts between ss and ß. As I said below: if there's a double s in at all, you usually just have to learn. If you know it, then you can use the rule to decide which double s (ss/ß) you'll have to use. –  ladybug May 25 '11 at 12:47
1  
Actually, Erlebnis was written "Erlebniss" a bit more than a century ago ... books.google.com/ngrams/… –  celtschk Mar 3 at 22:47

It's easy for Switzerland: They have no ß.

In capitalized words, the ß is usually replaced by a double-S. There are very few fonts featuring a capital ß, and there's no way to type it. Most germans don't know it exists.

Please note that an ß is not simply two s after one another, it's a different character, which is why Bundes-Straße can never have an ß at the end of Bundes.

Words never start with an ß.

An ß is always sharp, not vocalized (like the english s in ass, unlike the german s, which is very often pronounced like the z in lazy).

Whether or not you use an ß is usually determined by the length of the vowel preceding the s/ß: You never have an ß after a short vowel. For example, muß (must) used to be correct, but since '96, it's muss. Muße (leisure) has a long vowel, so it has an ß.

The ß is also usually found after a diphthong, as in beißen. Probably because diphthongs are usually also long.

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An alternative way of rendering a capital “ß” is via “SZ”, especially in (but not restricted to) names, to avoid confusion with the “ss” version (“SCHIESSER” = “Schiesser” vs. “SCHIESZER” = “Schießer”). –  Konrad Rudolph May 25 '11 at 12:26
1  
Yes, but that's not the preferred way. I might do it in names to avoid ambiguity, but this would introduce the new ambiguity whether someone might actually ba named "Schieszer". It's just a bad idea to capitalize a name with an ß in, because the only way to do it unambigously looks SCHEIßE. For ordinary words, I would always choose ß->SS. Or just avoid capitalisation at all. –  fzwo May 25 '11 at 12:33
    
@fzwo “that's not the preferred way” – depends on who you ask. It certainly is the preferred way for me (but then, I also spurn the neue Rechtschreibung) and until a few years ago it was found much more commonly than “SS”, although this trend has been reversing for decades. –  Konrad Rudolph May 25 '11 at 12:42
    
@Konrad_Rudolph "until a few years ago it was found much more commonly than “SS”," WOW, HOW OLD ARE YOU?!? ;) –  splattne May 25 '11 at 13:12
1  
@Sean Patrick Floyd Yes, that is a special font, FF Cst Berlin, and it's still used on Berlin street signs. There are Fraktur-like versions of this ligature-ß as well, also found on Berlin street signs in old cities. –  fzwo May 25 '11 at 14:32

While the rule set that is usually given (e.g., in Stefano Palazzo’s answer) is correct, it is historically grown and mainly aimed at native speakers to explain the difference between the reformed and the old spelling.

Language learners might prefer the following rules for the spelling of s sounds in German:

  • s and ß form a voiced–voiceless pair like b/p, d/t, or g/k with s representing the voiced s sound and ß representing the voiceless s sound.
  • The normal rules for doubling consonants after short vowels apply, however, ss is used instead of ßß, e.g., so instead of blaßß and haßßen (both with short a, voiceless s) we write blass and hassen.
  • The normal rules for terminal devoicing (Auslautverhärtung) apply, so an s after the vowel of a syllable may represent a voiceless s,
    • if the s is only voiceless due to terminal devoicing, e.g., in Gras (voiced in Gräser),
    • for making to identically sounding words distinguishable in written language (Unterscheidungsschreibung), e.g., in das (article, contrast with dass),
    • for no obvious reason, e.g., in beste.

As always, loanwords may deviate from these rules, e.g., we write sorry instead of ßorry and Sudoku instead of ẞudoku.

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