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Each language has its own ideas of how to punctuate, e.g. space before question marks in French. How is German punctuation different from English?

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It’s pretty hard to answer this in an easy way. Apart from your example (German does not use space before punctuation marks), there are a lot rules in German grammar about punctuation. I’m hesitating to reply as an answer, given that I’ll probably not able to recite every single rule there is. –  poke May 24 '11 at 19:41
    
@poke: There are certainly a lot of rules, but the set of punctuation rules that do not exist in English should be smaller. –  Tim May 24 '11 at 19:43
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@poke: Tim's example was a difference between German and French. In English, there is no space before question marks (at least I never heard of such a rule if it exists or existed) –  Jürgen A. Erhard May 24 '11 at 19:50
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@jae: Sorry, it wasn’t my intention to make it sound as if there was a difference between English and German. I was merely addressing that example, well, as an example ;) –  poke May 24 '11 at 19:55
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English: When in doubt leave the comma out, German: When in doubt put the comma in. (-; –  hippietrail Jun 2 '11 at 11:57

11 Answers 11

There are a lot of differences, one of the most common one could be how German handles
relative clauses.

In English, there is no comma before that:

Do you still have the book that I gave you?

In German, the comma is required to give the sentence its structure:

Hast du noch das Buch, das ich dir gegeben habe?

The rule is actually really simple: in German, every relative clause is separated by a comma.

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The other direction is interesting: if there's a comma in German, think twice about putting one there in English (a lot of German speakers give themselves away by superfluous commas ;D) –  Jürgen A. Erhard May 24 '11 at 19:52
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However there are counterexamples to this rule. –  Phira May 24 '11 at 22:18
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Interestingly, there used to be a comma before “that” in English. At least, older texts (18th, 19th century) are pretty consistent in this usage (both for relative clauses as well as in conjunctions, i.e. “dass” / “daß”). –  Konrad Rudolph May 25 '11 at 8:58

Not to forget: Punctuation in numbers! The usage of commata and dots is exactly reversed!

English standard:

One million point five : 1,000,000.5

German standard:

Eine Million Komma Fünf: 1.000.000,5

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Exactly my thoughts. This always felt like SOMEONE had to do it the other way around, simply out of spite. Things like that can drive programmers crazy. –  hiergiltdiestfu Apr 4 at 22:46

In English

He said, "Hello, I am Ben".

In German

Er sagt: "Hallo, ich bin Ben".

Notice the colon instead of a comma, and the capital at the start of the quote. There has to be a capital after every colon, if you quote use the first letter in the quote, which is H in this case.

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Shouldn't the h be capital in English too in this case? –  asymmetric Jun 29 '11 at 22:00
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In beiden Fällen gehört der Punkt vor die Anführüngsstriche. Soweit das dt. eine Übersetzung sein soll muss es auch "Er sagte" heißen. –  user unknown Aug 18 '13 at 21:49
    
@userunknown The placement of the period is in this case a matter of æsthetics, because it marks the end of the inner as well as of the outer sentence. I real issue in contrast to this is the wrong placement of the opening quotation marks, according to the Duden they have to be downstairs. –  user6436 May 30 '14 at 12:39
    
Das ist falsch. Ästhetisch schön kann eine falsche Punktuation kaum sein. Es gibt keinen inneren und äußeren Satz. Es gibt einen ersten Satz, der mit dem Doppelpunkt endet, weswegen danach auch zwingend groß geschrieben werden muss. Der zweite Satz endet mit "Ben." Auch das Ende ist Teil der wörtlichen Rede. Ein - wie es in mündlicher Rede vorkommt - unvollständiger Satz mag keinen Punkt als exorbitanten Sonderfall haben. "Die Kugel kam ..." stöhnte Paul noch, bevor er dahinschied. –  user unknown Jun 2 '14 at 4:07

A list like red, green, and blue would be translated like rot, grün und blau without the comma in front of the und.

BTW: Canoo.net seems to be a very comprehensive resource for questions about grammar.

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The comma before "and" is not universally used in English, especially British English. See also english.stackexchange.com/questions/412/… –  misterben May 24 '11 at 20:13
    
Thanks, I was not aware of that. I remember from school that I had to put a comma there (English as a second language) –  bjoernz May 24 '11 at 20:19
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See also Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. –  ogerard May 25 '11 at 9:30
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This is called the “Harvard Comma”, “Oxford Comma” or “Serial Comma” and is AFAIK mostly used in the USA in non-journalistic writing. –  cgnieder Apr 27 '12 at 16:01

Composite words

In English, you create composite words by just writing one word after the other, with a space in between:

light switch

In German, you add them without a space:

Lichtschalter

It is possible, but poor style, to create very long words like this:

Hochvoltlichtschalteranschlussklemme (high voltage light switch connection clamp)

As you can see, it's possible, but rarely needed and hard to read. This is done relatively often in laws, which need to be very specific. For instance, german traffic laws are regulated in the

Straßenverkehrsordnung (StVO) (road traffic policy)

If words get otherwise hard to read, it's possible to add hyphens where needed:

Straßenverkehrs-Zulassungs-Ordnung (StVZO) (road traffic registration policy)

It would be legal to write that without any hyphenation. Hyphenation, in general, has become more accepted in recent years, but should still be used sparingly.

Many people wrongly separate composite words with spaces, which is very common in ads or product names, supposedly because long composites are hard to read and hyphens don't look good enough. This is wrong and very poor style, because it causes the reader to pause within the words, and sometimes even distorts meaning: "Besuchen Sie ihren Peugeot Partner" is probably meant to mean "visit your Peugeot dealership", but actually says "visit your Peugeot car, which has the model name Partner" (there actually was a car called Peugeot Partner). Reading these sentences aloud with the different meanings causes different pronunciation, just like in english: "visit your Peugeot dealer" vs. "my car is called the Peugeot Dealer".

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My theory about English composites is that the substantives there (other than the last) role as attributes (like adjectives, but not changing form), which they can't in German. This misuse in German (and Esperanto, too) is my favorite mistake. –  Paŭlo Ebermann Jun 5 '11 at 22:25
    
@Paŭlo Ebermann Could you give an example of such a mistake? –  fzwo Jun 6 '11 at 7:08
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Mostly these you have listed in the end of your answer, like "Peugot Partner", "Esperanto Haus", "Schrödinger Zentrum". Sorry if that was not clear. –  Paŭlo Ebermann Jun 6 '11 at 8:59
    
Dass lange Komposita schwerer lesbar sind halte ich für eine unbewiesene Behauptung die nur in Ausnahmefällen zutrifft. Wieso sollten 30 Buchstaben schwerer lesbar sein als 2x15 plus ein Bindestrich? Was gutes Aussehen bei Wörtern bedeuten soll muss mir auch noch erklärt werden. Ich halte es für einen zwanghaften, quasireligiösen Spleen Produkt- und Firmennamen als quasi heilig zu behandeln, so dass dieser nicht mit anderen Buchstaben kontaminiert werden darf, siehe auch das zwanghafte Apostrophieren wie bei Kaiser's Supermarkt. –  user unknown Aug 18 '13 at 21:47

Dash/Gedankenstrich

German: en-dash/Halbgeviertstrich with spaces on both sides of the dash:

Ich habe dem nichts hinzuzufügen – außer, daß Du jetzt gehen solltest.

English: em-dash/Geviertstrich without spaces

I have nothing to add—except that you should go now.

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English seems to use both em-dashes and en-dashes, depending on which styleguide is observed (cf. e.g. this answer). –  O. R. Mapper Apr 4 at 10:36

Quotations and quotation marks

I have often seen quotations in English include the comma that separates them from the rest of the sentence:

"This is correct," is it not?

Apparently this is an American thing. It's wrong in German:

Dies ist richtig, oder etwa nicht?

Also note the different quotation marks in German. You can forego them and use the English style if you want to, but it won't be correct. Microsoft Word should autocorrect quotation marks into the right ones.

Please note that the font on german.SE renders closing quotation marks confusingly. They look like the opening marks rotated by 180 degrees, stroked from bottom towards the top right, while the opening ones look like two commas close to one another. Cut and paste the German quote above into a text editor and set its text to Courier New, for instance, to see the correct rendering.

EDIT: I have added inline code formatting (`), which displays quotation marks correctly (at least for me).

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The font used here is Tahoma and if I remember correctly then the rendering of the closing quotation mark in Tahoma (and Verdana) is actually a bug that was fixed in some subsequent font versions (Verdana …) but not others. (cf. Wikipedia: Verdana) –  Konrad Rudolph May 25 '11 at 10:55
    
@Konrad Rudolf Thank you. I've found a workaround, but I think for a site that centers around a language where typographical correctness of quotation marks is important, we should consider a change of the main font. –  fzwo May 25 '11 at 11:00
    
Something to bear in mind when it comes to discussions of site design when it comes to that. –  misterben May 25 '11 at 11:08
    
I've just created a meta topic on this bug. –  fzwo May 25 '11 at 11:11
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Die Frage spezifiziert nicht, ob von Schreibschrift, Schreibmaschine, PC-Texten, Buchdruck oder anderen, exotischeren Medien die Rede ist. In der Schreibschrift lernt man unten/oben Gänsefüßchen ohne Richtungsspitzfindigkeiten wie 66 und 99 zu beachten. Schreibmaschinen hatten oft nur die doppelten Anführungsstriche wie sie mit Shift-2 auf deutschen Tastaturen angeboten werden. Fern von Textverarbeitungen ist dies auch heute noch die gängige Methode direkte Rede zu kennzeichnen. Auch der Arte-Videotext verwendet es, oder ist das Sache des TV-Gerätes? –  user unknown Aug 18 '13 at 21:39

You can set a comma if you want to guard against confusion:

He decided not to come.

Er entschied, nicht zu kommen.

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Just for completion: As opposed to Er entschied nicht, zu kommen which is "He didn't decide to come". –  Florian Peschka May 25 '11 at 9:31

You asked about the differences, so I'll attempt to only cover them, but comprehensively.

Commas

German surrounds every single subordinate clause with a pair of commas, as well as stuck together main clauses if there is no conjunction. If there is one, the comma ranges from optional to required. In English, it is usually omitted.

Er wusste, dass er die Frau, die ihm das Geld gegeben hatte, nie wiedersehen würde.
Er fand das schade, denn sie schien ihm nett zu sein.
Wir gehen ins Kino, ihr geht nach Hause.

English:

He knew that he would never see the woman again who gave him the money.
It was a shame because she seemed to be nice.
We're going to the cinema, you go home.

In English, you can separate parts at the beginning of a sentence with a comma like you just saw. In German, that is forbidden unless it is a complete infinitive or a subordinate clause.

Auf Englisch darf man zwischen Englisch und darf ein Komma setzen. Im Deutschen ist das verboten.

Infinitive structures are surrounded by a pair of commas, which can only be omitted in the case of a short infinitive.

Wir treffen uns um fünf, um ins Kino zu gehen.
Er hatte sie, ohne es zu wollen, vor den Kopf gestoßen.
Ich möchte Sie bitten zu gehen. (Comma omitted).

English:

We'll meet at five to go to the cinema.
He affronted her without wanting to do so.
I request you to leave.

I'm not sure about this one in English, but in German following direct speech a comma is placed.

»Ich gehe«, sagte er »und du folgst mir nicht!«
»Ich weiß nicht was ich sagen soll«, antwortete er dem Kommissar.
»Willst du Schokolade?«, fragte der Mann im Auto.
»Ich habe genug!«, rief sie.

Generally speaking, all German commas are required for syntactical reasons, never because you breathe at that spot. You often will breathe in places where there are no commas, but of course there are also lots of places where commas and breathing points overlap.

Quotation marks

British English usually uses ‘’-style quotation marks. The opening one looks like a 6, the closing one looks like a 9. They can be referred to as inverted comma and high comma, if one really wants to.

American English uses the same shape, but usually double quotation marks “”. The distinction isn't as strong as I always like to quote it for simplicity, though.

German, on the other hand, uses „“-style quotation marks. The opening one is like a pair of commas, the closing one is the 6-like one (the opening one for Americans). German, however, also has a second style, namely the French-copied quotation marks »« called chevrons. Note that German usage is inverse to French usage, with the angles pointing inwards. There is no functional difference between the two, just decide on one throughout your text. I use »« in both handwriting and computer writing, but I'm very alone in doing so (Most handwriters will use „“).

Swiss German practice is different from German and Austrian practice. They use the French-style quotation marks, but the other way around «». This way, they are called guillemets.

„Hilfe!“, schrie sie.
»Ich möchte gehen«, fügte er an.
«Wir nehmen ein Floss und schwimmen damit den Fluss herab.» (Swiss; note Floss instead of Floß)

When dealing with long quotes, English will repeat quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph. German will not.

Americans like to add any punctuation mark into the quotation marks. Germans will not, unless the punctuation can belong to the quote.

Wir gehen in ein Lokal mit dem Namen »Zur Post«.
Was hast du gerade gesagt? »Depp«?
»Wann gehen wir endlich?«, hat sie gefragt.
Er antwortete: »Wenn alles fertig ist.«

Dashes

A dash in German is the en-dash –, surrounded by a pair of spaces. Apparently, English and American use the em-dash — with no space surrounding it.

The dash can also mean bis or gegen. If it means bis, the spaces are omitted.

Öffnungszeiten: Mo–Fr 8–19 Uhr. (read as bis)
Es spielen: Hertha BSC – FC Bayern München. (read as gegen)

Ellipses

That is, the three dots. They are used more or less like English, although English traditionally closed a sentence that ended with an ellipsis with another full stop. German does not.

Wenn das ewig so weitergeht …
»Ich werde so lange um Hilfe rufen, bis jem… Mmmmmmf!«

A lot of Germans don't know when to add a space before the ellipsis and when not to. There is no space if and only if the word is cut off by the ellipsis (2nd example).

Weiter…
Weiter …

In the first example, a word beginning with weiter is cut off; it could be weitermachen, weitergehen or others. In the second example, the word is weiter but the sentence is left unfinished.

Other random differences

Ordinal numbers carry a trailing full stop. (5. Februar)

Most contractions in English require an apostrophe in a set position. German would only put the apostrophe between words (which would look weird in English, would'nt it? [sic!]), even if nothing is cut between the words (although this is seldom required in standard German; usually only in dialects).

Gehen'S da rüber (short for Gehen Sie …)

Many contractions, especially those created by assimilating es and those created from preposition and article are entirely apostrophe-less:

Gehts noch?
Kein Schweiß aufs Holz. (Contrary to what is read in 90 % of all saunas)
Stells aufn Tisch. (Or: Stell's aufn Tisch, but not stells auf'n Tisch)

Left out letters, even when no contraction is happening, get an apostrophe, unless they are a left out trailing shwa-e of a verb:

'Tschuldigung
Geh da weg. (not: Geh')
Gl'en (abbreviated for Gleichungen)
Ich nehm mir einen Apfel. (not: nehm', although it's nehme)

I hope I didn't miss any punctuation marks. If I didn't mention them, their usage is likely exactly as in English.

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Ich benutze auch üblicherweise diese Anführungs-Zeichen: »«. Die korrekte Bezeichnung dafür lautet: »Chevrons«, und die Spitzen zeigen nach innen. Die in der französischen Sprache verwendeten Zeichen «», bei denen die Spitzen nach außen zeigen, heißen »Guillemets«, das sind auch die in der Schweiz üblichen Zeichen. –  Hubert Schölnast Apr 4 at 10:28
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@HubertSchölnast Stimmt, Wikipedia bestätigt das. Den Namen Chevrons habe ich so nicht gekannt. Beide sind jetzt drin. Danke. –  Jan Apr 5 at 17:23

Regarding commas: When our primary school teacher started to teach use comma rules, she would say: "Put a comma everywhere you breathe or pause in your sentence". I still think this is a quite useful hint.

Also be aware that after the latest reform, there are loads of optional commas. So rather put too many commas into a sentence than too few. ;-)

Big exception is "und", where you almost never put a comma in front.

Edit: just re-read your question. If you're asking for general punctuation use, I think it's quite similar to English. No extra spaces. Some example sentences:

"Hallo!", rief Hugo, als er Lisa sah. "Du schon wieder?", antwortete sie. "Ach, Lisa", erwiderte Hugo, "sei doch nicht immer so unfreundlich."

Niemals würde ich mir die Haare blond färben lassen - es sei denn, jemand bietet mir viel Geld dafür -; aber andererseits sollte man auch niemals nie sagen...? (never: sagen... ?)

Man sieht also: nach diesem Ereignis hat sich die ganze Stadt verändert - nicht nur einzelne Bürger.

Ungefähr 20% der Ware ist Ausschuss, +/-5 Stück.

Am 20. September 2012 werde ich fünzig. (also: Am 20.09.2012 oder Am 20. 09. 2012).

Die Party beginnt um 15:00 Uhr. (never 15:00Uhr!)


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German uses the Chevron style quotation marks:

» Die Schnee-Eule war richtig nett «, sagte Lars.

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Are you sure about this? I didn't learn that in school. –  Jemus42 May 24 '11 at 20:10
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I would say that the „Gänsefüßchen“ are more common. See de.wikipedia.org/wiki/… for more information –  bjoernz May 24 '11 at 20:21
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In Germany, you commonly use quotation marks like „this”, while in Austria and Switzerland it is common to use »this« style. –  FUZxxl May 24 '11 at 20:23
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No, in Austria we also learned „this” in primary school. –  Phira May 24 '11 at 22:01
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Sorry, this answer is wrong. We use „quotation marks“ (note slight difference to „this” from thei - the closing marks are struck from bottom towards the top right). French quotation marks (pointing inwards) are very rarely used, probably mostly just for looks. Wikipedia says that Switzerland uses french marks pointing outward, but swiss German differs from standard high German a little anyway. –  fzwo May 25 '11 at 9:57

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