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I'm living in a German-speaking country where ß is not used at all. Therefore, I do not use ß when I write German texts. Now I'm asking myself if this is technically a spelling error? Or is the ß more or less just a convention?

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Straße, for example, is written with ß and it would be wrong not do so. However, you regularly see uses of ss instead of ß if the character isn't supported. If your keyboard supports this latter and you're trying to write correct German you definitely should use this character. – Em1 Nov 23 '12 at 10:43
Perhaps next Rechtschreibreform will eliminate ß ;-) – bummi Nov 23 '12 at 13:38
Hopefully...... – RoflcoptrException Nov 23 '12 at 13:38
Let’s eliminate also V and write either F or W, or – even better – replace both F and W by V. Let’s eliminate X, it can be written by “ks”. We do not need at all “qu”, we can write there “kw”. Let’s eliminate Ä, it can be replaced by E. Let’s … Sorry, just sarkasm. – Speravir Nov 23 '12 at 19:34
You seem to like ß... – RoflcoptrException Nov 23 '12 at 20:02

5 Answers 5

There is no single set of spelling rules for the German language (just as, e.g. British and US English have different orthographies). German as used in Germany does include ß in certain words (after long vowels and diphthongs), and this is -- within the official orthography -- mandatory. German as used in Switzerland, however, does not.

An analogy in English (although not a special letter) would be the use of u in words such as neighbo(u)r. US spelling does not have a u, but in British English, this is not merely a convention (except in the sense that orthography rules are a convention).

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Nice mention about Switzerland not using ß anywhere. – OregonGhost Nov 23 '12 at 10:45
So Swiss people can only by context distinguish between „Maßen“ and „Massen“? Interesting... – cgnieder Nov 23 '12 at 16:13
@Clemens If it is not clear from the context, it is possible to write "Maszen". This spelling, though historically incorrect (ß is called "eszett = sz", but is really an ss-ligature), is also sometimes used by Germans when ß is not possible (e.g. ASCII-only text). – Ansgar Esztermann Nov 26 '12 at 7:50
@AnsgarEsztermann I can only speak for myself but I find it rather hard to associate “Masz” with “Maß”. I'd prefer ambiguity, I guess. – cgnieder Nov 26 '12 at 18:58
There is, actually. A single set of spelling rules, that is, for all of Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Southern Tyrol, Liechtenstein etc, published by the "Council for German Orthography". Switzerland is only an exception in that doesn't use ß at all, but that's it. – Ingmar Dec 14 '13 at 13:40

Eszett is mandatory unless there are technical difficulties to write it, like writing on a non-German keyboard, or using a software or font that just doesn't support the letter. Yes, it is a spelling error, but you can substitute it with ss if you can't use ß for some reason. The same goes for the umlaut letters ä, ö and ü.

Duden rule 160:

  1. Fehlt das ß auf der Tastatur eines Computers oder einer Schreibmaschine, schreibt man dafür ss.

Please note that people may find it impolite if you don't use ß and the umlauts for no reason.

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Addendum: The letter "ß" is only in Germany named "Eszett". In Austria its name is "Scharfes S" ("sharp s") and in swizzerland "ß" as well as "ss" have both the same name "Doppel S" ("double s"). In all three variations of German Language the letter "s" is named "rundes s" ("round s") if you want to make clear that it is not "ß". There is a third form of s in german langugage, that can be used in modern typefaces and must be used according to special rules when you use fractura typefaces. This s is this: "ſ" and its name is "Langes S" (long s). See: – Hubert Schölnast Nov 23 '12 at 13:44
I'm one of the people which find it a little bit impolite if someone does not use umlauts. The reason is that a text without umlauts is irritating and harder to read (same with missing capitalization in German texts). On the other hand I am aware that not native speakers sometime do not understand that umlauts are significant for the meaning, e.g. "Die Kanzlerin läutete die Wende in der Energiepolitik ein" just would not make any sense if those dots weren't there. – 0x6d64 Nov 23 '12 at 13:55
@0x6d64: I think especially English-speaking Heavy Metal bands don't understand the significance of umlauts, they use them for decoration ;) – OregonGhost Nov 26 '12 at 10:30

It is more or less a convention to replace "ss", and "sz" by "ß". For more on this topic see:

Nevertheless there are rules in Germany to define when to write "ss", or "ß". Therefore we have and had to learn these rules (including their many exceptions). Up to now German pupils will get a wrong choice marked as an error in school. Also it will be corrected when editing books, journals, and newspapers.

Still this rules are not true for all German speaking countries. In Switzerland the letter "ß" does not exist at all. All German words are spelt with "ss" in Swiss publications. Putting an "ß" would be a definite error there.

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convention to replace "ss" by "ß"?? Doing this in words like "hass" or "krass" can't be right. – Flo Nov 23 '12 at 14:32

To quote the recommendations of the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung (Council for German Orthography):

Steht der Buchstabe ß nicht zur Verfügung, so schreibt man ss. In der Schweiz kann man immer ss schreiben.

English translation:

If the letter ß is not available, ss is written. In Switzerland, one can always write ss.

If you mix ss (instead of ß) with other other umlauts (instead of ae, oe, ue), people will think you're from Switzerland.

For texts that have no association with Switzerland, it will be seen as a spelling error.

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Those alpine rustics and their quaint spelling ways...

When Germany took a cue from the Swiss and sensibly changed its orthography so that ss instead of ß follows a short vowel, the Swiss could have reciprocated by replacing their ss after a long vowel or diphtong with ß.

Maybe a cavalry detachment should be sent into Berne to help them along.

In the meantime you could start a campaign of subversion by sprinkling ß's throughout your texts, hacking the NZZ webserver to change ss to ß, and defacing street signs in nightly raids. But I perfectly understand if you decline my suggestion.

The people calling for abolishment of ß will be defeated. ¡No pasarán! On the contrary, modern computer technology allows me to call for wide-spread use of the lovely capital ß, which has been in Unicode as character "ẞ" U+1E9E LATIN CAPITAL LETTER SHARP S since 2008. And if you are viewing this text set in the Arial typeface on a Windows machine, you just saw it in the preceding sentence.

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How does this answer the question? – cgnieder Jan 12 '13 at 19:31
@cgnieder I'm sorry but as presently posed, your question makes no sense. It's like asking, "How does a square have four corners?" Perhaps you want to complain that my question may confuse the Asker. I hardly think so. It's been two months since the first three Answers were given. They have already taken care of the narrowly interpreted Q. I have taken the liberty to add my own gloss and address broader issues, which are (1) how to get the Swiss to drop their unreasonable opposition to 'ß', (2) point out that 'ß' is not moribund at all. Capital 'ß' is tangential to the Q but still interesting. – Eugene Seidel Jan 12 '13 at 20:38
Maybe I'm misunderstanding the purpose of this website, but to my understanding its purpose is not to discuss wether some language specific habits are reasonable or not (and who is to decide that, anyway) but to ask and answer questions in a way that also future visitors can benefit (so time is not really an issue). The question asked by the OP was wether the non-usage of “ß” would be wrong. You don't answer that. (Besides all that: I really enjoyed reading your answer but that doesn't make it a better one...) – cgnieder Jan 12 '13 at 20:50
Well you can always add another downvote if you feel like it. Reading between the lines of the Q, the Asker feels bothered by having to mentally switch every time he wants to type 'ß' and having to type 'ss' instead. I am saying it's not his personal problem alone and I offer the remedy of getting the Swiss to adopt 'ß' at long last. If a rule annoys you, one option to deal with that annoyance is changing the rule! – Eugene Seidel Jan 12 '13 at 20:57

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