I have only studied German for a few weeks. I noticed that the verb essen have two spelling variants for 2nd and 3rd person singularis and 2nd person pluralis. Which one would you use as native speaker?



ich esse

du isst

du ißt

er/sie/es isst

er/sie/es ißt

wir essen

ihr esst

ihr eßt

sie/Sie essen

I just noticed that the Präteritum conjugation is all with "ß" in my grammatic book and on the web. Should the "ß" be replaced in Präteritum too or not?



4 Answers 4


The question about »ss« or »ß« is about the »Rechtschreibreform«

Many words, that used to be written with »ß« are written with »ss« since 1996. Now (since 1996) it depends on the length of the spoken vowel before ss/ß. If it is short, you use »ss«. If it is long, you use »ß«. In this case the correct spellings are now isst and .

Before 1996 there were different (more complicated) rules about the decision between »ss« and »ß«.

Btw: Swiss German never had »ß«, so in this variation of German you always use »ss«. Only German German and Austrian German use »ß«.

  • 1
    Hm … der letzte Absatz stimmt meines Wissens so nicht; im 17, 18. und mindestens frühen 19. Jahrhundert sollte das ß – oder das, was ihm am nächsten kommt – in der Schweiz noch existiert haben.
    – Jan
    Oct 2, 2016 at 19:30

The key concept here is the 1996 spelling reform — and contrary to many other issues it introduced, the ss/ß question has remained constant throughout all later modifications of the rules. In the 19th century, there were two different standards on when to use ß and when not. One tradition, founded by Johann Christian August Heyse, bases the choice on phonologic arguments, while the other, traced back to Johann Christoph Adelung, chooses based on typographic and morphological arguments.

None of the following discussion applies to Swiss (standard and spoken) German. The German-speaking community of Switzerland stopped using ß already in the early 20th century. In Switzerland, ß is never to be used except maybe for proper nouns originating in Germany/Austria/Luxemburg/South Tyrol. Instead, ss is always used.

Before the 1996 reform, the Adelung spelling (German article) was used. It dictated that ss should be used only between vowels that belonged to the same stem and if the preceeding vowel is short, while ß is to be used before consonants and at the end of a morpheme. This meant that similar words with very similar pronunciation were written differently based on the question of whether the /s/ sound was at the end of the word or not. For essen, it is mostly the difference between wir essen and ihr eßt that jumps to mind — the first two phonemes are pronounced identically yet the spelling differs. According to Adelung, essen is spelt:

Ich esse
Du ißt
Er ißt
Wir essen
Ihr eßt
Sie essen

Adelung’s spelling makes a lot more sense in the context of blackletter typesetting, whence the ligature ß originally developped from.

Since 1996, the Heyse spelling (German article) is in use. As mentioned, it bases the spelling on a phonologic argument alone, namely that a short vowel should be followed by a double consonant as is true for most other consonant sounds (the di- and trigraphs ch and sch being the most prominent exceptions). With the Heyse spelling, the pronunciation of the vowel (short or long) can thus immediately be deduced. And according to that spelling, essen is spelt:

Ich esse
Du isst
Er isst
Wir essen
Ihr esst
Sie essen

Note how all the vowels are short and the ss spelling is constant.

Also Note that the past tense of essen is unaffected. It is always and derived — the a sound is long.

In blackletter type, the choice of spelling was more or less arbitrary; the question boiled down to whether there should be a ligature or a combination of ſ and s in a specific word. However, in antiqua typefaces a potentially important distinction may be lost when switching from Adelung to Heyse (while others are gained): the word Fassende can be interpreted as Fass-Ende in Heyse spelling while that would be Faßende in Adelung spelling. (The example is highly artificial though; the two words differ in more.)

Another verb whose spelling changed with the reform and which does not feature stem vowel variation is küssen so it may be a better example:

Ich küsse (both)
Du küßt (Adelung)/küsst (Heyse)
Er küßt (Adelung)/küsst (Heyse)
Wir küssen (both)
Ihr küßt (Adelung)/küsst (Heyse)
Sie küssen (both)

The ü vowel is pronounced identically in all cases.

Native speakers from Germany and Austria will either consistently use the Adelung spelling if they are more than approximately 30 years old, did not learn the new spelling at school and never bothered to adopt it later, or they will consistently use the Heyse spelling if they are younger and learnt it at school or actively decided to transition between them after the reform. If someone uses ißt in one sentence but isst in the next, everybody in Germany and Austria will consider that an error.

As mentioned above, Swiss will consistently use ss all the way through, but will possibly recognise correct or incorrect usage of ß if they use German or Austrian written media a lot.


The reformed spelling uses ss instead of ß. (In this case, mind you: you can't simply replace ß with ss in all cases unless you're studying Swiss German.)


To correct the statement in the other two answers, the ß is not used in Swiss Standard German, a standardized variant of German used for written documents Switzerland (together with other three official languages). Since it is a valid spelling in Switzerland, German tests like TELC or Goethe-Zertifikat do not consider such spelling to be incorrect. Therefore, you may as well simplify your life by not distinguishing between those, at least in the beginning.

It is also not used in Swiss German, which is a collection of spoken dialects. As a spoken language, Swiss German does not have any standardized spelling conventions at all. I believe you are not learning Swiss German and probably should not dive into it after seeing other people referring to it. It's a nice language, but is quite different from what most of the world knows as "German" and has very limited usefulness outside of Switzerland.

  • 2
    There is nothing in my answer that needs correction. I for one strongly advise against doing away with the ß altogether, as it were. People outside of Switzerland will consider it wrong and judge your language skills accordingly.
    – Ingmar
    Oct 2, 2016 at 10:28
  • Your use of "Swiss German" requires correction. You can and should replace ß by ss even if you study Standard German, not only if you study Swiss German.
    – varepsilon
    Oct 2, 2016 at 16:10
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    I'm afraid we'll have to agree to disagree on that one. Even if you get away with it on some standardized test or certificate, you certainly shouldn't do it (outside of Switzerland, that is).
    – Ingmar
    Oct 2, 2016 at 16:25
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    The emphasis on the first link gives a wrong impression. If it were Swiss standard German or Swiss standard German I would have no problems with it, but disregarding ß outside of Switzerland is plain wrong. Also, both other answers mention Swiss spelling, so there is no need to ‘correct’ them.
    – Jan
    Oct 2, 2016 at 19:27
  • You seem to be missing the point. Swiss German is a different language (or rather a set of languages), that differs from German to an extent similar to the difference between German and Dutch. Swiss Standard German is a regional variant of the same language with a few minor differences.
    – varepsilon
    Oct 4, 2016 at 15:36

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