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According to Oxford English Dictionary, a firm is

a business concern, especially one involving a partnership of two or more people

Hence, a distinction in collocation with preposition is made according to that, for example, between:

an employee of a firm

a partner in a firm

the difference in choice of preposition reflects the difference in meaning: An employee has nothing to do with the ownership of the firm, while a partner does.

I am wondering whether the German term Firma has the same shade of meaning as its English counterpart firm: Does Firma refer to such a type of business as involves partnership?

This question arises when I try to discern the nuances between the following:

bei einer Firma arbeiten

in einer Firma arbeiten

I am wondering whether the nuance between the two may be attributed to the semantic element partnership, which is possibly encoded in the term Firma.

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Firm in English means the relationship to ownership, the legal entity - It roughly translates to, for example, the German "Gesellschaft" or "Firmierung".

"Firma" in German initially meant the same thing about a hundred years ago, but has evolved into a wider meaning over time - It loosely translates to company or enterprise. (Note, Austrian German and German legalese in general, seems to be slightly different here, see Hubert's answer and comments there)

Both Firma and firm stem from the same Latin verb "firmare", meaning "confirm by signage" - The German meaning has more generalized over time than the English.

With regards to prepositions:

  1. German doesn't actually need a preposition to connotate "something belongs to something else" - We would normally express this with the genitive case:

    Der Angestellte einer Firma, der Geschäftsführer einer Firma, der (Mit-)eigentümer einer Firma

    Generally, the German genitive would translate to the English preposition "of". Obviously, there is no distinction between just working there or owning it ("having signed for it"). You need to derive this from the substantive.

  2. In case you want to use a preposition, both "bei" and "in" would mean the same thing, not further specifying wether someone is just working there or participating in a partnership.

And just some more trivia you didn't ask for: You might find the abbreviation ppa on business cards or e-mail signatures as part of a job title. This stands for per procura auctoritate and means someone is fully entitled for signage on behalf of the firm.

7

Firma

I don't know much about the English term »firm«, but I do know exactly what »Firma« means in Austria, and I guess it is the same as in Germany. (»Firma« is a juristic term, and because of Germany and Austria having their own specific laws, you have to read the laws of both countries to make sure if the same term really means the same thing.)

A »Firma« is (at least in Austria) just the name of a registered enterprise. It is not the company itself, but just its name. All such registrations are collected in the »Firmenbuch«. This is not a real book (maybe it was a real book a long time ago), but a database at the »Handelsgericht« (commercial court). So a Firma is nothing, that an enterprise can be, but it is something, that an enterprise can have.

But there are also fully legal enterprises that are not registered in the Firmenbuch. Such an enterprise has no Firma, i.e. is has no registered name. This is possible, if the sales of an enterprise are lower than one million euro per year and if it is owned by only one person. In this case, the name of that enterprise used on documents (on bills or shop signs for example) must contain the surname and the first name of the owner of that enterprise (for example: »Hans Müller Wurstwaren«, »Café Lisa Stein« or »Änderungsschneiderei Irene Bayer«).

An enterprise, that has no Firma, can have employees, and they can have more than one branch. They just have to keep their sales below 1 million euro per year.

There are even companies (enterprises with two or more owners) that are not registered in the Firmenbuch and therefore have no FirmaGesellschaft bürgerlichen Rechts« = company of civil law). These companies per definition have partners, and they also can have employees.

In colloquial talk you often can hear sentences like this:

Ich arbeite seit Februar bei einer neuen Firma, sie heißt »Blaue Orange«.
Gerda hat gestern einen Tisch bei der Firma Gerwisch gekauft.
Mir reicht es jetzt, ich werde meinen Vertrag mit der Firma Sauber-Wisch kündigen!
Herr Fink ist jetzt auch Partner der Firma Schlössler.

But juridically it is wrong to talk about a Firma in these cases because the Firma is not the company or enterprise, but just it's registered name. But there are other terms (like Unternehmen, see next section), that can be used instead, and their usage is also correct in a juridical manner.

So, theoretically, you should replace »Firma« by »Unternehmen« in all examples above, but nobody does. When "normal" people (others than jurists) talk with each other, they use the term »Firma« not for the name of the enterprise, but for the enterprise itself. So, for non-jurists, it is absolutely ok to uses the sentences quoted above.

about prepositions

  1. Ich arbeite bei der Firma Hellwig & Co.
  2. Ich arbeite in der Firma Hellwig & Co.

Both versions are correct and usual. But for my personal flavour I would prefer #1 (bei), because in has a connotation of »being inside the companies building« while bei has more the meaning of »being a member of the team«. But as just said: This is my personal point of view, maybe other people have other opinions.

  1. Ich bin Partner bei der Firma Hellwig & Co.
  2. Ich bin Partner in der Firma Hellwig & Co.
  3. Ich bin Partner der Firma Hellwig & Co.

Here I would prefer the version without preposition (3) (in English: being partner of that enterprise) over #1 (bei) (being partner at that enterprise), and this again over #2 (in) (being partner in that enterprise).


Unternehmen

This is an enterprise. In its smallest form a Unternehmen has just one owner, no partners and no employees.

Take my own enterprise as an example: I produce websites and do other IT-related jobs. To be allowed to do this, I needed to register a Gewerbe (business), and now I am the owner of an Unternehmen (enterprise). I have no partners and no employees. I didn't have to register a Firma, but I did voluntarily. The Firma of my Unternehmen is »SHAPP - Schölnast Hubert Applications e.U.« (»e.U.« stands for »eingetragenes Unternehmen« = registered enterprise)

But an enterprise can have any size. It can have any number of partners and any number of employees. The biggest Unternehmen in Austria is a Bank: »Erste Group«, maybe the best known Austrian Unternehmen is Red Bull.


Gesellschaft

This is a company, and Gesellschaften are a subset of Unternehmen (every Gesellschaft is an Unternehmen, but there are Unternehmen that are not a Gesellschaft).

A Gesellschaft has at least two owners (Unternehmen doesn't have this restriction), and the term Gesellschaft is the umbrella term for a bundle of different kinds of how a Gesellschaft can juridically be realised:

  • Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung (GmbH)
  • Aktiengesellschaft (AG)
  • Offene Gesellschaft (OG)
  • Kommanditgesellschaft (KG)
  • Gesellschaft bürgerlichen Rechts (GesbR)
  • Stille Gesellschaft (stG)
  • Erwerbs- und Wirtschaftsgenossenschaft (Gen)

I think Germany has similar types of Gesellschaften. (Sorry, I don't want to describe them in detail.)

But beside this commercial Gesellschaften, there are also non-commercial groups that can have employees:


Verein

This is an association. In Germany it is called »eingetragener Verein« (registered association), in Austria just »Verein«. Almost all sports clubs and most cultural clubs are not registered as an Unternehmen but as a Verein. Also, motor clubs like ÖAMTC and ARBÖ in Austria or ADAC in Germany are no Unternehmen. They are Vereine with thousands of employees and hundreds of branches.


Addendum

What I've said about Firma in Austrian laws seems to be true also for German laws. Also in Germany a »Firma« is in the written laws not an enterprise, but just it's name.

Quote from German Handelsgesetzbuch:

§ 17 (1) Die Firma eines Kaufmanns ist der Name, unter dem er seine Geschäfte betreibt und die Unterschrift abgibt.

(My translation: The "Firma" of a merchant is the name under which he operates his business and that he uses as signature.)

But as said above: In colloquial speech you use the word Firma also in Germany as if it would mean »enterprise«.

  • +1, but only Kapitalgesellschaften have to be registered at the Handelsgericht, because they are legal entities of their own. Owner-run companies and Personengesellschaften don't have to, because the owners are the legal entities. – Janka Apr 7 '17 at 15:21
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    There is even the colloquial meaning of "Firma" as referring to a company building or site - "bring die Sachen mal zur Firma XY", "habe die Schlüssel in der Firma vergessen"... – rackandboneman Apr 7 '17 at 15:43
  • @Janka: I didn't want to drill too deep into details. This board is about German language, not about Austrian laws. – Hubert Schölnast Apr 7 '17 at 17:26
  • Cannot say for Austria, but I pretty much doubt "Firma" shows up in any legal text or law. It definitely doesn't in German laws. Way to colloquial and unspecific. – tofro Apr 7 '17 at 17:52
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    Das deutsche BGB ist, wie das österreischische ABGB, das falsche Gesetz um nach »Firma« zu suchen. Da geht es ja um bürgerliches Recht, nicht um Wirtschaftsrecht. Aber schau mal, was ich gefunden habe: dejure.org/gesetze/HGB/17.html oder hier: dejure.org/gesetze/BeurkG/41.html – Hubert Schölnast Apr 9 '17 at 9:35
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Firma, at least in typical modern usage, translates well to the English word Company - it's used quite freely to refer to any business of decent size.

In my experience, there is no real connotative difference between "bei einer Firma" or "in einer Firma", however I have seen "bei" used much more frequently. That being said, both imply some high level of involvement in a company. A CEO "arbeitet bei" a company, but an entry level worker "arbeiter für" a company. I found this analogous to the way you would say that a worker is employed by a company, but would not be likely to use this phrasing for an executive.

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