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?
closed as too broad by Christian Geiselmann, Björn Friedrich, RHa, jera, Philipp Mar 27 '18 at 16:17
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There are a lot of differences, one of the most common one could be how German handles
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.
Not to forget: Punctuation in numbers! The usage of commata and dots is exactly reversed!
One million point five : 1,000,000.5
Eine Million Komma Fünf: 1.000.000,5
You asked about the differences, so I'll attempt to only cover them, but comprehensively.
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.
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).
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.
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.«
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, but in Britain it is more common to use an en-dash with a space either side.
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)
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).
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:
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)
Contractions consisting of a verb followed by es can be written both and without an apostrophe:
Geht’s noch? or Gehts noch?
Left out letters, even when no contraction is happening, get an apostrophe, unless they are a left out trailing shwa-e of a verb:
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.
He said, “Hello, I am Ben”.
Er sagte: „Hallo, ich bin Ben.“
Notice the colon instead of a comma, and the capital at the start of the quote.
In English, you create composite words by just writing one word after the other, with a space in between:
In German, you add them without a space:
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".
Ich habe dem nichts hinzuzufügen – außer, daß Du jetzt gehen solltest.
I have nothing to add—except that you should go now.
I have nothing to add – except that you should go now.
A list like
red, green, and blue would be translated like
rot, grün und blau without the comma in front of the
BTW: Canoo.net seems to be a very comprehensive resource for questions about grammar.
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, as will LibreOffice Writer when the document language is set to German.
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!)
You can set a comma if you want to guard against confusion:
He decided not to come.
Er entschied, nicht zu kommen.
The principial difference in punctuation between German and English is:
While English uses punctuation to support finding a proper "melody" for the reader (and is, thus, a matter of taste in a lot of areas), German punctuation is much more strict and has nothing to do with melody, but rather keeps apart grammatical components of a sentence.
German uses the Chevron style quotation marks:
» Die Schnee-Eule war richtig nett «, sagte Lars.