Since I started learning German, my teacher always told me to use "auf" when referring to a language:

Du musst nicht auf Englisch fragen.

So I have encoutered this sentence:

Sie antwortete mir im schönsten Englisch.

My question is, when should I use "auf" and "in" as a preposition for the names of languages?

  • 1
    I think you mean: "Du darfst nicht..."
    – fdb
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 16:55
  • Generally put, your teacher is wrong. But I presume the intention was to provide you with an easy rule for beginners and not an in-depth learning session. Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 16:57

2 Answers 2


There is a difference between both sentences, the propositions are not interchangeable. You could sum up the difference by: auf Englisch is a fixed adverb-like construction, while the noun das Englisch(e) can be used with whatever preposition makes sense in connection with a verb.

Du darfst nicht auf Englisch fragen: a couple of spelling reforms ago, it used to be written auf englisch, which showed it has a pretty much adverb-like function. However, the construction with auf apparently seemed like deutsch was a substantive here, so it was capitalized.

In the sentence Sie antwortete mir im schönsten Englisch, on the contrary, Englisch is clearly a substantive, which you can tell by its adjective attribute. It's das Englisch(e), just as in Du darfst nicht in schlechtem Englisch fragen. Another example: Sie konnte sich selbst mit ihrem schlechten Englisch verständlich machen.

  • When was auf englisch with a lowercase e acceptable?
    – David Vogt
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 21:22
  • @DavidVogt Until the reform of 1996 it wasn't only acceptable, it was obligatory. Auf Deutsch used to be an error. The goal of the reform, however, was to strengthen the principle of capitalizing substantives, and some people felt that the substantive character of colours and languages with prepositions (same with Dame in Rot) predominates (cf. pub.ids-mannheim.de/laufend/sprachreport/pdf/sr04-extra.pdf, page 7) Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 22:52
  • Thank you very much! Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 15:11
  • @amadeusamadeus I would be very interested to know when Duden decided on this spelling. In 19th century texts, both variants are found (example).
    – David Vogt
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 17:45
  • @DavidVogt Interesting! Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 18:18

In German grammar, it is sometimes relevant whether a noun occurs on its own (unbegleitet) or is accompanied by other words. The simple rule I can glean from the facts is that auf is used when the noun stands on its own and in when it is not.

There is a simple analogy to this situation for directional prepositions.

eine Reise nach Rom
eine Reise ins antike Rom

Die Spur führt nach China.
Die Spur führt in das China des 20. Jahrhunderts.


Denn im Englisch des John Donne schreibt sich das Wort „Island“ – das unserem „Eiland“ entspricht – noch nicht mit „s“ sondern ohne: „iland“. (source)

Auf Englisch schreibt man „island“ mit „s“.

  • I agree that positional and directional prepositions can be used with languages, also ins Englische übersetzen oder aus dem Englischen stammen. However, I think auf + language has become a fixed expression (like zu + Mittag or Abend) and stands outside of the dichotomy begleitet/unbegleitet. Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 18:30

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