In the kitchen of the place where I work, there is a note next to the paper towel dispenser:

  • Sparsam verwenden! (use economically)
  • nur zum Hände abtrocknen (only to dry hands)
  • nicht das Geschirr abtrocknen (do not use to dry dishes)

where the English version is also attached on the note (in brackets). I am not sure if it was hung there by a native speaker, as I have some doubts to the correctness of the above. These just sound wrong to me, and based on the rules I have been learning - could be structured incorrectly.

Let me start from the second bullet point - if this is interpreted as Imperativ (Sie) due to abtrocknen starting with a small letter, I think it should read e.x.

  1. nur die Hände abtrocknen, or better, proper Imperativ style
  2. abtrocknen nur die Hände

In other words, zum should not appear there at all.

On the other hand, if zum is to remain, then consistent with the Dativ declension, it suggests that abtrocknen appears there as a nominalised Infinitive, therefore as das Abtrocknen. In this case, it would need to appear together with Hände like the following:

  1. nur zum Händeabtrocknen

Alternatively, if zum is to be used:

  1. nur zum Abtrocknen/Trocknen der Hände

The third bullet point also looks weird to me. I would write it as:

  1. Abtrocknen das Geschirr (damit) nicht (Imperative style)

or, following the zum style of the previous bullet point

  1. nicht zum Geschirrabtrocken / nicht zum Abtrocknen des Geschirr(e)s

I would be grateful if you could comment whether my observations hold and additionally, if the replacements I'm suggesting (1-6) could work.

  • 2
    For future reference, it helps to have the title and question in the same language. Just use English or German, whichever you're most comfortable with. People will try to answer in the same language as the question.
    – RDBury
    Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 20:50
  • @RDBury thank you, I'll remember the tip! Hopefully with time that'll be in German :)
    – K.T.
    Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 22:49
  • 1
    Ähnliche Frage.
    – guidot
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 19:38

1 Answer 1


1 and 3 are examples of impersonal imperatives. This doesn't exist in English so it's hard to translate, but there is no subject and the verb is just a bare infinitive placed at the end where infinitives normally go; there is no finite verb. It's often used where no one in particular is being addressed, and a public sign like this is a typical use for it. I think 2, much like its English counterpart, is not a complete sentence, so you have to fill in some words for the grammar to work. It might help to tack on "verwenden" to make it another impersonal imperative. I think you're right about the capital letter though. The wording seems very "informal" to me, convey the information in as few words as possible and let the chips fall where they may when it comes to grammar. But the impersonal imperative is a legitimate sentence form. For some reason grammar texts don't cover it as much as they should.

  • 1
    Most grammars (if not all) actually cover this form, but just don't call it unpersönlicher Imperativ (because from a pure grammar viewpoint, there is no imperative, so this is more a semantic term than a grammar one, and thus, in a proper grammar, highly debatable), but simply Infinitivsatz
    – tofro
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 5:46
  • @tofro: You could be right. Looking up the term on Wikipedia, they use it in the article on Dutch grammar, but I didn't see in the German grammar article. I assume German grammars in German do cover it. I'm thinking of my experience with Duolingo, I got most of the way through the course but when I first came across this construction I had to ask: "Why is there no subject in this sentence?" I'm calling an imperative because it would usually be translated that way into English.
    – RDBury
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 15:28
  • Well, English has it easy here: The imperative and the Infinitive are identical - No need to distinguish it.
    – tofro
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 15:34
  • @tofro: I meant books about German grammar in English; you're right that it wouldn't be covered in a book on English grammar.
    – RDBury
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 21:20

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