German Punctuation | Zeichensetzung | Punctuation Marks Part 1

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The German word for dot, point or period, der Punkt, and the English word punctuation both have the same Latin source: punctum (point). Among many other things that German and English have in common are the punctuation marks they use. And the reason most punctuation marks look and sound the same is that many of the signs and some of the terms, such as der Apostrophdas Kommaand das Kolon (and English period, hyphen), are of common Greek origin.

The period or full stop (der Punkt) dates back to antiquity. It was used in Roman inscriptions to separate words or phrases. The term "question mark" (das Fragezeichen) is only about 150 years old, but the ? symbol is much older and was earlier known as the "mark of interrogation." The question mark is a descendant of the punctus interrogativus used in 10th century religious manuscripts. It was originally used to indicate voice inflection. (Greek used and still uses a colon/semicolon to indicate a question.) The Greek terms kómma and kólon originally referred to parts of lines of verse (Greek strophe, German die Strophe) and only later came to mean the punctuation marks that demarcated such segments in prose. The most recent punctuation marks to appear were quotation marks (Anführungszeichen)—in the eighteenth century.

Fortunately for English-speakers, German generally uses the same punctuation marks in the same way that English does.

However, there are some minor and a few major differences in the way the two languages use common punctuation marks.

Der Bandwurmsatz ist die Nationalkrankheit
unseres Prosastils.
” - Ludwig Reiners

Before we look at the details of punctuation in German, let’s define some our terms. Here are some of the more common punctuation marks in German and English.

Since America and Britain are “two countries separated by a common language” (G.B. Shaw), I have indicated the American (AE) and British (BE) terms for items that differ.


German Punctuation Marks
die Anführungszeichen 1
„Gänsefüßchen” (“geese feet”)
quotation marks 1
speech marks (BE)
„  “
die Anführungszeichen 2
“chevron,” „französische“ (French)
quotation marks 2
French “guillemets”
«  »
  Note: In German books, periodicals, and other printed materials you will see both kinds of quotation marks (type 1 or 2). While newspapers generally use type 1, many modern books use type 2 (French) marks.
die Auslassungspunkteellipsis dots
omission marks
das Ausrufezeichenexclamation mark!
der Apostrophapostrophe
der Bindestrichhyphen-
der Doppelpunkt
das Kolon
der Ergänzungsstrichdash-
das Fragezeichenquestion mark?
der Gedankenstrichlong dash
runde Klammernparentheses (AE)
round brackets (BE)
(  )
eckige Klammernbrackets[  ]
das Kommacomma,
der Punktperiod (AE)
full stop (BE)
das Semikolonsemicolon;


Part 2: Differences

German versus English Punctuation

In most cases German and English punctuation are similar or identical. But here are a few key differences:

1. Anführungszeichen (Quotation Marks)

A. German uses two types of quotation marks in printing. “Chevron” style marks (French “guillemets”) are often used in modern books:

Er sagte: «Wir gehen am Dienstag.»
Er sagte: »Wir gehen am Dienstag.«

In writing, in newspapers, and in many printed documents German also uses quotation marks that are similar to English except that the opening quotation mark is below rather than above: Er sagte: „Wir gehen am Dienstag.” (Note that unlike English, German introduces a direct quotation with a colon rather than a comma.)

In email, on the Web, and in hand-written correspondence, German-speakers today often use normal international quotation marks (“ ”) or even single quote marks (‘ ’).

B. When ending a quotation with “he said” or “she asked,” German follows British-English style punctuation, placing the comma outside of the quotation mark rather than inside, as in American English: „Das war damals in Berlin”, sagte Paul.

„Kommst du mit?”, fragte Luisa.

C. German uses quotation marks in some instances where English would use italics (Kursiv). Quotation marks are used in English for the titles of poems, articles, short stories, songs and TV shows. German expands this to the titles of books, novels, films, dramatic works and the names of newspapers or magazines, which would be italicized (or underlined in writing) in English:
  „Fiesta” („The Sun Also Rises”) ist ein Roman von Ernest Hemingway. — Ich las den Artikel „Die Arbeitslosigkeit in Deutschland” in der „Berliner Morgenpost”.

D. German uses single quotation marks (halbe Anführungszeichen) for a quotation within a quotation in the same way English does:
  „Das ist eine Zeile aus Goethes ,Erlkönig’”, sagte er.

Also see item 4B below for more about quotations in German.


2. Apostroph (Apostrophe)

A. German generally does not use an apostrophe to show genitive possession (Karls Haus, Marias Buch), but there is an exception to this rule when a name or noun ends in an s-sound (spelled -s, ss, -ß, -tz, -z, -x, -ce). In such cases, instead of adding an s, the possessive form ends with an apostrophe: Felix’ Auto, Aristoteles’ Werke, Alice’ Haus. - Note: There is a disturbing trend among less well-educated German-speakers not only to use apostrophes as in English, but even in situations in which they would not be used in English, such as anglicized plurals (die Callgirl’s).

B. Like English, German also uses the apostrophe to indicate missing letters in contractions, slang, dialect, idiomatic expressions or poetic phrases: der Ku’damm (Kurfürstendamm), ich hab’ (habe), in wen’gen Minuten (wenigen), wie geht’s? (geht es), Bitte, nehmen S’ (Sie) Platz! But German does not use an apostrophe in some common contractions with definite articles: ins (in das), zum (zu dem).


3. Komma (Comma)

A. German often uses commas in the same way as English. However, German may use a comma to link two independent clauses without a conjunction (and, but, or), where English would require either a semicolon or a period: In dem alten Haus war es ganz still, ich stand angstvoll vor der Tür.

But in German you also have the option of using a semicolon or a period in these situations.

B. While a comma is optional in English at the end of a series ending with and/or, it is never used in German: Hans, Julia und Frank kommen mit.

C. Under the reformed spelling rules (Rechtschreibreform), German uses far fewer commas than with the old rules. In many cases where a comma was formerly required, it is now optional. For instance, infinitive phrases that were previously always set off by a comma can now go without one: Er ging(,) ohne ein Wort zu sagen. In many other cases where English would use a comma, German does not.

D. In numerical expressions German uses a comma where English uses a decimal point: €19,95 (19.95 euros) In large numbers, German uses either a space or a decimal point to divide thousands: 8 540 000 or 8.540.000 = 8,540,000 (For more on prices, see item 4C below.)


4. Gedankenstrich (Dash, Long Dash)

A. German uses the dash or long dash in much the same way as English to indicate a pause, a delayed continuation or to indicate a contrast: Plötzlich — eine unheimliche Stille.

B. German uses a dash to indicate a change in the speaker when there are no quotation marks:Karl, komm bitte doch her! - Ja, ich komme sofort.

C. German uses a dash or long dash in prices where English uses double zero/naught: €5,— (5.00 euros)