Punctuation in Foreign Language: How important are they?
It may seem like a silly, inane thing, but one of the things that you need to pay attention to when you consider learning a new language is the punctuation. In English the speaker (or writer, as it were) might not put that much thought into punctuation unless you were a professional writer, and even if you did consciously consider things like semi-colons and commas you’d be hard pressed to come across an educational class above age 10 that actively taught and sought to perfect these concepts. Because of this, punctuation is often a more difficult concept to understand in a foreign language, especially when that language’s punctuation rules vary, whether slightly or greatly, from the rules (which most English speakers don’t institutionally know) of the English language.
I stated before that the concept of paying attention and learning punctuation is silly, so it may be even sillier to know that this article does not intend to focus on things an English speaker might have trouble with, such as a colon or semi-colon. The comma in German is important to the structure of the sentence and, therefore, the written word or conversation as a whole, as the rules for using commas in the German language are more concrete than in English, where many people tend to overuse commas or use commas in places where they are not appropriate. In fact, most people write as they would speak, and they put commas in areas where they would pause if they were speaking. Here are some helpful tips to remember when considering commas in German and how to use them:
The German Comma Versus the English Comma
In the German language, commas are not determined by where the writer might pause if he was speaking, but instead the idea of commas are driven directly by their grammatical use when writing (which should be but often is not the case in English). Consider the following English sentence, and how you might write it: “The problem, however, is that…” As we can see here a person might pause during the however and it can be grammatically correct to surround the ‘however’ with commas. Consider that same sentence in German, where it is not grammatically correct to have a comma: “Das Problem ist jedoch, dass…” In this sentence, there is a comma (though it is for a different reason, it comes before a conjunction, but that is for later), but it is not because of the ‘however.’ Instead, unlike in English, the comma is not needed for a place where one might pause.
German Commas: Subordinate and Main Clauses
The reason that the comma is inserted in the German sentence above, before the German word “dass” (or ‘that’), is because the sentence will be made of two separate clauses. The first clause, “the problem is” matches up with the second clause, where the reason for the problem would be given. There are two different types of clauses, independent and dependent clauses, and clauses have an effect on the use of commas as well. Consider the following English sentence, made up of an independent and dependent clause: “When the boy was young, he saw it.” The dependent clause is “When the boy was young,” because if you just say that sentence out loud, it should not sound right, because it is not a complete sentence. The same sentence in German denotes a comma, or “Wenn der Junge jung war, sah er es.”
Two Independent Clauses in German
Just because there is a comma, however, does not mean that one of the clauses hast o be dependent and one has to be independent. A comma is also needed when you are joining two independent clauses, or conjoining two sentences that could, otherwise, stand on their own: “He went away, but he came back.” The phrases ‘he went away’ and ‘he came back’ could both be individual sentences, and in German both individual clauses (as long as both of the clauses have grammatical subjects) are joined by a sentence that goes with the conjunction: “Er ging weg, aber er kam zurück” (a translation of our previously mentioned English sentence). Notice the comma before the word ‘but’ (or its German counterpart ‘aber’), which joins the two sentences.
The reason that I made a mention of “as long as both the clauses have grammatical subjects” is because the German sentence does not need a comma if a subject is not explicitly mentioned. Consider our previous English sentence, but take away the second ‘he,’ so the second clause has no subject: “He went away but came back.” As English speakers, we know that the second clause still implies that ‘he’ came back, but you do not need a comma here in English or in German: “Er ging weg aber kam zurück” if the second clause does not have a subject.
Optional Commas in the German Language
One of the only times in German where a grammatical rule is “optional” comes with the comma: with two independent clauses, whether the second has a subject or not, you have the option of using a comma for the coordinating conductions “and” and “or” (‘und’ and ‘oder’ in German). This grammatical revision is a recent one. A comma is also considered grammatically optional when you are considering the infinitive of a word in the sentence: “She would like to be with him” is our English sentence. ‘to be’ is considered the infinitive verb because it has ‘to’ before it, or in German it would be because there is an ‘-en’ at the end of the verb. Our German translation would be “Sie möchte ihm zu lehren.“ Notice it has no comma, because it is optional, and it could also be written “Sie möchte, ihm zu lehren.” Note the comma placement. If there is no ‘him’ in the sentence, there is no comma straight out: “Sie möchte zu lehren,” or “she would like to teach” (no “him”).
Why do we need commas?
Commas are needed grammatically and for the ease of reading when you are putting a dependent clause before the main clause. The dependent clause, also known as the subordinate clause, can be put before the main clause, but a comma needs to be separating him: “If he wants to come, he can” translates into “Wenn er kommen will, kann er.” The subordinate clause comes before the main clause, and you must put the comma between the clauses. One big reason this is helpful while reading is because, after some conjunctions, the verb order is switched in the second sentence (if the subordinate clause comes first.) Consider the sentence in English: “If she loves me, I love her.” In German it would be “Weil du mich liebst, liebe ich dich.” Without the comma (and pause) the “liebst liebe” might be a tongue twister. A comma must also be used if the main clause comes before the subordinate clause: “He can come if he wants,” or “Er kann kommen, wenn er willt.”
The German Language and Relative Clauses
The last grammatical placement for commas in German is at both the beginning and the end of a relative clause. A relative clause is a type of subordinate clause that modifies (or explores upon) the noun of the sentence. In the English sentence “The boy who was in my class came to my house,” the relative clause is “who was in my class,” because it expands on the idea of “the boy.” In German, the “who was in my class” would have commas at both the beginning and the end because it is a relative clause, as seen in the following translation: “Der Junge, der in meiner Klasse war, kam zu meinem Haus.” The relative clause is “der in meiner Klasse,” or “who was in my class,” and therefore is surrounded by commas.
The German Language Comma Guide
I hope that this was helpful in determining where commas should go in a German sentence. Here is a brief rehashing of what this article explained about where commas are used:
-Not used merely by “implied” speaking pauses:
English: The problem, however, is that…
German: Das Problem ist jedoch, dass
-Between a dependent and independent clause:
English: When the boy was young, he saw it.
German: Wenn er jung war, sah er es.
-Conjoining two main/independent clauses when the second clause has a subject:
English: He went away but he came back.
German: Er ging weg, aber er kam zurück
As opposed to:
English: He went away but came back. (No subject in the second clause)
German: Er ging weg aber kam zurück. (No comma)
-With a relative clause:
English: The boy who was in my class came to my house.
German: Der Junge, der in meiner Klasse war, kam zu meinem Haus.
Using the English conjunctions “and“ or “or“
Using an infinitive verb as a clause:
English: He would like to teach her
German: Er möchte, ihr zu lehren OR Er möchte ihr zu lehren.
No comma needed with just the infinitive verb: Er möchte zu lehren.
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barbara on January 13, 2014:
I am not sure that the author of this page is German. There are problems with the German sentences.
Miike on September 03, 2013:
"In the German language, commas are not determined by where the writer might pause if he was speaking, but instead the idea of commas are driven directly by their grammatical use when writing (which should be but often is not the case in English)."
Ugh. In English, commas are NOT determined by the writer's pause, but by rules. It's just that the rules are different. They are, however, still rules.
I used the example of separating the non-essential word "however," like you have done in your own examples. The separation of the word by commas isn't simply because we naturally pause there; there is RULE that dictates its use. You separate parenthetical, non-essential elements in the middle of a sentence with commas.
Also an English example is clearly wrong:
"English: He went away but he came back."
A comma is used to separate two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. The correct sentence is:
"He went away, but he came back."
Note: there are some differences in conventions between British English and American English with respect to comma usage. The corrected example above is unambiguous in American rules. I don't know if it is different in British rules.
Giridhar on July 10, 2012:
ya, good i have got some clarity in this topic. sure it will be helpful to me. thank you:-)
Frank on May 29, 2012:
"Sie moechte ihn zu lehren" doesn't make any sense in German. "Lehren" also has a limited meaning in respect of teaching. For specific matters taught, the word "beibringen" may be more appropriate (i.e. "Sie moechte ihm Mathematik beibringen"
German Native Speaker on February 22, 2011:
Also, you mistranslated "when" in your example phrase - "When the boy was young, he saw it" translates "ALS der Knabe jung war, sah er es."
The rule for the comma before infinitives is:
"The comma stands before AUGMENTED infinitives with "zu":
I asked him to come. = Ich bat ihn zu kommen.
I asked him to come to me. = Ich bat ihn, zu mir zu kommen.
Deutschlehrer on September 20, 2010:
Good, easy-to-understand explanations. Only your German examples mar it. "Möchte" is a modal auxiliary, so the following verb does not require "zu". That then makes any comma wrong:
"Sie möchte ihn lehren" is the only correct version. There are only a handful of German verbs for which this is true: möchten, mögen, wollen, sollen, dürfen, können, werden (not a modal but the future marker). For other verbs the comma may be option, depending on the length of the infinitive clause. "Sie halfen ihm zu stehen" (They helped him to stand) does not require a comma; in fact, a comma would be wrong. "Sie halfen ihm, seine Sachen vom Boden aufzuheben" (They helped him pick up his things from the floor) does require a comma.
The German translation does not match the English example in the section titled "Optional Commas in the German Language". I am certain that this is because you changed the example in either English or German and then didn't change the other language.
I hope this helps make your webpage even more helpful.
Jasmine on May 06, 2010:
I´ll come back again to read this hub. Still learning German, so I find it quite helpful! Rated up!