The importance of capital letters in German

The German language is almost the only language in which nouns, names and nominalisations are capitalised. This is why capitalisation is a challenge for most German learners, and even native speakers are sometimes unsure whether a word is written in upper or lower case. What is more, did you know that there are certain words that can be written both upper and lower case, but that the meaning of the sentence changes accordingly? This is exactly what this blog post is about. At the same time, this blog post will give you an overview of when capitalisation is used and why capitalisation is sometimes crucial for the meaning of a sentence.

When do we capitalise?

You probably already know that nouns (e.g. der Hund (= dog)), names (Anna) and the beginnings of sentences are capitalised in German. Example: Der Hund von Anna ist noch jung. (= The dog of Anna is still young.)

Capitalisation becomes more complicated when words are so-called nominalisations. A nominalisation is a word, typically a verb or an adjective, that is made into a noun. That is, the word is not a noun as a noun but functions as one.

Example: essen (= to eat)

  • Anna und Lukas essen Spaghetti mit Tomatensauce. (= Anna and Lukas eat spaghetti with tomato sauce.)

The verb essen (= to eat) is written in lower case.

  • Das Essen von Spaghetti ist nicht so einfach. (= Eating spaghetti is not so easy.)

Here, Essen functions as a noun and is therefore capitalised (nominalisation).

  • Beim Essen wird nicht geredet. (= No talking at the dinner table.)

Beim, zum and vom are short forms of bei dem, zu dem and von dem. Since the declined article demturns the verb into a nominalised verb, Essen is capitalised here too.

Example: neu (= new)

  • Anna hat eine neue Kaffeemaschine. (= Anna has a new coffee machine.)

The adjective neu is written in lower case.

  • Doch Neues ist nicht immer besser als A (= But new things are not always better than old things.)

Here, Neues functions as a noun and is therefore capitalised (nominalisation).

  • Ich habe nichts Neues zu erzählen. (= I have no news to tell.)

We capitalise after nichts, alles, viel, wenig and etwas because these words indicate that a noun follows.

Have you ever wondered whether colours are written in upper or lower case? Again,        colours are written in lower case when they function as adjectives. When they function    as nouns, they are written in upper case. Example: Anna zieht ein rotes Kleid an, denn    Rot steht ihr gut. (= Anna puts on a red dress because red looks good on her.)

So, nouns, names, the beginnings of sentences and nominalisations are capitalised in German. Capitalisation is also used with polite forms of address. That is, with the formal “you” and “your”. Example: Sehr geehrter Herr Meier, Sie haben mich gebeten, Ihnen weitere Dokumente zuzusenden. Bitte finden Sie die Dokumente im Anhang. Ich freue mich auf Ihre Rückmeldung. (= Dear Mr Meier, you have asked me to send you further documents. Please find the documents attached. I look forward to hearing from you.)

Whereas if you address Mr Meier informally, write the pronouns in lower case: Hallo Hans, du hast mich gebeten, dir weitere Dokumente zuzusenden. Bitte finde die Dokumente im Anhang. Ich freue mich auf deine Rückmeldung. (= Hello Hans, you have asked me to send you further documents. Please find the documents attached. I look forward to hearing from you.)

Spot the difference

Let us now move on to some tricky cases.

  • Guten Morgen! Wie geht es dir? Treffen wir uns morgen? (= Good morning! How are you? Are we meeting tomorrow?)
  • Hallo! Ja, lasst uns morgen Morgen treffen. (= Hello! Yes, let’s meet tomorrow morning.)
  • Bis morgen. (= Great. See you tomorrow.)

How come Morgen is sometimes capitalised and other times not? Der Morgen (= morning) is written in capital letters, whereas morgen (= tomorrow) is written in lower case.

Another tricky case:

  1. Ich spreche deutsch. (= I speak German.)
  2. Ich spreche Deutsch. (= I speak German.)

In fact, both sentences are correct and have (almost) the same meaning. In the first sentence, the question we ask is: How do you speak? In the second sentence, the question we ask is: What language do you speak?

Let’s repeat! What is the difference between the following sentences?

  1. Waren Sie einmal in Deutschland? (= Have you ever been to Germany?)
  2. Waren sie einmal in Deutschland? (= Have they ever been to Germany?)

In the first sentence, we use the formal “you”, that is, “Sie”. If you address the same person informally, you say: Warst du einmal in Deutschland?

In the second sentence, sie (= they) refers to a group of people. You could also ask: Waren Anna, Lukas und Hans einmal in Deutschland? (= Have Anna, Lukas and Hans ever been to Germany?)

The next example also shows that correct capitalisation is crucial for the meaning of a sentence:

  1. Der gefangene Floh (= The caught flea)
  2. Der Gefangene floh. (= The prisoner fled.)

So, whereas the first sentence is about a caught flea, the second sentence is about a prisoner who fled.

And finally: Wenn hinter Fliegen Fliegen fliegen, fliegen Fliegen Fliegen nach. Can you break down the sentence? I look forward to your comments!

(Solution: When flies fly behind flies, flies fly after flies.)

You can read about other common challenges for German learners in the blog posts German orthography: “Widder”, “wieder” or “wider”? and German Compound Words.

Nelly Müller – Sprachen Akademie

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