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Capitalization in German

Groß- und Kleinschreibung

More of this Feature
• Capitalization in German
• Capitalization Rules
    Groß- u. Kleinschreibung
• Capitalization QUIZ
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• Spelling Reform: Newsstand
• Reform der Reform
• German Punctuation
• Grammar/Grammatik
• Top Grammar BOOKS
The topic of German spelling reform (Rechtschreibreform) has been a hot topic of debate in recent years. Even before the current rules, issued in 1996, went into effect for schools and government entities in all the German-speaking countries in August 1998, there had been court cases and official protests. Despite a generally negative attitude from most German-speakers, the German media in Austria, Germany and Switzerland almost uniformly adopted the reforms in August 1999. With rare exceptions (FAZ in 2000), the reforms remain in effect today. The "complete implementation" of the rules went into effect on August 1, 2005.

But in all the wrangling over how German should be properly spelled there has been one prominent sacred cow: the capitalization of all nouns. German is the only language in the world that requires the capitalization of ALL nouns. There are only a few fringe groups calling for German capitalization rules similar to those in most other languages. Headquartered in Zurich, the Bund für vereinfachte rechtschreibung (note the spelling of the BVR's name, "Federation for simplified spelling") dates back to 1924. While there are a few rebels who write their German email like e.e. cummings, most German-speakers still cling to their sacred Großschreibung (capitalization). Although Kleinschreibung had its advocates, the framers of the 1996 German spelling reforms felt it was simply not politically feasible to call for the elimination of noun capitalization. As it was, they had quite enough controversy without adding Groß- und Kleinschreibung to the list.

In a way, leaving the noun-capitalization rule largely untouched was a good thing for students of German. It certainly makes it easier to spot a noun (das Substantiv, das Hauptwort) in German, something that many students find difficult to do in their own language! The rules for capitalization in German are in fact no more complicated than those for English or most other languages, but there are some differences that a student of German should be aware of. These differences can be a source of interference problems for someone learning German.

First of all, consider what must be capitalized in English but not in German: I/ich, American car/amerikanisches Auto and German wine/deutscher Wein (adjectives of nationality). Yes, it's a very short list!

Going the other way, there is only one word (besides all nouns) that German capitalizes but English does not: Sie (the formal "you" and its variations, i.e., Ihnen, Ihr). Although many German speakers continue to capitalize the informal "you" forms (du, dich, ihr, euch, etc.) in a letter or email, under the new rules, the formal Sie is the only pronoun requiring capitalization. (A logical rule, since the capitalization of Sie expresses distance and formality versus the closeness and familiarity of du.)

With the exception of German's all-noun capitalization, English capitalizes most of the same things that German does: Henry/Heinrich, First Union Bank/Deutsche Bank, Ms. Smith/Frau Schmidt (proper names, titles); Friday/Freitag, Juni/June (days of the week and months; many other languages don't, including French, Spanish and Italian), and the first letter in a sentence.

German capitalization rules only become a bit tricky (even for Germans) when it comes to details like am besten (superlative) versus zum Besten (superlative phrase) and some changes resulting from spelling reform (heute Morgen, Rad fahren, auf Deutsch, etc.). On the next page you'll find more examples and a closer look at the rules of German capitalization—and its history.

NEXT > Part 2: German Capitalization Rules

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