Grammar and style

Grammar and style

What do translators do when they translate? At the most basic level they translate words from one language into equivalent words in another language. But words alone do not make much sense unless arranged into sentences according to the rules of grammar and style. Most of these rules are implicit and learned with the language, and a native speaker with a good understanding of a foreign language can translate it effectively into his mother tongue without knowing much about grammar or translation theory – because he understands the source text, can express the meaning accurately in his own words, and knows from experience what sounds right. In practice, he translates the words and applies the rules of grammar and style for the target language. But German grammar is very different from English grammar, so that a literal translation from German to English (or vice versa) will often be clumsy or difficult to understand. What follows is an informal list of some of the important differences in grammar and style between German and English.

Starting the sentence

grammar and style
Durrell’s ‘Using German’

In English, a sentence usually starts with the subject. However, German, sentences often start with something other than the subject. A German sentence may start with:

  • a relative clause
  • a prepositional phrase (“Mit dem Prüfpräparat wurde im Vorfeld eine Studie durchgeführt.”)
  • an adverbial phrase (“Darüber hinaus können Sie unseren Unterricht besuchen.”)
  • a direct object (“Stabilität erhält es durch Röhren, die den Flügel durchziehen.”
  • a conjunction (“Und auch bei denen, die ihren Wunschjob bekommen haben…”
  • or a verb (“Studiert hatten sie in München, dort waren sie zum ersten Mal begegnet.”

Separation of the noun from its article

In German, a noun may be separated from its article (usually the definite article) by an extended adjective construction , where only a simple adjective is permissible in English:

  • “Durch die Entstehung einer Pilzkolonie werden die Auswirkungen der für das bloße Auge unsichtbaren Sporen sichtbar.“
  • “Wir bitten Sie, in der Dokumentenliste des Formulars die für die Publikation des vorgelegten Inseratenteils vorgesehenen Medien namentlich zu nennen.“

Definite articles versus possessive pronouns

In German, the definite article is often preferred where a possessive pronoun would be used in English:

  • “Er hatte die Hand in der Tasche” [He kept his hand in his pocket].

Parts of the body are a classic example, but this also applies to family members (der Vater, die Tochter) – in which case a literal translation of the definite article gives an impersonal impression that is not usually intended in the German.

Singular versus plural

In German, the singular form of nouns is often preferred where the plural is preferred in English:

  • Tragen Sie mit dem Finger so viel von der Lösung auf die Behandlungsfläche auf…” [Apply enough of the solution to the treatment area with your fingers…]
  • “im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert” [in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries].

There are also reverse cases where German prefers the plural while English prefers singular nouns:

  • “Unerwünschte Wirkungen bei Laserbehandlungen können Schmerzen und lokale Entzündungen hervorrufen.” [Adverse effects with laser treatment may elicit pain and local inflammation].

Nouns versus verbs

In German grammar and style, noun forms are often used where a verbal form would be preferred in English (‘nominalisation’), particularly in formal texts such as technical and scientific documents (see Durrell (2003) on ‘R3b’, p.9).

  • “Die Erhöhung sollte jedoch nicht zu rasch erfolgen…” [However, the (dose) should not be increased too quickly…]
  • “Eine Abgabe von Muster für Studienzwecke ist grundsätzlich möglich.” [It is possible to provide samples for clinical trials].


In English, each tense [Zeitform] has two forms: simple and  continuous (or ‘progressive’), e.g.
‘I stay with friends every year’ and ‘I am staying with friends at the moment’.
German does not have a continuous tense form.

In English, there are two forms of the subjunctive mood, which generally refers to states of unreality such as wishes or possibilities. The ‘general’ (or ‘past’ subjunctive) is often used in conditional or ‘if’ phrases (‘If I were you I would…’), and the ‘special’ (or ‘present’ subjunctive’), which is used for third person wishes or instructions (‘I suggest that he does his job properly’). The English general subjunctive corresponds roughly to the German Konjunktiv II (‘Wenn ich das vorher gewusst hätte, dann hätte ich anders gehandelt‘).  Both the English special subjunctive and the German Konjunktiv I are rather formal; the special subjunctive is becoming obsolete. The Konjunktiv I is used primarily for reported speech (‘Martina hat mir erzählt, sie sei schrecklich in dich verliebt.’) and the subjunctive cannot be used for this purpose in English.

Adverbs in series

In German, adverbs can be concatenated, but this tends to sound clumsy in English (particularly with adverbs ending in ‘-ly’).

  • “Das Carcinom breitet sich über die makroskopisch eindeutig erkennbaren Anteile…”
  • “Nächster Pleitekandidat kommt auch bald unter den Schirm”.


Commas The rules for commas are more formal in German than in English (although less so with the reformed spelling rules (Rechtschreibreform). In English they may be used to break up a long sentence into distinct parts. Commas are used in German numbers where decimal points would be used in English.

Semicolons are sometimes used to separate distinct parts of a sentence in English, but only commas are used for this purpose in German.

Colons are normally (but not always) followed by a lower case letter in English: like this, whereas in German they are followed by an upper case letter: Like this.

Dashes (or long dashes) are often used in German where brackets would be used in English.


Durrell, M.l. (2003) Using German – A Guide to Contemporary Usage, 2nd edn., Cambridge UP.

See also: ‘The differences between English and German‘, ‘Tom’s Deutschseite‘ and ‘German Punctuation‘.