German Advent Calender – Contractions

Contractions

 

Hallo ihr alle,

day 6 of our Advent Calender, it’s Nikolaus Day in Germany.
And today weI’ll hit you with a little bit of grammar, because we’ll talk about

contractions

And before you go like “Why should I listen to a guy mansplaining about contractions…” let me tell you that I can talk about contractions because I ate so much pasta that I currently identify as pregnant.
But we’ll of course talk about contractions in language today. A contraction is when you kind of fuse two words together to create a new unit and the prime example in German are these combinations of a preposition with a definite article – in dem becomes  im, an dem becomes am, zu der becomes and so on.

I think most of you know this, but what’s not commonly talked about in books and courses is the fact that you don’t always have to use them. In fact, sometimes, using them is actually wrong. So the question today is

When to use contractions in German?

Now, usually you’d expect a bunch of rules now; like “If … then… . ”
And I guess we could do that. But the real truth is that we’re actually dealing with a continuum. A sliding scale. On the one end we have instances where using no contraction would sound wrong, on the other we have instances in which using a contraction is wrong and in between we have lots of instances where it’s kind of up to you.
And the key to this is … the finger-factor, or “pointy-ness”.
What do I mean by that?
Well, take these three sentences:

  • The coffee is good.                    (the coffee at that coffee place, for example)
  • This/that coffee is good.       (the one I’m drinking, for example)
  • THIS/THAT coffee is good.  (this one as opposed to that other one)

They all talk about a specific coffee but their focus, the intensity of pointing is very different. The first one sounds very general, while in the last one, you can kind of picture the finger pointing at that particular coffee.
Now, it doesn’t really matter when you’d use which of these sentences and what finer differences in meaning there are. The only thing that matters here is that you see a difference in “pointy-ness”.

Because, the crucial thing about contractions is this:

“Contractions lower the finger-factor substantially.”

Wow, weirdest grammar statement ever.
But yeah, the question whether or not to use a contraction comes down to how pointy the article needs to be. The pointier, the less idiomatic a contraction will be.
Let’s look at examples…

  • Thomas arbeitet gerne im Café.
  • Thomas likes working at the café/cafés.

This is pretty much the lowerst pointy-ness possible. We’re not even talking about a specific café here, but just the café  as a concept.
As soon as we decontract, the definite article actually becomes too pointy.

  • Thomas arbeitet gerne in dem Café.
  • Thomas likes working at the/that café.

By itself, this is weird, because the article now points nowhere. There’s no specific café established in the conversation, so every native speaker will feel like “Which café?”.
But as soon as we modify the example, it works fine.

  • Thomas arbeitet gerne in dem Café/im Café an der Ecke.
  • Thomas likes working at the café on the corner.

This example is kind of in the middle of the continuum that I mentioned. So here saying im Café would also work and it really depends on the personal preference of the speaker.
But that changes  here…

  • “Da… das sieht nett aus. Wollen wir da einen Kaffee trinken?”
    “Oh, in DEM Café kriegst du keinen ordentlichen Kaffee.”
  • “There… that looks nice. Should we drink a coffee there?”
    “Oh, in THAT café, you won’t get a proper coffee.”

English already uses that here, but in German the “normal” articles have a broader range. But we absolutely cannot use a contraction here, because then we’d loose all pointy-ness. It would sound like this in English:

  • “In the café, you won’t get a proper coffee.”

In the context we have, this sounds wrong. So yeah, using a contraction here is out of the question. And there’s an even more extreme case…

  • Das Café, in dem Thomas arbeitet, ist schön.
  • The café, in which Thomas is working, is nice.

Here, dem is a relative pronoun. Its job is to tag this whole relative clause to the noun, so it needs a super strong focus and using a contraction here would basically be incomprehensible.

So there you have it. Contractions are really common in German, no question about that, but examples where there’s no contraction are probably just as common. And the question whether to use one or not depends on how pointy the article has to be.

We’ll do an exercise about that in a few days probably, but for today that’s it :).
If you have questions about it, just leave me comment. Have a great day and bis morgen.

for members :)

59
Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
newest oldest
Notify of
Turtles
Turtles

Formality?

Livia
Livia

Hallo, kann man diesen Advent Artikeln als gelesen markieren? Ich konnte das machen für Artikel 4 und 5, aber nicht für die andere. Ich habe eine Sammlung von grünen Häkchen angefangen!

Roger
Roger

Which of these is great German and which is bad German?
Also do they mean different things (pointiness-wise)?
Ich gehe im café
Ich gehe in dem café
Ich gehe ins café
Ich gehe zum café
Ich gehe zu dem café
Ich gehe am café
Ich gehe an dem café

Barratt
Barratt

(Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker.)
The normal sentence is the third one, “Ich gehe ins Cafe.”

This is a case where German is very picky about spatial relationships. Technically, #1 and #2 aren’t grammatically wrong, but they are very strange. When you use two-way prepositions with dative they describe the location of an activity and not the direction/destination, so #1 and #2 would mean something like, “I’m doing power walking exercises inside the cafe”. #6 and #7 also sound strange since they mean “I’m by the cafe, walking”. (A more normal example would be “Ich gehe am Strand” meaning that the location where you walking is “by/along the beach”.)

Concerning #4 and #5 (with zum/zu dem), the normal rule is to use “in + accusative” if your destination is a building/room that you actually enter (ins Krankenhaus, in die Bäckerei, ins Wohnzimmer, etc) and to use “zu (+ dative)” if your destination is a noun that you don’t literally enter (zum Arzt, zur Arbeit, …). It’s not completely “wrong” to say “ich gehe zum Cafe”, but this could be interpreted to mean that you went to the cafe, but you didn’t go in (vielleicht gehst du zum Cafe und wartest draußen auf deinen Freund.) In fact, it would be totally normal to say “Ich fahre dich zum Cafe” meaning “I will give you a ride to the cafe” (but of course I will not drive you all the way “ins Cafe”!)

berlingrabers
berlingrabers

Thought you might have mentioned that in German, the *other* kind of contraction is “die Wehe,” which is a cognate of the English “woe.”

Just another one of many places where German beats English at expressing reality…

aoind
aoind

Reminds me of a piece of grammar I read somewhere (but have now all but forgotten) about da- prepositional adverbs and when to vocally stress the “da” and when to stress the preposition bit. What is the rule here?

Anonymous
Anonymous

waw, that’s so great to know a new thing like this. Thank you so much, have nice weekend

Amerikanerin
Amerikanerin

Thanks for the short but meaningful lesson – so valuable coming from a native speaker. Why they couldn’t just spit this out at Uni is beyond me. Woulda saved me loads of uncertainty.

Seriously, I’m suffering from Quiz-withdraw. Where’s the quiz?

Francesca Greenoak
Francesca Greenoak

Danke für this. Interesting and enlightening, just the thing for Advent.

Osama K Tuma
Osama K Tuma

Thanks for the insightful article, it’s really the little things in language that make the difference in meaning and fuller expression.

anerbenartzi
anerbenartzi

Great article. Just when I think “I already know this topic”, Emanuel introduces a practical twist that books don’t have, but is important for real language usage.

Lin
Lin

Re your example of lowest pointiness: In English we would say “Thomas likes working at a cafe,” rather than “the cafe.” Because as soon as you use “the” it suggests a specific cafe. “A” is the least pointy. A further subtlety: we would more often say “in a cafe,” although using “at” is not wrong, just not as idiomatic. Love this year’s Advent calendar. Thanks!

TomBambadil
TomBambadil

This point was always a mystery for me: in dem or im. thanks for this precious precision.

Anonymous
Anonymous

In spoken English [at least in Australia] specificity I know what you mean but no one would use the word pointy-ness] is dealt with by stressiing the word the. Otherwise it is sounded much shorter. Or the indefinite article is used. Do Germans use stress to identify specificity when speaking?

coleussanctus
coleussanctus

Sehr, sehr hilfreich, wie immer, und es hat auch Spaß gemacht. Vielen Dank!

Greg
Greg

You explain your definitions like that of a surgeon at work.(any contractions here )

Bran
Bran

Wirklich hilfreich, ich hatte keine Ahnung von der Unterschieden aber irgendwie hat es Sinn gemacht! Vielleicht entwickele ich langsam Sprachgefühl..

Hier übrigens ein sehr gutes Video über Sprachgefühl und der bessere Weg es zu entwickeln!

https://youtu.be/ilXxAfO58Jc

Bori
Bori

Hallo Emanuel, es ist schon lange her:) toller Adventkalender! Eine Frage zu diesem Beitrag: wie benutzt man jener/jenes/jene? Könnte man es sagen: “Oh, in jenem Café kriegst du keinen ordentlichen Kaffee.” Dann würde es den Gegensatz von ‚diesem’ bedeuten, also das Cafe nicht da neben mir, aber ein bisschen weiter entfernt. Es ist komisch, ich habe am Anfang meines Deutschlernens gelernt, jener usw, als ‘pointy word’ benutzen zu dürfen ..aber ich habe es tatsächlich nie von Muttersprachler gehört..:/ wie funktioniert es? Danke! Bori

Bori
Bori

Hmm , ich habe vorhin den Beitrag von gegen gelesen,also, ich korrigiere mich, ich meinte Gegenteil statt Gegensatz

Rafaeldiaz
Rafaeldiaz

Hi, guys, I’m new in this community, I got a scholarship and all because of you, thank you so much, I hope everyone receive more than you gave

Anonymous
Anonymous

Slightly different pointyness question…
Auf Englisch, “English already uses ‘that’ here, …” liest besser als “English already uses that here, …”, das Sie geschrieben haben. Sehr wahrscheinlich nur ein typo, aber vielleicht das ist anders auf Deutsch? Does the equivalent German construction not need some kind of quote or other indication to differentiate between the word ‘that’ and the thing that ‘that’ refers to? (ie does the magic of German grammar and expressiveness make it obvious which is intended?

Katherine
Katherine

Diese ist die beste Erklarung von Deixis oder “pointy-ness”