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.

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Katherine
Katherine
2 years ago

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

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago

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?

Rafaeldiaz
Rafaeldiaz
2 years ago

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

Bori
Bori
2 years ago

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
2 years ago
Reply to  Bori

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

Bori
Bori
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ach so!! Ok, es ist dann theoretisch richtig, aber wird nie in der gesprochenen Sprache benutzt ? Ist es eher literarisch?

Bori
Bori
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Super, alles klar! Und danke für die Korrektur bzgl Gegenteil-Gegensatz:)

Bran
Bran
2 years ago

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

Greg
Greg
2 years ago

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

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
2 years ago

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

TomBambadil
TomBambadil
2 years ago

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

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago
Reply to  TomBambadil

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?

Lin
Lin
2 years ago

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!

anerbenartzi
anerbenartzi
2 years ago

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.

Osama K Tuma
Osama K Tuma
2 years ago

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

Francesca Greenoak
Francesca Greenoak
2 years ago

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

Amerikanerin
Amerikanerin
2 years ago

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?

Amerikanerin
Amerikanerin
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Uni deserves a good thrashing.

They have completely ruined my love for reading, made me abhor Goethe (whom I loved since highschool),

They make unrealistic demands that only serve to distance students from the subject (Is having to write a Wissenschaflicheaufsatz after 2 terms of German REALISTIC? And only ONE of those terms count as the first one was Anfänger – the second was “Grund”),

Their disdain for teaching the language is unacceptable, “We’re at uni – WE would never sink so low as to Teach A Language! We only exist to DISSECT the language!” They look down on “Sprachschule” which is pitiful because Sprachshule produce people who speak the language. And the classes are full. There are only 3 students left in German because it’s that much fun – Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish and Italian are all full. Dunno know about Russian. And why? Because they are teaching the LANGUAGE, not dissecting it.

They way they look down their noses at Jugendbücher is an unsavory blend of unacceptable and laughable – not only are the books we read as children and young adults part of what forms us but reading this stuff gives us a common reference point with Germans, you know, those people that SPEAK the language we’re dissecting!

It’s like saying to your 6 month old baby: Um, carrot puré is boring, let’s jump straight into beer and chips, ‘K? Uni jumps over puré, dipping fries in chocolate shakes and goes straight to beer and chips when our livers are not ready to break down alcohol and we don’t have any TEETH!

They aren’t there because they have the love and passion for the language and to teach (like you, Easy German and a list of others) but because they are getting paid to write abstruse papers and in order to motivate an office space at Uni, they have to “teach” a few hours a week.

There is so much more – not gonna bore you to death with it. Let’s just say “thrashing” and “bashing” barely suffice – STRANGLING would be more appropriate.

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago

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

aoind
aoind
2 years ago

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?

aoind
aoind
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks – yes that’s more intuitive. I’ve dug out the passage from Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage that I was trying to remember:

“When the prepositional adverb replaces preposition plus pronoun, the second syllable is usually stressed da’durch, da’mit, dar’an In spoken German the first syllable may be reduced, e.g.: dran, drauf, drin, drunter. However, if the prepositional adverb replaces a preposition plus a demonstrative, (i.e. = ‘with that’, ‘in that’, etc., see 5.1.1i), then the first syllable is stressed, e.g.: ‘dadurch, ‘damit, ‘daran. ’Damit war alles unter Dach und Fach”

The phrase I always think of is the commonly uttered expression “Wie kommst du darauf?”, where the “da” seem to get quite a heavy stressing, as would the “that” in “How did you come up with that?”

aoind
aoind
2 years ago
Reply to  aoind

Or at least I think the “da”/”that” gets stressed when you want to emphasise just what a daft idea you think it is.

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
2 years ago

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…

RogerH
2 years ago

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
2 years ago
Reply to  RogerH

(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”!)

RogerH
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I am so very grateful (almost beyond words) for the Advent Calendar and the above answers to my contractions query.

How about when I have entered the café and I now report to my friend who is late arriving for our lunch appointment, via my mobile phone :-

“I have now arrived and I am walking inside the café from the entrance to a table in the far corner where you will find me waiting for you with a bunch of beautiful roses! ”

Which contraction will best express my walking (using gehe) inside the café towards the corner table with a most beautiful view where my heart will be broken if my friend fails to arrive?

Perhaps Emanuel would like to enact this beautiful / tragic love story in an Episode of German is Easy filled with German contractions covering every imaginable shade of pointiness?

Roger from “English is much Easier than German” ;-)

Livia
Livia
2 years ago

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!

Livia
Livia
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Danke!

Turtles
Turtles
2 years ago

Formality?

Turtles
Turtles
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I mean that “contractions” in English are consid informal writing. Is it different in German?

Turtles
Turtles
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I think you misunderstood me. I understood your point about “Pointness”. My question is if I am writing a report for my boss since I need to use a really formal language, would it differ if use “in dem Café/im Café an der Ecke” as one might sound more formal if both are possible