In English, the decision of whether to use a comma (,) or not is often considered a question of style. Sure, the rules are not as strict as a language like German, but does this mean that commas in English aren’t important? Of course not!

There are some similarities between the use of commas in German and English, but also some key differences. This means that German speakers often make some typical mistakes. Here are five tips to help you:


1. When translating dass, don’t use a comma before that:

German English
Ich weiß, dass er hier ist.
(also: Ich weiß, er ist hier.)
I know that he’s here.
(also: I know he’s here.)
Ich hoffe, dass sie es nicht gemacht hat.
(also: Ich hoffe, sie hat es nicht gemacht.)
I hope that she didn’t do it.
(also: I hope she didn’t do it.)

The same logic applies to ob (if/whether) and question words (e.g. was, wann) when they’re defining something:

German English
Ich weiß nicht, ob sie hier ist. I don’t know if she’s here.
Ich verstehe, warum sie es gemacht hat. I understand why she did it.


2. Be careful when writing conditional (if) sentences:

German always uses a comma to separate the clauses in conditionals. English only uses a comma if the if-clause comes first:

German English
Wenn du Hilfe brauchst, sag einfach Bescheid. If you need help, just let me know.
(If-clause first=with comma)
Sag einfach Bescheid, wenn du Hilfe brauchst. Just let me know if you need help.
(If-clause second=without comma)


3. Commas can completely change the meaning of some sentences:

Example Meaning
I spoke to the employees, who were sitting in the meeting room.
(with comma)
I spoke to all of the employees.
(All of them were sitting in the meeting room.)
I spoke to the employees who were sitting in the meeting room.
(without comma)
I only spoke to some of the employees. (Some were sitting in the meeting room, but I couldn’t speak to the ones who weren’t there).

This is particularly confusing for German speakers because “Ich habe mit den Mitarbeitern gesprochen, die im Meeting-Raum saßen,” would be a suitable translation for both of the above examples.


4. Take care with numbers:

German uses a comma in decimals, whereas English uses a point:

German English
3,5 Stunden
(“Drei Komma fünf Stunden”)
3.5 hours
(“Three point five hours”)

English uses a comma to separate thousands, whereas German typically uses a point:

German English
3.500 €
(“Dreitausendfünfhundert Euro”)
€3,500
(“Three thousand five hundred euros”)


5. As a guide, remember that a comma was originally used to show that the reader should pause for breath.

Try reading these two sentences aloud:
1. In the morning I need to buy milk eggs and bread at the supermarket.
2. In the morning, I need to buy milk, eggs and bread at the supermarket.
Which was easier?


If you have any questions about this topic, feel free to send me an email at philmarlowenglish@gmail.com

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