For English natives, the concept of German capitalization is a strange one. There seem to be quite a bunch of capitalization rules for German to follow which have nothing in common.
German pupils learn a simple rule in their first year in school: Capitalize every word that could have a definite article in front of it. If you follow this rule, you can avoid most mistakes. But let’s have a closer look at some of the difficulties:
When are verbs capitalized?
1) Ich lese ein Buch. (= I read a book.) 2) Ich mag Lesen. (= I like reading.) 3) Ich schwimme jeden Morgen. (= I swim every morning.) 4) Mein Hobby ist Schwimmen. (= My hobby is swimming.)
The general rule is that you have to capitalize a verb in German if you would use a gerund in English. These verbs are used as nouns in the German sentences. To stick to our simple rule: You could also say “Ich mag das Lesen.” or “Mein Hobby ist das Schwimmen.”
When are adjectives capitalized?
1) Das Kleid ist schön. (= The dress is pretty.) 2) Sie ist ein schönes Mädchen. (= She is a pretty girl.) 3) Das ist das Schönste, was ich je gesehen habe. (= This is the prettiest thing I have ever seen.)
An adjective is capitalized when it is used as a noun. Compare sentences of the third example: In English, you need to add “thing” as “the prettiest” cannot stand alone. In German, “das Schönste” is simply capitalized. Again, you have a definite article preceding the capitalized word.
When are numbers capitalized?
1) Da fehlt eine Acht. (= There is an eight missing.) 2) Sie hat acht Bücher. (= She has eight books.) 3) Der erste Läufer überquert die Ziellinie. (= The first runner crosses the finish line.) 4) Der Erste überquert die Ziellinie. (= The first one crosses the finish line.)
In the first sentence, the number eight is used as a noun. It follows the indefinite article. In the sentences number 2 and 3, the numbers are used as adjectives and are therefore written with minor letters. Sentence number 4 uses “der Erste” as noun. Compared to sentence number 3, only the noun “Läufer” is missing. In English, the missing noun has to be replaced by the word “one”.
So, apart from our simple rule stated above, how can you spot verbs, adjectives or numbers that need to be capitalized in German? Try to translate the sentence into English. Do you use a gerund instead of a verb? Then capitalize the German verb. Do you have to add words like “thing” or “one” after the word in question? Then capitalize it in German. Do you use an article in English to go with the word in question? Then capitalize the German word, too.
As for nouns, they are always capitalized. Other than that, the rules for capitalization are similar to the English rules: Always capitalize names, countries, geographical sites etc.
Attention: National adjectives such as German or English are not capitalized in German as long as they are not used as nouns!
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