Welcome to my monthly article. As always, the link to my last article is here.


This time, I’m going to cover punctuation. This is something that can make a big difference between a clear, readable translation and one that can sometimes be verging on the incomprehensible.


When it comes to commas, the German language has very rigid rules, but in general these rules do not apply in English. Which is not to say that English doesn’t have rules – they are just different. They can also be more flexible, but there are of course times when a comma needs to be used. Since there are rules, I suggest using Google to check on them if you are in doubt. There are many different resources; this is just one of them. However, when it comes to cases that are not so clear cut, one of the best ways to decide whether you need a comma or not, or whether to use some other punctuation, is to read the text out loud to yourself. When you make a natural pause, it means punctuation is required. Take the following sentence:


With the [product name] anti-mosquito device, you get an effective device that protects you not only at home in the garden at the barbecue or in the bedroom when you sleep but also when you go camping, have a campfire, or a picnic in the park.


In particular because the sentence is long it needs a comma after “sleep”, and it could really use one or two others, but to work out where you need to be clear about the meaning. Should there be one after “home”, one after “garden” and/or one after “barbecue”? That depends on the exact meaning. I would opt for one after “home” and one after “barbecue” in this case, because that makes the most sense and creates a comprehensible sentence. The extra punctuation breaks up the text and makes it easier to read, especially out loud. How does this sound?


With the [product name] anti-mosquito device, you get an effective device that protects you not only at home, in the garden at the barbecue, or in the bedroom when you sleep, but also when you go camping, have a campfire, or a picnic in the park.


In German, it is far more common than in English to use a lot of exclamation marks. In many (I could even say most) cases they should not be copied over into the English translation. Similar to using too many capital letters, an exclamation mark looks rather like shouting to an English speaker. The following sentence contains not only an exclamation mark that I would omit, but also a colon:


Experts know: Just one session a week makes a big difference!


This sentence, in fact, is an example of two or three issues, depending on whether you are translating into US or GB English:


  1. an exclamation mark that in English is superfluous;
  2. a colon when, within a text, it would be preferable to make a proper sentence (Experts know that just one session a week makes a big difference). This use of a colon should be confined to headlines and introductions to paragraphs, when it can be used to make an impact. Otherwise, your text will flow much better when you form a proper sentence;
  3. in GB English a capital letter should not be used after a colon unless it the first word is a proper noun (a name). In US English, a capital letter can sometimes be used if the text following forms a proper sentence. You can find an explanation here.


One of the rules for colons and capitalisation concerns lists. My example above shows a colon at the end of the sentence introducing my list of bulleted points, each point starts with a small letter and ends with a semi-colon, and the final point has a full stop/period. This is the way to punctuate such a list.


One further aspect that is worth mentioning is quotation marks. Don’t forget to use the English version and not copy over the German marks. But there is also a difference between US and GB English here: in US English double quotation marks should be used (“…”), while in GB English the rule is to use single marks (‘…’). When, however, you have a quote within a quote, you need to use both. In US English:


She said, “I’ve just read a book about punctuation called ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves.’ “


And in GB English:


She said, ‘I’ve just read a book about punctuation called “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” ’.


In this case I have left a space between the two marks at the end, because otherwise it is not easy to see that I have used two. Also worth noting is that in US English the period is within the quotation marks, while in GB English the full stop is outside because in this case the full sentence ends after the quotation. (The convention is actually to put the book title in italics, rather than use quotation marks for it, but since this example is to illustrate the use of quotation marks, I bent the rules a bit.)


It is worth mentioning that when a client’s instructions say that the translation should be grammatically correct in the target language, and that the original punctuation should be preserved as much as possible, the former rule should prevail in order to make the translation readable, and if the original has no, or very little, punctuation, it will be necessary to add punctuation to make the text comprehensible.


Since punctuation is a big subject, I have only made a few general points here, but I would thoroughly recommend reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which is not just an excellent and informative book, but also very readable.


I hope you find this useful. Your comments and questions are, of course, always welcome.



Please sign in to leave a comment.