Let us consider the following English sentence:

I set the table if you take out the trash.

One doesn't have to set a comma between "table" and "if" – in contrast to the German rules for comma usage: In German, one has to set a comma:

Ich decke den Tisch, wenn du den Müll wegbringst.

In my opinion this obligatory comma disturbs the reading flow. In general, I have the feeling that German requires too many commas which disturb the reading flow. One might argue that in this special case, the comma indicates an intended little pause. But look at this example:

A function is called bijective if it is both injective and surjective.

In German:

Eine Funktion heißt bijektiv, wenn sie sowohl injektiv als auch surjektiv ist.

Here, one usually doesn't make a little pause before "wenn". That's why in this example, the obligatory comma is really useless and disturbs the reading flow. My question is:

Why does the German language, in contrast to the English language, requires so many useless commas which disturb the reading flow?

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    English is not standard by which to test if other languages are normal. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jul 1 '16 at 20:41
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    @A.M.Bittlingmayer: My mother tongue is German. I had to formulate this question in English since this is an English forum, isn't it? – ezeze Jul 1 '16 at 20:44
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    I have upvoted this question, regardless the fact that the OP uses a totally wrong premise. My reasoning is that the OP (and further readers) can learn from the answer(s), so the question is good enough, – bytebuster Jul 2 '16 at 1:04
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    @Sheljohn, it's because the question looks like it is "judging" the German language from someone's (subjective) point. However, it is not. I've just edited the title to make it more neutral. – bytebuster Mar 11 '17 at 19:10
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    'Here, one usually doesn't make a little pause before "wenn".' - I disagree. In my opinion, one does, just as one slightly raises the pitch of one's voice towards the end of "bijektiv", as is usual in front of a comma. – O. R. Mapper Dec 17 '18 at 9:23

I think your question has a presupposition that is already wrong:

It is not the language, and even less a language's grammar that makes orthography rules.

Orthography is a set of prescriptive, more or less static and sometimes seemingly arbibitrary rules that are about how to transform language into graphemes, but not an inherent part of a language itself.
This is why it doesn't even really make much sense to ask a linguist that question, because linguistics doesn't care about commas.

To still make an attempt to answer your question:
Orthography rules aren't totally useless - how would you use a dictionary or make a Google search if there was absolutely no consensus how to write a word? - and when it comes to arbitrariness and unpredictability, English can be claimed to be significantly worse than German!
The main point is probably that English word order is much more restricted, while German allows for more variance in word order especially between main clauses and subordinate clauses. In speech this can be disambiguated by intonation, while this is obivously not available in written langauge, which is why you make use of punctuation instead.
The rule is that in general, German subordinate clauses need to be separated by a comma, while this doesn't hold true for English. In German it is often more complicated to determine the word order and relationships especially in main clauses because you don't always strictly have SVO (or SOV, which would be the default word order in subordinate clauses) there, and that's one of the reasons German orthography makes more use of commas.
And if the general rule is that every subordinate clause needs to be separated by a comma, then this is in fact easier than making a large list of exceptions for those cases where it seems a little bit more "useless". Everything which is a subordinate clause is put a comma in front of, and this is why this rule totally regularly applies in your example.
In that way, the rule is not as nonsensual.

But again, orthography is not really a concern for linguistics. See this question for some more comments as to why orthography is not an inherent part of natural language itself and therefore not what linguistics traditionally deals with.

  • @lemontree since I'm here I see a lot from you, good job! – azerafati Jul 2 '16 at 8:36
  • That’s a very narrow-minded definition of linguistics you got there. – Crissov Jul 3 '16 at 10:33
  • @Crissov I'm not very happy with this definition being called "narrow-minded". The scope of linguistics probably depends a lot on where you are. I have a feeling that e.g. philologies tend to be more interested in written language - which makes sense, because orthography is immediately dependant on a specific language, and there must be someone to investigate the interface between spoken and written language/grammar and orthography, after all orthography rules are not completely arbitrary and the guys at Duden certainly know what they are talking about when it comes to linguistic backgrounds. – lemontree Jul 3 '16 at 11:14
  • But if it's about general linguistics, the tenor in the field I come from is pretty clear that written language is not primarily interesting to a general study of natural language, for the reasons explained in the two comments I linked to. And I understand this site to be about the study of general linguistics - judging from the observation that questions about language-specific questions or translation issues immediately get voted off-topic (actually I'm surprised why no one (including me) voted for this question to be migrated to the German SE, it would probably be better of there). – lemontree Jul 3 '16 at 11:14
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    @lemontree Written language may have begun at least in part as graphically recorded speech, but it works so differently than and independently from spoken language in a literate culture that it’s a research subject of its own merit in linguistics. Written language has a bad standing among some linguistic schools, because former generations of scholars (especially grammatarians) claimed to study “natural” spoken language, but really only did so by means of written records. Orthographic conventions in general are also not prescriptive rules, though often perceived as such. – Crissov Jul 3 '16 at 14:12

To complete lemontree's answer, I wanted to add a quote from Mary Norris, "Holy Writ" (The New Yorker):

The comma as we know it was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a printer working in Venice, circa 1500. It was intended to prevent confusion by separating things. In the Greek, komma means “something cut off,” a segment. (Aldo was printing Greek classics during the High Renaissance. The comma was a Renaissance invention.) As the comma proliferated, it started generating confusion. Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure. Each school believes that the other gets carried away. It can be tense and kind of silly, like the argument among theologians about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

It seems that your question assumes that German uses commas to mark pauses, when clearly the last spelling reform seem to focus on their use as a syntactic tool. See also this answer about the differences between English and German punctuation.


I will compare German, English and Russian.

  • English has no inflection but strict word order

  • Russian has rich inflection but free word order.

  • German has free word order but poor inflection.

What this means is that in English you use word order to convey some information, in Russian you use inflection, and in German you use punctuation. Russian also does not need a comma here.

  • German has poor inflection? I definitely wouldn't say so. German can be regarded as a fusional language, i.e. the morphemes are not added agglutinatively but instead one grammatical morpheme has various functions which might make it look like it has a tendency towards isolating morphology, but if you take a look at the inflectional paradigms - verbs are fully inflected by person, number, tense and mood, nouns are inflected by three genders, two numbers and four cases, even adjectives are fully inflected just like nouns - I definitely wouldn't say that German has poor infelction! – lemontree Jul 2 '16 at 10:14
  • I mean, just look at the tables for the various forms of the in German that are used to scare off people ;) (This table isn't even fully correct, because the plural forms differ between the three genders, there is not "the" plural form...) In which aspects would you say that German has poor inflection (it might well be that there are some)? – lemontree Jul 2 '16 at 10:18
  • Also, "in German you use punctuation" only applies in written language, but language is normally not considered to occur in written, but in spoken form where you can obviously not use commas (at most maybe intonation), so I think that claim is a bit problematic. I would rather say that grammatical information in German is conveyed by inflection too, similarly as in Russian. – lemontree Jul 2 '16 at 10:22
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    Anixx’s answer may not be a very good one, but @lemontree’s comments are so full of mistakes that they don’t help to proof that point. – Crissov Jul 3 '16 at 13:35
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    In German, verbs are only partially inflected by person, number, tense and mood. Nouns (and derivational morphemes) carry an inherent gender, but don’t inflect by it (like adjectives and other nominal attributes do). Number and gender form a shared category for the inflection of nominal attributes (incl. der, das, die, die). Overall, there’s a lot of syncretism in inflection paradigms – much more than an isolating morphology would permit. – Crissov Jul 3 '16 at 14:09

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