Use a Period, for Crying Out Loud!

 

NOTE: In a departure from my usual bilingual blog, this article is in English ONLY, as it is aimed at teachers/linguists rather than students of German.

 

Of course, everybody who has some interest in the German language has noticed the obvious dumbing down of German in recent years arising from the assimilation of Denglish or just straightforward English. But I am equally bothered by a phenomenon that I would categorize as a grammatical dumbing down of German. I am speaking of the ever more pervasive use of adverbs as some implied form of conjunction.

Example: Ich habe Angst vor Spinnen, deshalb gehe ich nicht gern zelten.

Deshalb is clearly and unequivocally an adverb (consult your DUDEN if you don’t believe me). An adverb cannot connect clauses or sentences, grammatically speaking. That function is reserved for conjunctions or relative pronouns. Grammatically, the German sentence in the example above consists of TWO grammatically independent (main) clauses, which really should require final punctuation, such as a period or semi-colon, rather than a comma.

Ich habe Angst vor Spinnen. Deshalb gehe ich nicht gern zelten.   OR   Ich habe Angst vor Spinnen; deshalb gehe ich nicht gern zelten.

Unfortunately, the authors of the Rechtschreibreform of 1996 apparently were under the impression that they were simplifying German by making it grammatically incorrect. Thus, they started to permit the absolutely atrocious use of a comma, instead of a period, to separate main clauses (http://www.vbf.at/recht6.pdf).

 regel

 

As a result, even official German textbooks and reference sites have started to endorse the use of certain adverbs (e.g., deshalb, darum, trotzdem etc.) as if they were some kind of conjunction, separating main clauses with nothing but a comma. Generally an excellent grammar reference, the following website http://www.deutschegrammatik20.de/komplexer-satz/satzverbindung-konsekutiv-sodass-deshalb-infolge/ lists these examples as correct German sentences:

Die Mutter schlägt das Kind, deshalb weint es.

Die Mutter schlägt das Kind, deswegen weint es.

Die Mutter schlägt das Kind, daher weint es.

Die Mutter schlägt das Kind, darum weint es.

Die Mutter schlägt das Kind, aus diesem Grund weint es.

Die Mutter schlägt das Kind, infolgedessen weint es.

The website clearly acknowledges that these sentences consist of two main clauses (Hauptsätze) separated/connected by nothing more than a comma. While this punctuation is technically possible and correct under the new rules, proponents of this practice, in my opinion, should go back to the drawing board or maybe to some pre-spelling reform grammar books—yes, the good old days when clauses within the same sentence had to be connected by actual conjunctions, and main clauses were separated by a period.

As a German teacher, I have always told my students that German is really a very logical language that makes (almost) perfect sense within its own constraints. This use of adverbs as if they qualified as conjunctions makes no sense on any level. Instead, it amplifies the confusion students experience with the rules of German word order. We teach them that the conjugated verb in a main clause is in second position, whereas the conjugated verb in a subordinate clause is in last position.

Two main clauses (connected by a coordinating conjunction): 

Die Mutter schlägt das Kind / und / es weint laut. (both verbs are in second position)

One main and one subordinate clause (connected by a subordinating conjunction):

Die Mutter schlägt das Kind, / sodass / es laut weint. (main clause verb is in 2. Position; subordinate clause verb is at the end)

How do we know, grammatically speaking, that these adverbs such as deshalb or darum are NOT conjunctions, grammatically? There are only two types of conjunctions: coordinating or subordinating conjunctions, and they follow the rules outlined above.

If we assumed that deshalb was a coordinating conjunction, the sentence would have to be:

Die Mutter schlägt das Kind, / deshalb / es weint laut. 

If we assumed that deshalb was a subordinating conjunction, the sentence would have to be:  

Die Mutter schlägt das Kind, / deshalb / es laut weint. 

Neither of these assumptions produces a correct German sentence because deshalb, as stated previously, is an adverb, not a conjunction. The word order in the correct sentence (Deshalb weint es laut.) requires a reversed subject-verb order precisely BECAUSE it is a main clause with the adverb in first position and the verb, therefore, in second position.  

It is difficult enough for students to keep coordinating and subordinating conjunctions separate and to use correct word order with each. Why would we want to complicate matters by allowing grammatically unconnected main clauses to be separated by nothing but a comma? I am guessing that the main reason is that we perceive adverbs such as deshalb or darum as logical conjunctions even though they are NOT grammatical conjunctions. As a result, we may feel that the two independent clauses are too closely „connected“ to be torn apart by the finality of a period. Personally, I feel that this is just a lazy excuse to avoid having to think about the grammatical issue of how to connect clauses appropriately. To my knowledge,  German happily recognized these adverb-preceded clauses as independent clauses for hundreds of years prior to the spelling reform. Interestingly, English, which is often accused of having much more liberal grammar rules than German, still insists that clauses with adverbs such as therefore or consequently cannot be separated with commas. „The mother is beating the child, consequently it is crying.“ is unequivocally incorrect in English.

So my plea to all of you German teachers or linguists out there: PLEASE stop using commas to separate grammatically unconnected independent clauses. There is really no good reason for it. All it does is confuse students (native and non-native speakers alike) who are trying to get a handle on what constitutes a clause, what types of clauses there are, and how those clauses can be connected correctly. Resurrect the period and make life easier for your students.

 

period

 

 

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