German Letter and E-Mail Basics
Every week I receive e-mails from students and readers asking me to clarify grammatical points and every week I receive the following e-mails with the following salutation: “Liebe Christian”. Now if you’re looking at that and think there is nothing wrong, this post is for you.
Let’s look at some key basics for written communication in German.
First we need to ask ourselves if we are writing a letter or an e-mail. Just like in English, there is a difference in these two forms. Let’s start with letters; after all if you can write a letter, you can write an e-mail. Just a note here, in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria letters to resign or cancel a subscription or service must be sent registered post. At the post office (die Post / das Postamt) you’ll need to say: “Ich möchte den Brief per Einschreiben senden, bitte.” Similarly, any letter that is meant to carry legal obligations addressed to you must also come eingeschrieben. This means that the letter needs to be signed for by the recipient.
Addresses are always important. If you address your letter correctly it will get to the recipient faster. In the German-speaking countries personal, professional, royal and academic titles come on the line above the name. The postal code (die Postleitzahl (PLZ)) comes before the city. You might also notice that the countries get shortened, too. In such a case you’ll see the country code come before the postal code with a hyphen z.B. CH-8049 Zürich. The country codes for the German-speaking countries and Switzerland’s neighbours are:
|Traditional||ISO 3166||Country (das Land)|
Let’s look at two ways of writing the full address on your envelope or postcard.
|Zusätze und Vermerke||Einschreiben|
|Postfach oder Strasse und Hausnummer||Mariannestrasse 56|
|Postleitzahl, Bestimmungsort||1121 Wien|
|Zusätze und Vermerke|
|Postfach oder Strasse und Hausnummer||Zürcherstrasse 81|
|Postleitzahl, Bestimmungsort||8067 Zürich|
Next we’ll need to get the date correct. Typically it’s placed in the upper right hand corner:
|Datum #3||30. April 2012|
|Ort und Datum #1||Zürich, 30.04.2012|
|Ort und Datum #2||Zürich, den 15. April 2012|
**Notice that German either goes Year (das Jahr) — Month (der Monat) — Day (der Tag) or more typically Tag — Monat — Jahr. In German, we generally also write the location (der Ort) where the letter was written. For e-mails you don’t need to write the date, as your e-mail program will do that itself. The location is also not important in e-mails.
When we write e-mails, it’s good form to write a subject line (der Betreff). In German letters a bold subject line is customary. This tells the recipient (der Empfänger / die Empfängerin) what the letter is about and gives them a point of reference should they need to follow up on the letter.
Now we’ll get to the point I started with: the address or greeting. This is a case of genders and adjective endings. Women get an “-e” ending on the preceeding adjective and men an “-er” plurals also get an “-e” endling. The formulations go from formal and general to familiar and specific.
|Anrede #1||Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,||Dear Sir or Madam,|
|Anrede #2||Sehr geehrte Damen,||Dear Madam,|
|Anrede #3||Sehr geehrte Herren,||Dear Sir,|
|Anrede #4||Sehr geehrte Frau Schmidt,||Dear Ms. Schmidt,|
|Anrede #5||Sehr geehrter Herr Müller,||Dear Mr. Müller,|
|Anrede #6||Sehr geehrte Frau Präsidentin,||Dear Ms. President,|
|Anrede #7||Sehr geehrter Herr Professor Müller,||Dear Professor Müller,|
|Anrede #8||Sehr geehrte Frau [Dr.] Schmidt,sehr geehrter Herr Schmidt,||Dear Dr. Schmidt,dear Mr. Schmidt|
|Anrede #9||Guten Tag, Frau Schmidt,||Good day Ms. Schmidt,|
|Anrede #10||Liebe Frau Schmidt,||Dear Ms. Schmidt,|
|Anrede #11||Lieber Herr Müller,||Dear Mr. Müller,|
|Anrede #12||Hallo, Hans,||Hi Hans,|
Note that people with titles often do not have their name mentioned as in the case with “Sehr geehrte Frau Presidentin“, professors though often have their name mentioned. Also notice that the gender title Herr or Frau comes before the title of office or academic title. If you are addressing a husband and wife the woman’s name comes on the first line and the man’s on the second.
After you’ve written the body of your letter or e-mail you’ll need to end it. Again, like with our greetings and salutations we need to watch our adjective endings. You can write a great variety of things here, but you’ll need to know that it’s der Gruss and Grüsse is plural. Don’t forget that if you use the preposition mit, that you need to put what comes after in the dative. Again here we move from the formal to the familiar. One last thing, unlike in English, there is no comma after the closing.
|Briefschluss #1||Hochachtungsvoll||Yours faithfully,|
|Briefschluss #2||Mit freundlichen Grüssen||Yours sincerely,|
|Briefschluss #3||Mit freundlichem Gruss||Kind regards,|
|Briefschluss #4||Freundliche Grüsse||Kind regards,|
|Briefschluss #5||Mit den besten Grüssen||With best regards,|
|Briefschluss #6||Beste Grüsse aus Zürich||Best regards from Zurich,|
|Briefschluss #7||Herzliche Grüsse||Kind regards,|
|Briefschluss #8||Herzlichst||Affectionately, / Cordially,|
Note here that Hochachtungsvoll is considered stuffy and outdated, while Herzlichst is only used with the closest of friends and family.
Now I hope I never get another letter, e-mail, or text with “Liebe Christian,” it’s “Lieber Christian,”
Still looking for more information? Die schweizerische Post has some wonderful letter templates that will allow you to simply change some details and you’ll be set. You might also like to get Duden book, which I used as a reference for this post, entitled “Briefe gut und richtig schreiben!” ISBN: 978-3411743018.