German: The language of punctuality

Punctuality Word Cloud

German: The language of punctuality

If there is one stereotype that doesn’t seem to be negative about Germans and the Swiss is that they are punctual. As writer Paul Bilton notes, “The Swiss are so punctual that they have a concept incomprehensible to lesser nations, that of being Überpünklich —literally, over punctual — and this is not viewed as a fault.” The importance of punctuality can also be seen in newspaper headlines where delays in train service are a hotly discussed and debated topic in German speaking countries, whereas they are a fact of life and not worth mentioning in the English speaking world. Interestingly enough it is exactly this punctuality that garners German speaking countries so much praise from foreigners.

While there may be numerous theories to do with punctuality, a factor that can surely not be ignored is the linguistic element. When examining German syntax, one will note that German in a Time, Manner, Place language, which means that the time phrase usually appears early in the sentence. From this fact we encounter a bit of a paradox, which I cannot answer: Does the time phrase come early in the sentence because German speakers are by nature punctual — perhaps due to geography and seasonality — or are they punctual because their language structure emphasizes time?

For the German learner, it is simply worth noting that the time phrase comes early in the sentence. Some examples may help to highlight this.


1. English: (place, manner, time)

  • Jane is going to Zurich with the train this evening.

German: (time, manner, place)

  • Jane fährt heute Abend mit dem Zug nach Zürich.

A common variation of the sentence would be:

  • Heute Abend fährt Jane mit dem Zug nach Zürich.

–> Note here though that the order is still time, manner, place.

2. English: (place, manner, time)

  • Were going hiking in Graubünden with our friends at the weekend.

German: (time, manner, place)

  • Wir gehen am Wochenende mit unseren Freunden in Graubünden wandern.


  • Am Wochenende gehen wir mit unseren Freunden in Graubünden wandern.

So next time you go to build a sentence in German, remember the punctuality and stress the time by putting it early in your sentence. You won’t just produce a more syntactically correct sentence, but may be amazed with the sudden increase in punctuality of those around you.

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