How to Set Out a Formal Letter in German

How to set out a formal letter in German for all business correspondence, including job applications and formal complaints, as well as some invaluable advice on the use of umlauts and the "scharfes S".

First, a Word About Umlauts and the “Scharfes S” (ß)

German-speaking countries use the QWERTZ keyboard layout, so called because it swaps the Y and Z. It includes the three umlauts ä, ö and ü, as well as the scharfes S or Eszett (ß). If you are typing with the QWERTY (or English) keyboard layout, use the following Microsoft alt key codes to reproduce these characters:

  • Alt key + 0228 = ä
  • Alt key + 0246 = ö
  • Alt key + 0252 = ü
  • Alt key + 0196 = Ä
  • Alt key + 0214 = Ö
  • Alt key + 0220 = Ü
  • Alt key + 0223 = ß

If you are unable to implement the above key codes, it is perfectly acceptable to use the following character combinations instead:

  • ae = ä
  • oe = ö
  • ue = ü
  • ss = ß

Example

A short text using umlauts and the scharfes S:

Nach dem ca. 15 bis 20 minütigen Beratungsgespräch, verließ ich Ihre Kanzlei mit dem Gefühl überrumpelt worden zu sein und mit einem einzigen Ratschlag, der sich eventuell als nützlich erweisen könnte.

The same text using character combinations:

Nach dem ca. 15 bis 20 minuetigen Beratungsgespraech, verliess ich Ihre Kanzlei mit dem Gefuehl ueberrumpelt worden zu sein und mit einem einzigen Ratschlag, der sich eventuell als nuetzlich erweisen koennte.

German-speaking countries use the QWERTZ keyboard layout.
German-speaking countries use the QWERTZ keyboard layout.

Knowing When to Insert Umlauts and the “Scharfes S”

Be sure to insert umlauts and the scharfes S only when appropriate.

If Herr Oette, for example, spells his name with oe, do not address him as Herr Ötte.

Since the German Orthography Reform of 1996, the ß is used only if it follows a diphthong or if its preceding vowel is long. Therefore, daß is now dass while Straße remains unchanged.

If you are not always certain of when to insert umlauts and the scharfes S—which may be the case if you learnt German prior to the above mentioned reform—use character combinations (ae, oe, ue and ss) consistently throughout your letter to avoid error.

How to Set Out a Formal Letter in German

The below sample is a letter of complaint to a mobile phone company. To create a business-like impression, it uses the sans-serif Arial font and a font size of 12pt.

The Times New Roman font would also be acceptable, but avoid anything more elaborate and never use a size below 11pt or above 12pt.

The red numbering in the sample corresponds with the ten steps that follow explaining each element.

Sample 1

1. The Return Address

Unless you are using headed paper, the return address—which starts with your name or the name of your company—belongs at the top left of your letter.

Include the name of your country if different to that of the recipient.

2. The Date

You can insert the date anywhere to the right of the letter between the top, as in Sample 1, and one or two lines above the subject line, as in Samples 3 and 5 below. The latter is the recommended format for job applications.

In Sample 2, the date is inserted to the right of the recipient's address with the sender's reference number beneath. The space at the top is used for contact details, in this case the sender's email address and telephone and fax numbers.

Precede the date with the name of the place you are writing from; in most circumstances this should be the town or city of the return address.

The date in German-speaking countries is formatted day/ month/ year. It should appear numerically for formal letters as in Köln, 06.02.2016 and not Köln, den 6. Februar 2016.

Sample 2

3. The Return Address for Window Envelopes

If you are sending your letter in a window envelope, it is a good idea to repeat the return address above that of the recipient.

Type in font size 8pt or 9pt leaving two spaces between each address element. Whether you underscore is a matter of personal preference.

4. The Recipient

Place the name and address of the recipient beneath the return address. A German address is formatted in the following order:

  1. The name of the company or organisation.
  2. If appropriate, the department or the person for whom your letter is intended (see Sample 4 below under "Salutation"). If you want to include a department and a person, use two separate lines—the first for the department and the second for the person. If you are not writing to a company or organisation but to an individual, type Herrn or Frau in the first recipient line and the name in the second, as in Samples 2 and 3.
  3. The street name followed by the house number.
  4. The postal code followed by the city or town.
  5. The recipient's country if different from the country you are posting from. Aternatively, you can precede the postal code with the country code: e.g., D-40678 Düsseldorf.

Note that if your letter is intended for a particular person within a company or organisation, you no longer need to precede the name with z. Hd (zu Händen), which would be the equivalent of the English FAO, since this is outdated.

Sample 3

5. Reference Numbers etc.

If possible, include reference, account and customer numbers etc. beneath the recipient's address in order that your letter can be processed quickly and efficiently.

If the company or organisation has allotted a reference number pertaining to your specific concern, type Ihr Zeichen: (Your reference:) followed by the number.

This element should be omitted if using a reference number for the subject line.

6. The Subject Line

The subject line tells the recipient what your letter is about. The subject of Sample 1 above is complaint typed in bold.

Some people still precede the subject with the word Betreff: (e.g., Betreff: Ihr Zeichen: xxxxxx). This, however, is outdated.

7. The Salutation

If the name of the person who will read your letter is unknown to you, begin with Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren, as in Sample 1 above.

If you know the name of the person who will read your letter, begin with Sehr geehrter ... for a male recipient, and Sehr geehrte ... for a female recipient. Never address a female recipient as Fräulein, and never end the salutation with an exclamation point, since this is outdated. Always use a comma:

  • Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,
  • Sehr geehrter Herr Schneider,
  • Sehr geehrte Frau Wirtz,

Sample 4

8. The Opening Paragraph

Because the salutation ends with a comma, do not capitalize the first word of the opening paragraph.

However, if the first word is a noun it must be capitalized. This also applies to the polite personal pronoun, Sie, which must be used in formal correspondence and must be capitalized:

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,

Ihr Schreiben vom 23.01.2016 habe ich heute erhalten.

As an aside: Note that the monetary sum mentioned in the opening paragraph of Sample 1 above is followed rather than preceded by the currency. This is correct practice in German business correspondence, even when using a currency symbol (e.g., ... 49,99 € ...).

9. The Complimentary Close

A formal letter should always close with Mit freundlichen Grüßen which is never followed by a comma or any other punctuation.

Do not close with Hochachtungsvoll. It is considered old-fashioned and pretentious.

10. Your Signature

Sign your name after the complimentary close.

Your full name should be typed beneath your signature.

Enclosures

If you are applying for a job, you should enclose your curriculum vitae (résumé) and copies of all relevant references and certificates. To indicate which documents are included, type Anlagen in bold beneath the signature line, then list each document or document type as in Sample 5 below.

If you enclose only one document, type Anlage in bold.

If the enclosed documents are specifically mentioned in the body of the letter (e.g., ... anbei finden Sie eine Kopie der von Ihnen ausgestellten Rechnung über ...), you should still type Anlage or Anlagen in bold beneath the signature line, but there is no need to list them.

Sample 5

Line Spacing

Sample 6 below demonstrates the correct line spacing for a formal letter.

In addition to the information given in the sample, you may note that it is no longer necessary to leave a blank line between the street and town in the recipient's address. This was intended to increase the efficiency of postal sorting machines, however, technology has since improved.

If adding enclosures, as in Sample 5 above, leave one line blank between the signature line and the word Anlage or Anlagen.

Sample 6

All images by Camlo De Ville.

© 2016 Camlo De Ville

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