Grundsätzlich can have two completely different meanings – see the quote from Philip Slotkin below.


This sign at Berlin Hauptbahnhof (formerly Anhalter Bahnhof) shows the problem of translating the word grundsätzlich into English.

This sentence is one of those that are not translated into English on the sign – no wonder!

Zur Verbesserung der Sauberkeit und aus Rücksichtnahme auf Nichtraucher ist das Rauchen in diesem Bahnhof grundsätzlich nicht gestattet.

(To keep the station clean and in consideration for non-smokers, smoking is in principle/as a general rule/absolutely not permitted.)

But it goes on to say

Bitte benutzen Sie die gekennzeichneten Raucherbereiche.
Please use the designated smoking areas.

It therefore appears that grundsätzlich here means ‘in general’ or ‘with a few exceptions’.

The sign doesn’t define what kind of Mitwirkung is envisaged and who constitutes Ihr Bahnhofsteam.

Actually grundsätzlich sometimes means ‘on the whole’ and sometimes ‘with no exceptions’.

A few years ago, Philip Slotkin wrote an article for Netzblatt, the publication of the ITI German Network, about awkward words, and here is what he wrote about grundsätzlich:

This is an interesting one because it can convey two almost diametrically opposite ideas: “always (with no exceptions ever)” or “in principle (normally, but with the possibility of exceptions)”. Sometimes the word, sonorous and important though it sounds, is best deliberately omitted: muss auch der beim EPA zugelassene und in die entsprechende Liste eingetragene Vertreter grundsätzlich eine von dem Anmelder oder den Anmeldern, für die er handeln soll, unterzeichnete Vollmachtserklärung einreichen: “even professional representatives who are included in the EPO’s list must submit a declaration of authorisation signed by the applicant or applicants on whose behalf they are to act” (omitted; the meaning is “always, without exception”).
Das EPA kann grundsätzlich von jedem PCT-Staat als IPEA angegeben werden: “It is in principle open to any PCT State to specify the EPO as IPEA.” (That is, a PCT state does not have to do this.)

As Philip says, it is worth considering omitting the word altogether. But clients won’t always accept this. The number of times I’ve written ‘in principle’ in a translation and it sounded weird – but if the German text uses this silly word, it creates problems for the translator.

LATER NOTE: I’ve just had a similar problem with generell, and one suggestion which might also work for grundsätzlich is to translate it as ‘unless otherwise specified’.

10 thoughts on “grundsätzlich

  1. Perhaps the sign is the work of an enthusiastic anti-tautologist who goes even further than Philip Slotkin and believes that “Non-Smoking Station” (including the bonus capital letters) conveys the message perfectly, and that there is therefore no need for all that guff about cleanliness and consideration for non-smokers.
    Thanks for shining the spotlight on this perennial chestnut. I agree that “in principle” is usually a rotten compromise solution (although I am sometimes guilty of it too). When the word really means “without exception” I tend to go for always (or “never”). But I, too, sometimes simply omit it. Rather like another frequent German non-word, “sowie”.

  2. Perhaps smoking is ‘nominally’ or even ‘virtually’ (DE: quasi) disallowed on that station to avoid sounding too categoric and conjuring up police Alsation dogs patrolling the trains before crossing the Wall of old – in the same way as Austria (a comment guaranteed to rattle) is ‘grundsätzlich ein katholisches Land’, to wit: nominally a Catholic country, but not for much longer.

    How ‘grundsätzlich’ differs from prinzipiell or im Prinzip – colloquially – im Grunde genommen or even ‘quasi’, I’ve never quite managed to fathom. But ‘basically’ I’ve found that native German speakers keep repeating the same word – almost obsessively – and don’t vary, whilst even expat Brits I know pepper their Denglish dialogue with ‘grundsätzlich’ and ‘bzw.’

  3. To mitigate the confusion, I think it can be safely assumed that in any legal and quasi-legal text such as the one on the signs, “grundsätzlich” does mean as a general rule, in principle and is synonymous with “prinzipiell”, “im Allgemeinen” (though rarely with “im Grunde genommen”, which is closer to actually).
    “Grundsätzlich” meaning always, without exception seems to me to be in a more colloquial register and used more in speaking.

    I also feet that there is a slight difference in the placing of stress. In the restricting sense of in principle, the stress seems to be ‘grundsätzlich, white in the sense of always, without exception, it is more grund’sätzlich. However, the dictionaries that provide pronuncation do not seem to support this point, which I still maintain based on my personal observations on actual usage.

  4. Am I the only one who thinks grundsätzlich is a typical Radio Eriwan expression? *Im Prinzip ja/nein, aber …* Grundsätzlich and im Prinzip are synonyms in my book. If you really want to be serious about things being verboten in Germany you’d better phrase it

    (1) Rauchen in diesem Bahnhof? Das geht gar nicht!
    (2) Rauchen in diesem Bahnhof ist ein No-Go!
    (3) Sie wollen hier rauchen? NO WAY!
    Nothing seems to be *verboten* these days.
    Needless to say, (2) and (3) make me want to scream, aber auf mich hört ja keiner.

  5. Raucherzone(n) is/are quite usual at (AT) Beiserl/(DE) Kneipen where I, incidentally to take the Mickey, often open my ‘unexcited uterances’ with:

    ‘Grundsätzlich, im Grunde genommen, im Allgemeinen, prinzipiell und im Prinzip ist es übrigens quasi selbstverständlich, daß..’ – by which time the conversational partner a.k.a. Gesprächspartner/in has either lost interest or, after complaining about the repetition, can no longer concentrate on the point being made.

  6. Indeed, but the same Brass Monkey ‘open-air fag drag’ situation generally, basically, nominally and in principle ‘obtains’ in London.

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