How to correctly use ‘nen in German

While my blog is usually concerned with the English language, today I want to mention a topic for advanced learners of German. In Germany (but not usually in Austria and Switzerland), it is quite common to abbreviate the word einen with nen (the apostrophe is not always used, but is required since it indicates that we have left something out; make sure you use the correct apostrophe).

For example, the sentence

Ich brauche einen neuen Anzug.

can be slightly shortened to

Ich brauche ‘nen neuen Anzug.

While this simplification is not acceptable in formal writing, it is quite common in emails or on Facebook and other communication platforms. However, if you want to use this rather advanced aspect of German, you should be aware that ‘nen only replaces einen, but not the other forms ein, eine or eines. Even native German speakers often overlook this fact, and use expressions such as

Der Weg ist ‘nen wenig weit.

instead of the correct expression

Der Weg ist ‘n wenig weit.

Usually, a simple way of checking if you got it right is to read out the sentence loud, because the whole point of replacing, for example, einen with ‘nen is that is makes the sentence read more easily. Here is a summary:

einen ‘nen
eine ‘ne
ein ‘n
eines ein’s

In Austrian dialects, a, an, ane are often used instead of ein, einen, eine. However, the use of these forms is almost exclusively restricted to oral communication. Hence, whereas ‘nen is sometimes found in a newspaper, the corresponding Austrian term an is not. Finally, the “a” in a, an, ane is pronounced just like the letter a is pronounced in German. There are even more variations depending on the region, such as oa, oan, and oane. However, I don’t think a non-native speaker should even aspire to learn those ;-).

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