Consider the sentences

Der Mann jagt den Hund. Er fällt in ein Loch.

Who drops into the hole, the man or the dog?

The personal pronoun "er" in the second sentence matches both the flexion of the subject as well as the object of the first sentence. "Er" is the subject of the second sentence and may or may not refer to the subject of the first sentence. However, "dog" is closer to "er" reading backwards.

Sure, one can easily reorder or rephrase the sentences, but what is the grammar's answer to the question, and why?

  • 1
    I would say: Without context you cannot tell if it's the dog or the man that drops into the hole. – Chris Sep 19 '14 at 16:41
  • @Chris... you have to tell though. Otherwise you cannot read a text. Your brain will make a decision, one way or the other. The slightest bit of context might tip the scale but if it is really as bare as this, it probably comes down to top down phenomena, meaning, it is completely personal – Emanuel Sep 19 '14 at 19:08
  • You're right though that you cannot tell as in tell for fact – Emanuel Sep 19 '14 at 19:09
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Personal pronouns are ambiguous

Like in English there is no rule to whom a personal pronoun refers to. So the example sentence where the genders are the same

Der Mann jagt den Hund. Er fällt in ein Loch.

it is highly ambiguous. It is the man, or the dog who may have fallen into the pit - we can't say who.

Gender matters

It would be easy to resolve if we had a different gender:

Das Kind jagt den Hund. Es fällt in ein Loch.

Add context

(1) Der Mann jagt den Hund. Er fällt in ein Loch. Der Hund entkommt.
(2) Der Mann jagt den Hund. Er fällt in ein Loch. Er ruft um Hilfe.
(3) Der Mann jagt den Hund. Er fällt in ein Loch. Der Mann holt ihn heraus.

Note that in (1) we need to mention the dog again. It would not work to use a pronoun for the dog excaping because it would then refer to the same subject, the man, in the refernced first sentence like it is in (2). Another example of when we need to name the subject - even though context would make it clear - is given in (3).

Use conjunctions or relative clauses

In case the gender is the same we use relative clauses or conjunctions rather than personal pronouns to avoid confusion:

Der Mann jagt den Hund, der in ein Loch fällt.
Der Mann jagt den Hund und fällt in ein Loch.

Both examples are now unambiguous.

The problem with hypothetical questions like this is that, by themselves, these sentences don't convey much meaning and don't truly stand alone. If they're the response to a question like:

Wie sollen wir den Hund fangen?

...or a precursor to more information, such as:

Seine Tochter hat sein Gips bemalt.

...then the meaning is clear from context.

As they are, the sentences are truly ambiguous. My natural tendency might be to assume the antecedent of the subject pronoun stays the same between sentences. If I were truly engaged in this conversation, I would probably reserve judgement until downstream context made it clear or I could ask a clarifying follow-up question.

I once got told, that it always refers to the last mentioned, this would be the dog. But you really should not write like that.

I agree with Nils Magnus. It is, however, possible to use an (in)definite article:

Der Mann jagt den Hund. Dieser fällt in ein Loch.
Der Mann jagt den Hund. Der fällt in ein Loch.

As it is unusual to denote a man with "der" oder "dieser", it can be assumed that they refer to the dog.

  • Why should denoting a man with "der" or "dieser" be unusal? E.g. "Der Hund beißt den Mann. Der schreit laut auf." – Matthias Sep 19 '14 at 21:37
  • Meiner Meinung nach ganz falsch! ==> "Der Mann jagt einen Hund. Dieser fällt in ein Loch, während jener, ganz außer Atem, den Unglücksraben anleint." d.h. im Gegensatz zu "er" bezieht sich "dieser" immer auf den letztgenannten, während "jener" den anderen meint. – Ingo Sep 20 '14 at 13:56
  • @Matthias: At least for "der" it is unusual because it is regarded impolite/bad style. It would be common to say "Er schreit laut auf". Ingo, however, is right about using "dieser". – Veredomon Sep 20 '14 at 19:32
  • I think in some contexts denoting a man with "der" can be quite a reasonable choice. Browsing through this Google search (just as an example) I see it used often and not in an impolite way. The style might be debatable, but I would call it appropriate. – Matthias Sep 20 '14 at 21:39
  • @Matthias: I looked it up in Duden/Die Grammatik, 8. Auflage, § 377: using der/die/das to refer to persons is often considered pejorative. So it is quite reasonable to assume that "der" is refering to the dog and not the man. – Veredomon Sep 21 '14 at 11:13

Der Mann jagt den Hund. Er fällt in ein Loch.

Der Bezug von "er" ist unklar und man muß die Geschichte erst weiterlesen, um zu wissen, wer denn nun in ein Loch fällt. Ein Deutschlehrer würde bei einer so ungeschickten Satzfolge das "er" rot anstreichen und die Bemerkung dazu schreiben "unklarer Bezug". Solche Fehler passieren Schülern oft, weil sie sich noch nicht in die Rolle des Lesers hineinversetzen können.

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