Two questions please.

(a) Can der eine in the following be replaced with einer?

(b) If yes, how is the meaning or nuance changed?

Karl stand eng ans Büfett gedrängt, denn kaum hatte er sich angestellt, war hinter ihm ein Tisch aufgestellt worden, und der eine der dort sich niederlassenden Gäste streifte schwer, wenn er sich nur ein wenig beim Reden zurückbog, mit seinem großen Hut Karls Rücken.

The sentence is from Kafka’s Der Verschollene (Amerika). For full text, please click this link for the Gutenberg page.

The thought expressed seems to be one of — i.e. an unrestricted member of a class. In English, the one would require something to restrict (distinguish from others) the member being picked out, as follows for example.

One of the guests brushed against Karl’s back.

The tallest one of the guests brushed against Karl’s back.

If German works the same way in general, but there was a special circumstance favoring der eine in the quoted sentence, it would be very helpful to know what that was. Thanks.

1 Answer 1


Technically, yes, der eine can be replaced with einer here, although, as you expected, the meaning would change. The usage of einer is much like one in English and also der eine can be thought of as the one. It shifts the meaning from being any one of a certain group to a certain one from a certain group.

In this context, the der is justified:

The one behind him brushed against Karl's back.

(Well, it was the hat but you get the picture.)

One could assume (I haven't read the book) that the next sentence further included references to him, since he is now established as a definite entity.

Of course this cannot be generalised. There are other usages of der eine where it cannot be replaced with einer without seriously changing the meaning:

Der eine hat schon wieder eine Grimasse in meine Richtung gezogen!

With der eine it means that it's been the same person who kept pulling faces. If you were to use einer, it just means that it's the so many-th face thats been pulled at you, but from different people (likely also at different places to different times). Key words here for this type of difference are schon wieder.

  • Thanks. But if you are proposing that “mit seinem großen Hut” is operating like “behind him” in your first example, that is hard to accept. Unlike your “behind him,” the “mit” phrase is part of the predicate and does not qualify (restrict) “der eine.”
    – Catomic
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 2:16
  • Another way to put it would be to say that you are reading the original quote as if it read: “der eine mit einem großen Hut streifte schwer Karls Rücken.” In this sentence, “der eine” would have raised no question in my mind.
    – Catomic
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 2:17
  • The “Der eine” in your second example appears to be a reference to a thing already mentioned or otherwise singled out implicitly and therefore fits neither of the paradigms (“one of the group” or “the tallest one”).
    – Catomic
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 2:17
  • @Catomic Does it really? Remember that this is Kafka we're talking about. Kafka loved long and complicated sentences with hidden references. From my native speaker perspective, I have no problem accepting a clarification after the usage of the der eine.
    – Jan
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 14:10
  • @Catomic Also my second example is just to exemplify that der eine can not always be replaced with einer without changing the interpretation. But it still losely fits the one of a group paradigm.
    – Jan
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 14:12

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