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I saw this sentence and don't understand why Schülerin is dative but not accusative. helfen is transitive verb so the object must be direct object so why it is dative?

Willst du der Schülerin helfen?

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    There is no term "direct object" (or "indirect object", for that matter) in respect to German grammar. I'm afraid but you should forget about English grammar (or whichever language's grammar your supposition was based on) altogether. – Em1 Aug 31 '15 at 9:03
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    What does your dictionary say about helfen? de.pons.com/… – rogermue Aug 31 '15 at 13:32
  • Only in English the verb to help is transitive. But in other languages this can be different. – rogermue Sep 17 '15 at 11:32
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Helfen is not a transitive verb. The English verb help is, but transitivity is not a property preserved by translation of any language to any language. So is reflexivity and other properties. If you need to know the characterize a verb, you need to look for their properties in German.

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There are a few definitions and assumptions in your question that are going haywire and maybe causing the confusion you have.

Direct/indirect objects

While it is technically not wrong to speak of direct and indirect objects in German, it is not the usual practice. Neither dative nor accusative objects require any indirect attachment to the verb — much unlike in English or French, and therefore they could technically both be called direct objects. However, due to similarities with other European languages, direct object can be understood to mean accusative object while indirect object can mean dative object.

I would advise you to use the case names for German.

Transitive verbs

There are two definitions of transitive verbs out there. School grammar usually assumes a transitive verb immediately if and only if the verb has an accusative object which, if the sentence is transformed into the passive voice, becomes a subject.

Linguistically, a verb is called transitive if it has two required arguments, the first being the subject and the second being an object. So in the example sentence of I help him we have the verb to help and its two arguments I and him. If we leave out either argument, we get an invalid sentence proving both arguments are obligatory. The same is true for the sentence Ich helfe dir. This means that helfen also has two required arguments and can therefore be called transitive.

Transitive verbs must have a direct object

Using the school definition of transitivity and the assumption direct object = accusative this might be correct (a.k.a. I’m too lazy to go looking for a counterexample). Using the linguistic definition it is wrong for German if the same object assumption is made. It might work for English and French but different languages have different rules. (And if you want to remember just one thing from this post, remember the second half of that sentence.)


Concerning your example:
Jemandem helfen is a verb that requires a dative object and only a dative object. Using an accusative object for the verb is wrong, and in the passive voice the object remains dative.

Da werden Sie geholfen. (quote from a TV advertising campaign)

Da wird Ihnen geholfen.

Helfen can now be classified:

  • by school grammar as an intransitive verb with an obligatory dative argument

  • linguistically as a transitive verb that requires a nominative and a dative argument.

In neither case would helfen ever take accusative.

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    "If we leave out either argument, we get an invalid sentence proving both arguments are obligatory. The same is true for the sentence Ich helfe dir." - because "Ich helfe." is an invalid sentence? As a native speaker, that's news to me. – O. R. Mapper Sep 12 '15 at 20:53
  • @O.R.Mapper ‘Ich helfe’ is a valid sentence if and only if it is clear by context who or what you are helping. Of course that context is often given, if somebody runs somewhere crying ‘ich helfe!’ ;) – Jan Sep 13 '15 at 19:08
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helfen is transitive verb

No, it is not. And that is already the answer.

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Helfen is always dative. It's just a rule. It's always 'Hilf mir!' never 'Hilf mich.' Just one of the things you have to learn with the language. Similar to the way it's always 'Sag mir' but 'Frag mich.' Doesn't make any sense, but that's the way it is.

Here's a good list of dative, German verbs. http://german.about.com/library/verbs/blverb_dativ.htm

  • Well, "sagen" and "fragen" are not good examples. The confusion probably arouse because it was assumed that English direct object equals German accusative and English indirect object equals German dative. Now compare those two words between German & English: "Sag es mir - Say it to me." - "Frage mich - Ask me". Better example, for instance: "Thank you - Danke dir" – Em1 Aug 31 '15 at 12:26
  • I think it's a great example. In English, you would say, "Ask me a question." Ask [indirect object] a [direct object]. Or "Tell me a story." Tell [indirect object] a [direct object]. In both cases, in English, your question or statement are direct objects, which most English speakers would assume translate directly to German. – Troy Frazier Aug 31 '15 at 12:38
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    Yeah, if you translate that sentence with "ask" word-for-word, you happen to have a perfect German sentence. Thus, I don't think it's a good example. – "To tell" (in German "erzählen") is a good example. Because there's a English direct objects versus a German dative. Unfortunately, you chose "sagen" in your answer, which is not a good example as it's an indirect object in English ("Say it to me"). – Em1 Aug 31 '15 at 13:22
  • Sag IHM dass er mich anrufen soll. Frag IHN warum er mich nicht anrufen hat. It's the same whether you use sagen or erzählen because they will both act as transitive verbs as they would in English. Fragen is the word that doesn't act as expected. You are asking a person a question. The question is the direct object, the person is the indirect object. So, you would expect the person to whom you're posing the question to be dativ (Frag mir, Frag ihm) but that isn't the case. The same as with helfen. So, no, if you translated the "ask" question word for word, you would have Frag mir eine Frage. – Troy Frazier Aug 31 '15 at 14:38
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    In German (that's my native language), you add "zu", too. "Wirf den Ball zu mir". — Anyway, that was never my point. Neither word order nor adding "to" (or "zu", respectively"). It was about the false assumption (that learners often do) that you could compare German & English grammar. And in this respect, I'm afraid, your examples are still not good, because they are like "accusative == direct object, dative == indirect object", which often is the case, but not always. Anyway.... – Em1 Aug 31 '15 at 15:04
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'helfen' is a transitive verb

In German 'helfen' is not a transitive verb!

In English or all Romance languages it is...

  • @Gerhard: I am so reluctant to doing that, because romance also means 'Romanze', but thanks anyhow... – mramosch Sep 13 '15 at 20:36

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