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What is the difference between i.e. when do I correctly use erinnern and sich erinnern. Examples please, if possible. Vielen Dank

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    Sich an etwas erinnern is always reflexsive. – DerPolyglott33 Mar 6 '16 at 21:12
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    It would be good if you could elaborate a bit. For example, are you thinking of remind or remember? What remained unclear after consulting a dictionary? – Carsten S Mar 6 '16 at 22:05
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    "Erinnern an" geht durchaus auch nicht reflexiv - "Ich erinnere die Abgeordneten an ihre Pflichten" – tofro Mar 7 '16 at 7:35
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    I doubt that a general reference will help with answering this question. To get the question reopened please edit it to give us a word about what your dictionary said, and why this did not help you. – Takkat Mar 7 '16 at 11:02
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Traditional German grammar only allows the following two uses of erinnern that are similar to how remind is used in English:

  1. Transitive: jemanden an etwas erinnern. Example: Ich erinnere meine Tochter daran, ins Bett zu gehen. Ich erinnere meinen Sohn daran, dass er ins Bett gehen soll.
  2. Reflexive: sich an etwas erinnern. Examples: Ich erinnere mich an meine Kindheit. Ich erinnere mich [daran], dass ich ins Bett gehen wollte.

It should be clear how the reflexive use developed out of the transitive use. So, basically, by saying "I remind myself of something" instead of "I remember something", German speakers get along fine without a verb that is equivalent to remember.

However, an increasing number of native German speakers in Germany (and probably none yet in Austria and Switzerland) now additionally use erinnern in much the same way that remember is used in English:

  • Ich erinnere noch die Anfangszeit des Unternehmens.

This new construction is common (and totally unremarkable when used in the appropriate context) only in the north of Germany, where it seems to have been in use for a long time. (Note that the same construction with the respective cognates of erinnern is perfectly normal in Dutch and in Danish.) There are some usage restrictions that aren't easy to describe. Let it suffice to say that the example I gave is the stereotypical context for which a lot of northern Germans would prefer this construction over the old one, even though many still prefer 2 above in most contexts. (I remember this detail from some book or research paper that I found online a while ago. If I can find it I will add a link.)

Even though the new construction can no longer be called wrong, I think for a non-native speaker it is still best to avoid it altogether and stick to 1 and 2 above. This is in part because of the regional restrictions, in part because you are likely to get the pragmatic usage restrictions wrong, and in part because native speakers are more likely to judge unusual grammar wrong rather than innovative when they hear it from a non-native speaker.

There is also a problem with the new construction that makes it somewhat impractical to switch from reflexive sich erinnern to remember-style transitive erinnern in all cases. The problem arises when it's conceivable that you could either remind a person of something or remember the same person. ("Did you remember him and remind him of the appointment?") In those cases, a person who normally defaults to remember-style transitive erinnern will have to adapt or risk ambiguity: When they mean remember, they will have to resort to traditional reflexive sich erinnern; when they mean remind, they will have to say explicitly what the person is to be reminded of, as otherwise the new-style reading of transitive erinnern is also possible. (Out of the mouth of such a person, "Ich habe ihn erinnert" = "I rem[ember/ind]ed him".) I am not claiming that there even are native speakers who talk like that, but it seems quite possible.

PS: The examples of historical usage collected in a related question appear to show how the new usage first arose. As the other question is in German, I will explain in English how the same thing could have happened in English if it didn't already have the word remember. It was once common to write "I remind the reader that ...". As it is always a bit awkward to address the reader in this fashion, this was often abbreviated to "I remind that ...". As this was used so often, people started processing it basically as if it were "Let's remember that ...". From there it's only a small step to a new meaning "I remember that ...".

Similarly, the Duden entry on erinnern mentions an obsolescent sense "vorbringen, zu bedenken geben" which I found, for example, in a 1780 book printed in Bavaria. This could be confused with the new or northern German use on first sight, but closer inspection shows it is really another remind usage.

PPS: There is some interesting information in André Meinunger's critical review of Bastian Sick's best-seller Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod (chapter Ich erinnere das nicht, see pages 2f of the review).

| improve this answer | |
  • How is this a "new construction"? What's new in that context? Unlike "Sinn machen", this has been used in Northern Germany for quite some time, just as "wie" ("besser wie", "größer wie") has been used in place of "als" in Southern Germany. The only difference, perhaps, is a greater permeability of the regional "borders" that used to exist. Also, having increasingly to do with folks from the North, I can tell you that I encountered the non-reflexive form exclusively when referring to an event, not to people or objects. – 0xC0000022L Mar 7 '16 at 15:14
  • It's a new construction in the sense that it is entering standard German now. Previously it was strictly regional except for certain uses that could still be interpreted as special cases of the standard transitive use. (See PS.) But by now it is entering edited standard German sources, probably under the influence of English and supported by re-interpretation of those old sources - and of course northern German linguistic intuitions. – user2183 Mar 7 '16 at 17:06

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