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In Langenscheidt Großwörterbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache, I read the following usages of streiten in the sense of quarrel:

  1. As an intransitive verb: "Er stritt mit seinem Bruder um das Spielzeug." (quoted from Langenscheidt)

  2. As a reflexive verb, sich über/um etw. streiten: "Sie streiten sich um nichts und wieder nichts." (quoted from DWDS)

I am wondering whether there is any difference between the two constructions?

A wild guess that occur to me is that:

  1. The (ordinary) intransitive construction über/um etwas streiten applies to such cases as there does exist some reason for the quarrel; for example, children quarrel over who is entitled to a toy, heirs quarrel over who is entitled to the estate, or roommates quarrel over whose turn it is for tidy-up.

  2. The reflexive construction sich streiten seems to connote a quarrel which is of much ado about nothing, when at least in the eye of the speaker there is no real reason for the opposing parties to quarrel; e.g. "sich um des Kaisers Bart streiten". (This is an idiom given in DWDS, which means um etw. Belangloses streiten.)

Could anyone help with this question or deliver any comment on my wild guess on the possible difference between the two constructions?

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Your wild guess is wrong, probably because the examples you have seen seem to imply this and are not very well chosen. "Sich streiten" and "streiten" mean more or less the same thing, at least in most cases.

"Um" just adds the object argued about.

There is a small difference in possible applicability. The reflexive form always refers to more than one party actually arguing; that is, there is always an "opposite" party, either named or implicitly involved).

The non-reflexive form can be used without any named or implied opponent. E.g., "Sie streitet für die Frauenbewegung" — so basically against everyone who dares to stand up.

  • More frequently than not you hear something like this in the news: Die Abgeordneten stritten über den Haushalt 2017. Is this "wrong" then? – Thorsten Dittmar Apr 27 '16 at 9:39
  • @tofro : in the example you raised "Sie streitet für die Frauenbewegung" , i think it means '' to advocate'' instead of ''to quarrel'' ; however, my question is about the sense of ''to quarrel'' ; Could you please raise another example where ,,streiten'' means ''to quarrel'' and where ,,sich streiten'' does not require any named or implied opponent? Many thanks!! – Lynnyo Apr 27 '16 at 9:50
  • "streiten" does really mean a bit more inter-personal dynamics (also in the "Frauenbewegung" example) than just "advocating". – tofro Apr 27 '16 at 11:05
  • @ThorstenDittmar Thers's nothing wrong with your sentence. It just does not use "sich", because not everyone is argueing with everyone else - Most probably the members of one party would ot argue between each other, so there is at least a part of the crowd who is not an opponent – tofro Apr 27 '16 at 17:36
  • @tofro : with the example raised by ThorstenDittmar ,,Die Abgeordneten stritten über den Haushalt 2017'' , do you mean that ,,sich streiten'' denotes pair-wise reciprocity, i.e. every two persons quarrell with each other, while the intransitive usage does not require such pair-wise designation? – Lynnyo May 3 '16 at 8:46

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