I get how dafür and dagegen are used in the sense of being for or against something –from today's news:

"Ich bin dafür, die Sanktionen schrittweise abzubauen, sobald es zu Fortschritten bei der Umsetzung des Minsker Abkommens kommt" (Sigmar Gabriel)

Similarly, I can use dagegen to express that I have (or don't) something against something or someone:

Ich hätte nichts dagegen, wenn wir zwei Wochen Urlaub in Italien machen

Things get a little confusing, though, when we talk about doing something against something, or the ability to do something about something (especially something negative). For example, from Der Postillon:

Mann, der zufällig aussieht wie Adolf Hitler, fühlt sich diskriminiert.

Er kann kann doch nichts für sein Aussehen.

I would not intuitively use für here. On the contrary, I would use gegen, since it's something I presumably don't want but can't do anything about. I'm going on the assumption that this is also an example of the supression of the verb in the presence of a modal (i.e. können actually stands for tuen können here) (1). I'm often unsure whether I should say Ich kann nichts dafür or dagegen when trying to express that something is out of my control. So this makes it even more confusing:

Internet langsam: Was kann ich dagegen tun? (Giga.de)

Again, this is something negative that I'd like to do something against. In this case, though, it seems that there is indeed something I could do about it. So does it lie precisely in the fact that in the latter, the subject can actually do something about it, whereas in the former he can't? Is there a difference between "ich kann nichts dafür" and "ich kann nichts dagegen"?


(1) Actually, this is incorrect as was confirmed in this subsequent question

  • Der Postillionwitz basiert gerade auf der Frage, ob man, wenn man aussieht wie Hitler, etwas dafür kann oder nicht. Besteht die Ähnlichkeit v.a. im Hitlerbärtchen und Seitenscheitel kann man nicht ernsthaft behaupten, nichts für sein Aussehen zu können. Ginge es nur um Haar- und Augenfarbe, Nasen- und Kopfform, Lippenbreite usw. würde man durchaus bejahen, dass jmd. nichts für die Ähnlichkeit kann, auch wenn dieser Mensch aktiv auf die Haarfarbe leicht Einfluss nehmen könnte. Mar 4 '17 at 7:27

"etwas dafür können" or "nichts dafür können" (there is no "etwas dagegen können") means wether something is your fault or not or if you are responsible for something that happened or not. It does not necessarily express if you are for or against it or if you want to do something about it or not.

You could say:

Ja, ich bin reich geboren. Aber dafür kann ich ja nichts.

Ich bin jünger als du. Dafür kann ich nichts.

So the example about Hitler is not really comparable to the other examples. You could change it to:

Er kann doch nichts gegen sein Aussehen tun.

And then it is comparable to your last example, but it changes its meaning. Because now it's not about wether it is his fault or not, but about if he's able to do something about it or not.

You could change the last example about the slow internet to fit the example about Hitler, then it would be:

Langsames Internet. Was kann ich dafür?

Now this would mean: "Slow Internet. Is it my fault?" (so you think you did something wrong which causes the Internet to be slow)

  • If I'm understanding you correctly, "dafur können" is not equivalent to "dafür tuen können". If that's the case, how can I tell the difference if modal verbs allow other verbs to be omitted?
    – user19407
    Jul 14 '16 at 9:14
  • 4
    Yes, they have different meanings. "Ich kann nichts dafür" means "This is not my fault" or "I'm not responsible for this". "Ich kann nichts dafür tun" means "I can't do anything about it" or "I can't do anything to change this". "Ich bin dafür" means that you are for something. This does not mean you would do anything or actively support it, but it expresses your oppinion and could also be used for casting a vote.
    – Tobi
    Jul 14 '16 at 9:23
  • Right, I get that, but then the question is how do I tell them apart? Modal verbs allow for the second verb to be omitted, so tuen is, in theory, optional in the presence of können, which results in "dafür können" and "dafür tuen können" being indistinguishable from each other
    – user19407
    Jul 14 '16 at 9:28
  • 1
    In whole sentences, you cannot just omit the second verb. If I say "Ich kann Auto fahren", I cannot skip "fahren" and say "Ich kann Auto." This doesn't make sense. If you say "Ich kann fahren", then you can omitt "fahren" and just say "Ich kann", which is gramatically correct and you just leave it to the reader to figure out what it is you can do. So with "Ich kann etwas dafür tun", you could say "Ich kann" but you cannot say "Ich kann etwas dafür". In this special case, it even would be misleading, because "Ich kann etwas dafür" is a saying with a meaning.
    – Tobi
    Jul 14 '16 at 10:24
  • @user19407 I don't think any language allows modal verbs to drop the second verb. There are exceptions, like Sie kann Deutsch meaning Sie kann Deutsch sprechen (schreiben, lesen), but that is the exception rather than the rule.
    – c.p.
    Jul 14 '16 at 10:39

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