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I’ve come across this text:

Frau Nolde, was haben Sie denn Schönes in Ihrem Karton?

I find it hard to understand. It’s capitalized, which means it’s a noun. But I really feel it’s used as an adverb. Either way, I still find it hard to comprehend. The problem is more with the meaning than with the grammar.

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    Try to cover substantiated adjectives with the adjectiv + "things" in English, I guess that helps - "What beautiful things do you have in your box?" – tofro Nov 4 '16 at 14:08
  • I’m having a really hard time understanding how you want to add an adverb to the verb to have (haben) since there are no other verbs in the sentence. Could you enlighten me? – Jan Nov 5 '16 at 16:39
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Actually, the adjective schön is used as a noun in this phrase, and according to German capitalization rules it is then written in uppercase.

But don't confuse this rule with another one: the adjective remains lowercase if it refers to a noun that has been mentioned somewhere else in the context. Example (a bit made-up to fit yours, you will find more in the linked reference):

Frau Nolde, bei den Postkarten in Ihrem Karton sind ja ein paar wirklich schöne dabei!

Schönes in your example phrase refers to whatever is in the box. The speaker and Mrs. Nolde know what it is, so there is no need to mention it explicitly. Think of it as

Was haben Sie denn für schöne Sachen in Ihrem Karton?

  • Ok, but still can't understand the addition it represents to the meaning. To be more precise, what's the difference between: "Was haben Sie denn in Ihrem Karton?" and "Was haben Sie denn Schönes in Ihrem Karton?" – user23568 Nov 4 '16 at 13:46
  • @Jawad See my last edit. Better? – Matthias Nov 4 '16 at 13:50
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    I guess so, but just to make sure, does it mean something like "What's that beautiful thing you have in your carton?" – user23568 Nov 4 '16 at 13:55
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    @Jawad Yes, that is pretty much the English translation of the last sentence in my answer (except for singular/plural). – Matthias Nov 4 '16 at 14:05
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    @Jawad To be precise: it would be the literal translation. But as PerlDuck correctly pointed out, the German phrase is rather used to express the speaker's interest in the things, without really qualifiying them as "beautiful". – Matthias Nov 4 '16 at 14:15
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Literally

Frau Nolde, was haben Sie denn Schönes in Ihrem Karton?

translates to

Frau Nolde, what beauty (or beautiful thing) do you have in your box?

But actually the thing in the box is not necessarily "beautiful". It can also be interesting or attracting in some other way.

Think of "gem" or "treasure".

Imagine you have a box full of stamps, want to sell them and bring them to a stamp dealer or stamp collector. He then might say “Was haben Sie denn Schönes in Ihrem Karton?”

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    Beautiful thing is more helpful as a an answer to this question, since it clarifies how an adjective has become a noun. The person is asking What beautiful [thing] do you have in your box?, and the implied "thing" turns "beautiful" into a noun. – MissMonicaE Nov 4 '16 at 15:15
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I read it as: What niceties have you got in there?

  • I thought of that as well. But now that I'm thinking about it I'm not actually sure "niceties" can be used for nice physical things in English. Or can it? – Emil Nov 4 '16 at 19:32
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I would consider this as simple flattery to the addressee, to take the edge from the inquisitiveness.

Was haben Sie denn in Ihrem Karton?

is a question, which would be appropriate for a police or customs officer, but surely not for the neighbor running into Ms Nolde.

Note the similar

Was haben Sie denn für schöne Schuhe an? (What nice pair of shoes do you wear?)

It transports approval for the taste and gives the opportunity to explain the shop, the attractive price, etc., while

Was haben Sie denn für Schuhe an?

could be considered as a statement between astonishment and insult.

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The context matters.

If the speaker knows what's in the box it could be meant ironically. The thing in the box is actually not beautiful for the speaker. In this case the intonation is different to the next case.

If the speaker doesn't know what's in the box he just could be curious and trying to increase the possibility to get to know what's in the Box. In this case I would not use the word "denn" in the sentence.

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Along the same line as "What goodies have you got in that basket, Little Red Riding Hood?"

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    Can you expand your answer, explaining why it is correct? – Jan Nov 5 '16 at 16:40

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