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In working through a wissen vs kennen exercise, I was asked to translate the following phrase:

His son knows the people well.

I put:

Seinen Sohn kennt die Leute gut.

I was then told I was wrong and that it should be

Seinen Sohn kennen die Leute gut.

Is kennen correct in this situation and if so, why is it better than kennt.

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There are two issues you are facing here. First, let me state that your proposed solution is wrong:

Seinen Sohn kennt die Leute gut.

You may already know that German has a rather free verb order; most importantly there is no rule ‘subject — predicate — object’ like there is in English. Instead, the verb occupies second position in a main clause and the other sentence fragments are arranged according to a set of varyingly strong (or weak) guidelines that determine how much emphasis and tension is in a sentence. This is possible because German relies relatively heavily on declension by case and number to mark the syntactic function of words. In your suggestion, seinen Sohn is masculine accusative singular (unambiguously determined by the possessive pronoun and the lack of inflection of the noun). It therefore must be the accusative object; die Leute (which could be either nominative or accusative plural) thus cannot be interpreted in any way other than nominative, i.e. subject. The ‘quickest’ and maybe most obvious way to fix the sentence is to adjust the verb kennen to the subject in numerus, i.e. the version you have been given as a correction:

Seinen Sohn{acc} kennen die Leute{nom} gut.

The problem with this correction is that it changes the original meaning; you were asked to build the following sentence:

Your son knows the people well.

But what you actually arrived at is:

The people know your son well.

To arrive at the intended meaning of your exercise, you must fix the declension of seinen Sohn — even though that wasn’t what was corrected. If you turn it into nominative by writing sein Sohn, suddenly kennt becomes the correct verb form again:

Sein Sohn kennt die Leute gut.

I stumbled over wanting to correct you in the same, wrong way so I don’t blame whoever did it whether it was a machine or a human.

  • I was first, but yours is better :) – Carsten S Jan 5 '17 at 19:34
  • @CarstenS Blame it on my computer being slow ;) And thanks. But your’s is good, too! – Jan Jan 5 '17 at 19:45
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    Thanks so much for answering so completely. As I mentioned to Carsten, I wasn't paying attention to the case and was focused only on the verb. This makes sense to me now. It also reminds me to pay attention to all part of the sentence. – Benjamin Hofmann Jan 5 '17 at 20:10
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Neither is a correct translation.

*Seinen Sohn kennt die Leute gut.

is ungrammatical. Since seinen Sohn is accusative, it cannot be the subject, so the subject has to be die Leute. But die Leute is plural, while kennt is singular.

Seinen Sohn kennen die Leute gut.

is grammatical, because now kennen is plural. However, die Leute is still the subject, so it means.

The people know his son well.

If the son is supposed to be the subject, then it has to be in the nominative case:

Sein Sohn kennt die Leute gut.

Now the verb is in singular again. Here, die Leute is in the accusative case, which happens to agree with the nominative case.

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    absolutely correct, well explained. – kkreft Jan 5 '17 at 19:14
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    Thank you for this response. I'm still fairly new at this and was only focusing on the verb. I wasn't paying attention to the case of sein. This makes sense to me know. – Benjamin Hofmann Jan 5 '17 at 20:07
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You are right. Kennt is correct in this situation.

As a native speaker I would translate the phrase

His son knows the people well.

to

Sein Sohn kennt die Leute gut.

If you use kennt you have to use sein instead of seinen.

Kennen and more explicitly the sentence “Seinen Sohn kennt die Leute gut” would mean the people know his son well.

But it is his son who knows the people well. So you use kennt.

As Armin stated in his comment kennt is used for the 3rd person singular.

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    That was intentional. Because you can't translate His son knows the people well. to Seinen Sohn kennen die Leute gut.. His son knows is clearly 3rd person singular and Die Leute kennen (seinen Sohn gut). is 3rd person plural. This german translation is definitely wrong. – kkreft Jan 5 '17 at 19:11
  • Thanks for answering. I always love to hear how native speakers would say it. – Benjamin Hofmann Jan 5 '17 at 20:08
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Well, if the son knows people well, then it should be indeed kennt.

The origin of the confusion is the following one: If the people know his son well, then kennen is not only "better than" kennt, it's also the only possible conjugation. The positions are here irrelevant. The fact that seinen Sohn is in accusative tells that Leute–which is plural–must be the subject. Wence kennen.

  • I appreciate your answer to my question. Thanks for taking the time to explain the mechanics. I'm still pretty new at this and every answer gives me a little more understanding than I had before. – Benjamin Hofmann Jan 5 '17 at 20:11

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