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I have the following sentence

Das Ziel dieser Arbeit ist/sind das Beobachten und Dokumentieren der verschiedenen Zugvögel.

Ignore if that makes no sense (it's just a sentence I came up with). The real question is: do I use 'ist' or 'sind'? Das Ziel is singular, but the two activities are plural.

  • The two activities are not plural - Just as "Marmor und Stein und Eisen" are not plural as well. Das Ziel sind Beobachtungen von... would be plural. – tofro Feb 14 '17 at 20:25
  • @tofro you are right, my bad. But Wer oder Was ist das Ziel dieser Arbeit? Or am I wrong? – teheran Feb 14 '17 at 20:26
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What we see here is a so-called Gleichsetzungsnominativ, a form that typically follows the schema of "Something is something".

One of the nominatives is the subject of the sentence, the other(s) is/are the predicative. The rule is:

In case at least one of subject or predicative are in plural, the verb normally is plural as well (There are exceptions to this rule, as always, at the moment I don't see any of them applying here, however).

Note, in your example, the two predicatives are not plural, but we have more than one, so the verb must be plural as well.

An old Duden newsletter goes a bit more into detail and provides some more examples and exceptions.

Comments asked for "how to detect the subject in such a construct": Simply deducing from the word order might end you up with the wrong word - word order is pretty flexible in German.

I seem to remember a rule of thumb: "replace the verb with kann betrachtet werden als". If that doesn't kill the meaning, you got the subject.

Example:

Schweigen ist Gold.

Gold kann betrachtet werden als Schweigen doesn't make a lot of sense. Schweigen kann betrachtet werden als Gold sounds better, so "Schweigen" is the subject, "Gold" the predicative.

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    The Duden rules may be correct, but I think almost no one gets this one right. I would accept either Das Ziel ist das Beobachten und Dokumentieren… and Die Ziele sind das Beobachten und Dokumentieren… with a slight change in meaning, as the first defines one goal with two actions to achieve it while the latter defines two separate goals (of two actions.) – Janka Feb 14 '17 at 20:41
  • Both should be possible. Just as it's possible to get "deine Suppe aß ich" from "ich aß deine Suppe". Can you relly say which the subject is having a nominative? It seems impossible to me. If I'm wrong, would you mind how to tell, how to detect the subject? – c.p. Feb 14 '17 at 20:47
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    @teheran: This seems about right. Also possible: Gegenstände der Untersuchung wurden… and Gegenstand der Untersuchungen wurden…. I wouldn't say wurde (verb in singular) in any of these cases. – Janka Feb 14 '17 at 21:31
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    This is wrong, just as “das Beobachten und Dokumentieren sind schwierig” would be wrong. – Carsten S Feb 14 '17 at 21:46
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    @CarstenS Gimme a rule - I'd like to believe you. – tofro Feb 15 '17 at 10:24
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Das Ziel dieser Arbeit ist das Beobachten und Dokumentieren der verschiedenen Zugvögel.

“ist” is correct here, since a thesis typically has only one goal. “Beobachten und Dokumentieren” is regarded as this single goal, like in:

Das Ziel dieser Arbeit ist die Analyse (bestehend aus Beobachten und Dokumentieren) der verschiedenen Zugvögel.

You can also say:

Die Ziele dieser Arbeit sind das Beobachten und Dokumentieren der verschiedenen Zugvögel.

This means that the thesis has two separate, independent goals.

Note: The above rule does not work in many other cases that may seem structurally equivalent.

  • I was thinking of "single/joint action" - But couldn't find any hint on that anywhere. I fear that is nowhere in the grammar rules. – tofro Feb 14 '17 at 22:43
  • Duden 4 Grammatik (Auflage 4, 1984) says in section 1172: „Stehen Subjekt und Gleichsetzungsnominativ oder nur eines von ihnen im Plural, dann steht in der Regel auch das Finitum im Plural.“ (emphasis mine). I think the above sentence is one of the exceptions of that rule. – Roland Illig Feb 14 '17 at 23:05

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