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Sie ist über alle Maßen großzügig.

In this idiomatic expression, I'm not sure why the Plural Dative form "Maßen" is coupled with the Plural Accusative form "alle" instead of the Plural Dative form "allen".

I would be tempted to say instead:

Sie ist über allen Maßen großzügig.

  • 3
    +1 for this very interesting observation – jonathan.scholbach Mar 7 '17 at 0:48
  • @jonathan.scholbach Hi. Practially speaking, do native German speakers (as a child) learn this expression as a set, fixed phrase without dwelling too much on this apparent mismatch? – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Mar 7 '17 at 14:01
  • Yes, I learned it as a fixed phrase without ever questioning its grammar. And I gues this will be the case for most german native speakers. – jonathan.scholbach Mar 7 '17 at 14:06
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Actually, über demands an accusative here, and that's why "alle" is correct here. ("über alle Maßen" means "über alle Maßen hinaus", so you have to ask "über wen?" and not "über wem?", über indicates a direction in this case).

But of course this does not solve your problem, since the mismatch seems to persist. The solution is that "Maßen" is actually not dative case here, but accusative as well.
But how can this be? The standard plural declension of "das Maß" would be

Nominative plural: die Maße

Genitive plural: der Maße

Dative plural: den Maßen

Akkusative plural: die Maße

But in the idiomatic expression über alle Maßen, "Maßen" is not the plural of the present-day German word das Maß, but of an elder variant die Maß, which has nearly completely vanished in Modern German from the 18th century on. Etymology of das Maß shows that it is a blending of Middle High German māʒe (feminine) and Middle High German meʒ (neuter). Die Maß has survived in Upper German die Maß and in present-day German dermaßen, gewissermaßen and einigermaßen (see Pfeifer for more detailed information) and - as I would conclude - in the idiomatic expression "über alle Maßen".

I have no proof for my hypothesis, that "über alle Maßen" is indeed a relict of the feminine variant die Maß, but it would explain the grammar of the idiomatic expression.

  • Note that the word die Maß hasn't actually vanished. In Bavaria it is still alive as a measure of beer. It used to be defined regionally (generally a bit more than what is now a litre), but in modern parlance it precisely 1 litre. The word comes up at least once a year on German national news when the Oktoberfest beer price is reported. - I suspect there might have be a sort of pun going on originally. You can think of the idiom as starting as a length-based metaphor and the final n turning it into an alcohol-based one. – Hans Adler Mar 7 '17 at 10:12
  • @HansAdler "Note that the word die Maß hasn't actually vanished. In Bavaria it is still alive as a measure of beer." My answer does reflect this: "Die Maß has survived in Upper German* – jonathan.scholbach Mar 7 '17 at 10:16
  • Yes, but it's not just Upper German. While it's obviously much more common in (Austria and) Bavaria than elsewhere, it's also a word of Standard German describing something that one might refer to as a regional dish. I just feel that saying the word "almost completely vanished" is a bit too strong under the circumstances. – Hans Adler Mar 7 '17 at 12:57
  • @HansAdler Well, I would say that die Maß understood in other parts of Germany as "1 liter of beer", but not actively used. But you are correct that it still exists. I admit, that it is hard to judge, whether it is nearly completely vanished or not. – jonathan.scholbach Mar 7 '17 at 14:12
  • 1
    @HansAdler Note that Duden considers die Maße (that's what we're talking about here) and die Maß as two different words. – tofro Mar 8 '17 at 10:55
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Vocabulary

The word die Maße is not the same thing as das Maß or die Maß (the beer), it is actually, according to Duden, a different (archaic) word (die Maße, fem), and its plural is die Maßen. A proper English translation would be standard or measure. die Maße is so archaic that it is not used anymore in German except in this (and some others, like: in Maßen) idiomatic expression.

Grammar

Movement in German can be ruling two cases - dative and accusative:

  1. Static movement within a restricted area or within certain limits rules the dative - Ich fahre in der Stadt - Moving about within a defined area.
  2. Dynamic movement towards something is expressed using the accusative - Ich fahre in die Stadt. Expresses "were not there yet, but move towards it"

Das Flugzeug fliegt über alle Wolken

The plane is is on its way to the area above the clouds (accusative).

Das Flugzeug fliegt über allen Wolken

The plane is constantly flying above the clouds (dative).

Über alle Maßen is accusative and does thus express a movement from at or below standards to above all standards.

  • 1
    "Über alle Maßen is accusative and does thus express a movement from below standards to above all standards." I think, that's wrong. Das Essen war über alle Maßen gut does not imply that it has been bad before. The "direction" which demans accusative case here is more of a conceptual manner - rather like in "to exceed all standards" than in "move from below all standards above all standards" – jonathan.scholbach Mar 7 '17 at 10:15
  • @jonathan.scholbach agree partially - "...über alle Maßen gut" does, however, also not say it has been good before - It just doesn't imply anything where we're coming from. – tofro Mar 7 '17 at 10:57

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