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In order to express a possessive relationship in German between two noun phrases, the usual way is to put the possessor in the genitive case, and after the possessed noun, whose determiner is inflected according to the possessed noun's gender+number+case:

Im Hause meines Vaters sind viele Wohnungen.

Ich suche nach der Spur ihrer Tritte.

But it seems there is alternative, which is for the possessor to come before the possessed noun, taking on the place and role of the determiner for the possessed noun:

In meines Vaters Hause sind viele Wohnungen.

Ich suche nach ihrer Tritte Spur.

Normally, after a preposition like in (denoting position) or nach we'd expect to encounter a dative form:

In diesem Hause sind viele Wohnungen.

Ich suche nach einer Spur.

but I get the impression that the following are incorrect:

*In meinem Vater Hause sind viele Wohnungen.

*Ich suche nach ihren Tritten Spur.

So is it the general rule that if the possessor comes before the possessed noun, acting as its determiner, then it remains in the genitive case, even though more "normal" determiners (i.e. articles or anarthrous adjectives) inflect in agreement with the possessed noun's gender+number+case? Does this only apply in prepositional phrases or also more generally?

[UPDATE: Added examples to highlight the key question]

For example, would the following all be correct (cycling the possessed noun through the other three cases)?

Nominative:

Meines Vaters Haus hat viele Wohnungen.

Accusative:

Ich sehe meines Vaters Haus.

Genitive:

Die Wohnungen meines Vaters Hauses sind viel.

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    Note that "Hause" sounds a little bit old-fashioned (although it is correct). Removing the "e" in your examples (changing to "Haus"), your first sentence would sound more modern and natural. – IQV Feb 2 '18 at 11:21
  • Sure, but in this case I've lifted the (second version) of the phrase straight from source (The Bible, John 14:2). In which case the "Hause" doesn't seem out of place. In my modified versions, I figured I'd stick with "Hause" because I didn't want to distract from my main point. – MattBecker82 Feb 2 '18 at 11:35
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You haven't quite understood case inflection yet (no wonder, since English doesn't really have it).

A preposition governs the case of the head component of its argument. A preposition "in" (locative) triggers the dative case, but only for "Hause" and its attributes (detemriners, adjectives), not necessarily for the entire argument.

In this case, the argument contains an entire nested noun phrase which is already in the genitive case. (This genitive is governed not by any particular word, but by the construction of naming the possessor together with the possession.) Such nested components are not re-inflected, they stay in their original case.

As a rule, parallel inflection applies to parallel components only. For instance, if the prepositional phrase contained a noun and four attributive adjectives, all five would be inflected as governed by the preposition. Nested components such as the possessor noun phrase are not.

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  • Thanks. This is clear up to a point: how do we distinguish between parallel and nested components for inflection? Is it that any articles and adjectives applied directly to the argument are always parallel, and anything else (noun phrases etc.) are always nested? And does this rule apply when the possession is not the argument of a preposition, but has any role in a sentence (hence have any grammatical case)? – MattBecker82 Feb 2 '18 at 12:41
  • @MattBecker82 Yes, I think that's it - there are more technical theories involving "phrase heads" and "c-command" but I'm not so firm in those. Certainly the principle holds for other constructions. For instance, some temporal modifiers take the accusative case, so "all winter of 1986, we..." is "Den ganzen Winter des Jahres 1986 haben wir..." - the accusative extends to the core noun phrase, but the nested possessive stays in the genitive case. – Kilian Foth Feb 2 '18 at 13:54
  • How far can we take this nested-noun-phrases-as-possessors concept while remaining grammatical? Could we say In meines Vaters Hundes ehemaliger Besitzerin Patenonkels Klavierlehrerin Haus? I realise this is stylistically criminal but is it correct/understandable grammatically speaking? – MattBecker82 Feb 2 '18 at 17:22
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There is no difference if you use a possessor construction or not. The possessor noun is Genitiv and the possesed noun remains in the case it was before. It helps to use an article to check the case. In all following sentences the case is always the same:

Dativ:

In dem Haus sind viele Wohnungen.

In dem Haus seines Vaters sind viele Wohnungen.

In seines Vaters Haus sind viele Wohnungen. (an article is not possible here)

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  • Thanks. It’s clear to me that Haus is in the dative in all these sentences. My question is more about the case of seines Vaters given that in your last example it sort-of substitutes for the inflected article dem, and whether this is a general rule which applies regardless of the context of the possessed noun Haus within the sentence. I may edit my question to make it a bit clearer what I’m asking. – MattBecker82 Feb 2 '18 at 12:48

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