Recently, I wrote a short paragraph in German about my son’s visit to the doctor and that he no longer needed a plaster cast for his broken leg. I had a sentence about my son wanting to keep the cast as a memento of all the art work on it. A native German speaker corrected the sentence to read as:

Plötzlich wollte mein Sohn aber doch den Gips vor seinem Untergang (from ruin) bewahren.

At first read, the use of “seinem Untergang” is ambiguous to me since it could refer to either my son or the plaster. Is this an issue at all? If not, I would like to know which part of the sentence makes it clear what “seinem” refers back to.

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    Der Untergang is a very poetic end for a plaster cast, a more profane end would be die Zerstörung. – Janka Mar 5 '18 at 14:14
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    Untergang is indeed rather dramatic. Like in "Aufstieg und Untergang des Römischen Reichs", i.e. "Rise and fall of the Roman Empire". – Rudy Velthuis Mar 5 '18 at 19:29
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    The word is "memento", not "momento". Too short for me to do the edit myself. (The irony of correcting English in a question about German, and thus potentially being called "Grammar Nazi" has not escaped me.) – Monty Harder Mar 5 '18 at 20:02
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    @Janka vor dem Untergang bewahren is a common phrase though, vor der Zerstörung bewahren isn't. – sgf Mar 6 '18 at 10:14

You're right, both can be meant, son or plaster. Use »dessen« to remove the ambiguity.

Plötzlich wollte mein Sohn aber doch den Gips vor dessen Untergang bewahren.

Now it's clear that »dessen« refers to the »Gips«.

  • Why can »dessen« not refer to dem Sohn? – Wilson Mar 6 '18 at 12:07
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    @Wilson: »dessen« bezieht sich auf das zuletzt Genannte. Sofern es hierfür keine offizielle Regel gibt, ist es doch zumindest der übliche Sprachgebrauch und dementsprechend das übliche Verständnis des Lesers. Anders gesagt: Ein Autor, der das »dessen« auf den Sohn bezogen haben will, wird missverstanden. – Pollitzer Mar 6 '18 at 12:21

Yes, the sentence indeed is ambiguous, but no, this is not an issue at all.

In fact, most sentences in most languages are in (partly) ambiguous. Our brains just automatically resolve most of these ambiguities from context and world knowledge before we notice they were even there.

Take, for example, the first sentence in your question:

Recently, I wrote a short paragraph in German about my son’s visit to the doctor and that he no longer needed a plaster cast for his broken leg.

Interestingly, this is the same phenomenon as you describe! "He" and "his" could refer to either the doctor or your son. But of course, you and every reader will automatically assume that it refers to the latter (and chances are that you didn't even notice the ambiguity until I pointed it out) because not only is it much more normal to go to a doctor if you have a broken leg compared to the doctor having a broken leg himself, but it's also more likely that you want to write about things that happened to your son, not the doctor.

It works the same way for "seinem Untergang" (with a little twist because "vor" is ambiguous as well in this sentence - it may be used as a temporal preposition, translated as "before" - but I will skip that to keep it simple).

"Untergang" is usually used for complete destruction and doom (or as the literal nominalization of "untergehen"/"to sink (into water)", but that's obviously not the case here). As such, using it for the destruction of the plaster is actually some exaggeration - but I guess the same can be said about "ruin", so it's a fitting translation. The important point is that it is quite expected that the plaster is going to be destroyed - much more likely than your son expecting his "Untergang" very soon ("Untergang" isn't even expected to be used for persons at all). Thus, every native speaker will as per default assume that the former is meant. Only if you add some context to make the second interpretation more likely, there will even be a trace of doubt.

  • Indeed! Your highlight of my own sentence made me think of the saying "He who digs a pit is the first...." :) Also, the sentence was suggested to demonstrate the use of bewahren as an exaggeration vs aufbewahren as "more neutral". – Satish Vasan Mar 5 '18 at 13:27

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