In The Star Beast by Robert Heinlein, published in the early '50s, John Thomas Stuart is a high-school student who keeps an exotic animal named Lummox that his great-great-grandfather brought to Earth from a far-away planet. Lummox one day escapes from his paddock and eats the neighbor's car and damages buildings, so lawsuits get filed. When a court of law is being asked to order the animal destroyed because it's dangerous, beings from a distant planet are contacting Earth's government to say a child belonging to their royal family is missing and is thought to be on Earth.

The story was translated into German by Waltraud Götting.

In English many verbs can be used either transitively or intransitively: "I boiled the water." or "The water boiled.", so that the verb "boil" refers either to what I did to the water or to what the water did. Likewise "The farmer grew broccoli." or "Broccoli grew in those fields."

Little did John Thomas Stuart suspect that creatures of Lummox's species reaching a certain age grew arms. So when that happened, he was surprised. The reader sees this:

Lummox had grown an arm.

This is a transitive verb. But if I say "The boy grew three inches.", then it's intransitive; "three inches" is not the object of the verb, it's not the thing that the "growing" was done to.

Götting's translation says:

Lummox war ein Arm gewachsen.

With transitive verbs, one more often sees "hatte" rather than "war", and the common noun phrase "ein Arm" is in the nominative case, so it can't be the object of the verb. What then, is its syntactic role in this sentence? Is it like the "three inches" mentioned above? And where, in accounts of German grammar, does one find tha the nominative case is used for such an occasion? What would be other examples of the nominative case being used for a noun phrase playing that sort of role in a sentence?

2 Answers 2


Ein Arm is nominative because it is the subject of the sentence.

The sentence could also be written als follows:

Ein Arm war Lummox gewachsen.

"Lummox" is dative. Because there is no article, the cases look the same, with the exception of genitive.

One can see it's dative if Lummox is replaced by a pronoun: Ihm war ein Arm gewachsen.

Wachsen is one of those verbs for which sein is used instead of haben to form the perfect. That's why it's war, not hatte.

  • 1
    I meant that "ein Arm" is nominative. That's why I called it "common". Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 16:43
  • 5
    There's nothing special about that ein Arm. It's the subject.
    – Janka
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 17:04
  • 1
    I will "accept" this answer if you edit it to correct the mistake you made by failing to understand the word "common". Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 18:17

Lummox had grown an arm.

In this English sentence, Lummox is the subject, an arm is the direct object. The tricky thing about this is the pluperfect tense of the predicate. In English, it's perfectly clear what that means: in the narrator's past the growing action was already completed.

Unfortunately, German does not use the perfect and pluperfect tenses for completed actions strictly. If you wanted to translate the fact about completion into German, you had to use the second passive voice German has, the Zustandspassiv. Instead of werden, it uses the auxiliary sein.

Es war ein Arm gewachsen.

An arm was grown.

Es war Lummox ein Arm gewachsen.

Lummox war ein Arm gewachsen.

"An arm was grown (to) Lummox."

As this is passive voice, the subject is now ein Arm, and Lummox becomes a dative object. It answers the question Wem? (whom?).

  • 4
    Ich sehe da kein Passiv, nur das Plusquamperfekt von „ihm wächst ein Arm“.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 0:15
  • Das ist anhand der Formen ununterscheidbar. Man sieht es nur am Wechsel des Subjekts. Es geht schließlich nicht um den Arm, sondern darum, dass Lummox etwas zugestoßen ist.
    – Janka
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 6:50
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    In „mir fällt ein Klavier auf den Kopf“ stößt auch mir etwas zu, und trotzdem ist das Klavier das grammatikalische Subjekt.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 7:32
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    In my opinion it's simply wrong to read the sentence as passive. If a Zustandspassiv is possible, a Vorgangspassiv should be possible too. But the hypothetical Vorgangspassiv Ihm ist ein Arm gewachsen worden is clearly incorrect.
    – RHa
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 8:13

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