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I have these sentences (with the correct choice boldfaced):

Das T-Shirt gefällt mir besser/lieber als die Blume.
Ich mag besser/lieber Orangensaft als Cola.
Mir schmeckt das Brot besser/lieber als das Brot in meinem Heimatland

I know the correct answers, but only because I’m German. How do I formulate a rule to explain this to a language learner?

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    Wenn du Deutscher bist, warum stellst du dann in einem Forum, dass die deutsche Sprache zum Inhalt hat, deine Frage, die sich um die deutsche Sprache dreht dann in einer Fremdsprache? Immerhin stammen auch mehr als 90% aller Antworten, die hier gegeben werden, von Menschen, deren Muttersprache Deutsch ist. – Hubert Schölnast Aug 3 '18 at 18:00
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    Because i ask for someone who learns the language. – Sandro4912 Aug 3 '18 at 18:06
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    Possible duplicate of When to use "am besten" and when to use "am liebsten"? – Ludi Aug 3 '18 at 20:41
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    Nom. object with Dat. actor: gut, besser, best, while Nom. actor with Acc. object: gern, lieber, liebst?! – Crissov Aug 4 '18 at 12:02
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    Very probably, you are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking where to use "besser"/"lieber", you should ask for when to use "gut" or "gerne". This is a bit misleading, as you seem to be asking when to use the comparative. – tofro Aug 6 '18 at 17:48
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+50

Johnl's answer is saying everything: You'll have to find out if the verb you are using is using the adjective/adverb "gern(e)" or "gut".

Many sentences can be formed with both words:

Ich spiele gut/gerne Fußball.

In this case "gut" means: "well". (So you can do something well.)

And "gerne" (or "gern") means: You like to do this.

So one of the sentences means that you can play football well, and the other one means that you like to play football.

Now let's look at the first two sentences from your examples:

Mir schmeckt das Brot gut.
Das T-Shirt gefällt mir gut.

The subjects in these sentences are the bread and the T-Shirt. The bread is doing something: It tastes. And it is tasting well. But the bread does not like to do something. So "gern" cannot be used here.

Note that the word "gefallen" works differently than the word "to like" in English: Just like "to taste" the physical object is the subject in the sentence and the person who likes something is the (dative) object.

So according to English grammar the person is doing something with the T-Shirt (to like) while according to German grammar the T-Shirt is doing something (gefallen).

Now let's look at your third example:

Ich mag lieber Orangensaft.

In this example the word "gern(e)" is not used in the same way as in the examples above:

It is not an adverb which describes the verb!

In the sentence a fixed expression ("etwas gerne mögen") is used. You have to take a look into the dictionary to find out that the expression is not "etwas gut mögen" but "etwas gerne mögen". Sorry.

And finally we can have a look at mach's example:

Ich finde Orangensaft gut.

The verb "finden" has two different meanings. In this case it means: "To think that something is somehow."

The sentence using the verb "finden" is formed with an adjective describing the object, not with an adverb describing the verb:

Ich finde den Orangensaft gut.
("Gut" describes the substantive "Orangensaft" here, not the verb "finden".)
Der Orangensaft schmeckt gut.
("Gut" describes the verb "schmecken" here.)

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besser ist die Steigerung von gut, lieber ist die Steigerung von gern. Daran sollte man direkt sehen, dass besser in (1) und (3) auch die richtige Lösung ist:

Das T-Shirt gefällt mir gut (nicht: gern). Das T-Shirt gefällt mir besser [als die Blume].

Mir schmeckt das Brot gut (nicht: gern). Mir schmeckt das Brot besser [als das Brot in meinem Heimatland].

Aber in (2):

Ich mag Orangensaft gern (nicht: gut). Ich mag Orangensaft lieber [als Cola].

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  • Guter Hinweis, aber nicht die Antwort auf seine Frage. Was ist die dazugehörige Regel, wann verwendet man "gut" und wann "gern"? Muss man das einfach mit dem Verb zusammen lernen, oder kann man da allgemeinere Vorschriften finden? – ComradeMicha Aug 4 '18 at 10:59
  • Just like ComradeMicha said, this does not answer my question at all. For example with my sentences with " ich mag" and "gefällt mir", how can we know if we should use "gut" or "gern". and also with other verbs – Sandro4912 Aug 4 '18 at 13:43
  • Gut is more about properties of an object. Gern is the same for actions or verbs. Das T-shirt ist gut. Ich fahre gern Fahrrad. In this case gefällt, schmeckt and mag is in the grey zone. Somehow gefällt, and schmeckt is more about an object and less about an action. And mag is more about action. There is some logic here, but it is very thin. – keiv.fly Aug 4 '18 at 21:44
  • Das kann gut und gerne noch 3, 4 Kommentare dauern, bis ... – user unknown Aug 6 '18 at 21:31
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    Wenn es in Wirklichkeit darum geht, wann man gut und wann man gern benutzt, warum wird nicht danach gefragt? Siehe auch tofros Kommentar zur Frage. – RHa Aug 7 '18 at 7:29
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This is an interesting observation. I guess at the bottom of this might be two different conceptualizations about qualities:

0. Preliminary note: Parties involved

Let me first lay out the parties involved. Like that, I can more easily describe the two different conceptualizations about qualities. There are two parties involved when we talk about qualities:

  1. The party that possesses or is ascribed the quality. Prototypically, this is an inanimate party, though it need not be. For sake of convenience, I will call this party the “thing”, but keeping the quotes for signalizing that it need not be a thing.
  2. The party that perceives or ascribes the quality. Prototypically, this is an animate party, though it need not be. For sake of convenience, I will call this party the “person”, but keeping the quotes for signalizing that it need not be a person.

1. First conceptualization: Passively experiencing a quality

In the first conceptualization, the quality is inherent to the “thing”. The “person” passively experiences the quality. On the grammatical level, this can manifest by the “thing” occupying the subject role (nominative case) and the “person” occupying an object role (dative or accusative case), which is unusual since it prototypically is the “person” who acts as subject:

Das Brot (nom.) schmeckt mir (dat.) gut.

Das blaue T-Shirt (nom.) gefällt mir (dat.) besser als das gelbe.

Der Orangensaft (nom.) dünkt mich (acc.) gut.

2. Second conceptualization: Actively ascribing a quality

In the second conceptualization, it is the “person” who actively ascribes the quality to the “thing”. On the grammatical level, this can manifest by the “person” occupying the subject role (nominative case) and the “thing” occupying the object role (accusative case):

Ich (nom.) mag Orangensaft (acc.) gern.

Ich (nom.) habe den Sommer (acc.) lieber als den Winter.

On the etymological level, both «lieb» and «gern» are related to emotional activities, cf. lieben and begehren or the etymologically related English verb to yearn.

At a first glance, the following case looks as if it were a counterexample:

Ich (nom.) finde den Orangensaft (acc.) gut.

However, when we look at the semantics of the verb, we see that it is not a counterexample after all: the act of finding a quality is not an active ascription of a quality. Instead, the quality is inherent to the “thing” and the “person” merely finds the quality, so this is rather a case of the first conceptualization in spite of the grammatical structure.

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  • Die Unterscheidung belebt/unbelebt ist vollkommen irrelevant. "Das Öl tut dem Motor gut. Der blaue Schein gefällt dem Geldautomaten besser. Der Rechner mag mp4-Videos lieber als mkv-Videos. – user unknown Aug 6 '18 at 21:37
  • @userunknown: Danke, dass du das herausgestrichen hast. Du hast völlig recht, die prototypischen Zuschreibungen sind eben nur prototypisch, also gibt es Gegenbeispiele – übrigens in beide Richtungen, vgl. «du gefällst mir gut». Ich verbessere nun die Antwort, um dieses Missverständnis zu vermeiden, dass durch das unvertraute Wort «prototypisch» entstehen kann. Im Übrigen steht die Unterscheidung belebt/unbelebt keinesweges im Zentrum meiner Antwort, sondern die Unterscheidung zwischen passiver Wahrnehmung und aktiver Zuschreibung. – mach Aug 7 '18 at 4:57
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'lieber' expresses a preference
'besser' expresses a comparison

Note the first example here "Das T-Shirt gefällt mir besser als die Blume" doesn't contradict this: the preference is already implicit in 'gefällt', all that remains is the comparison

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  • "lieber" is also comparison: das ist mir lieb. aber das lieber, und das am liebsten. – Robert Aug 6 '18 at 23:48
  • Zumindest umgangssprachlich: die Blume gefällt mir besser als ein Besuch beim Zahnarzt. Damit sage ich nicht, dass mir ein Besuch beim Zahnarzt auch nur ansatzweise gefällt. – Robert Aug 6 '18 at 23:49

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