Sometimes when I look up words in a dictionary, there are verbs where the dictionary gives me the option to use them either with a dative or a prepositional complement, e.g.:

sich einer/an eine Gruppe anschließen

einen Text der/an die Tafel anschreiben.

Both complements can be used grammatically; however, I wonder 1. whether there are semantic differences between these structures?, 2. If there are no semantic differences, then which structure is more frequent in everyday speech?

My question isn't about those specific examples but more to get a general observation as there might be hundreds of other similar verbs.

  • This is very hard to answer in a general way. A better way to ask would be with some more examples. – tofro Oct 11 at 7:49
  • @tofro Thank you, I'll try to find other examples, but what do you think for now about my previous examples in terms of semantics and usage frequency? – User Oct 11 at 7:52
up vote 3 down vote accepted

This is hard to answer generally, any answer might be on the verge of oversimplification.

Very generally, you can assume that Language, specifically everyday Language, is going to find the easy way out, the easiest way to express a matter. If it doesn't, it might be going to end up sophisticated, of elevated style, or even highbrow (you might, in cases, aim for the first and second, but maybe not for the third).

The easiest way out for the native speaker is using a preposition: In most cases the preposition will clearly rule a specific case, and can be used without much thinking. You can also expect to be understood better, because the preposition adds further redundancy to your sentence other than the case only. Most people will thus, in everyday speech, generally go for the preposition - It is just simpler to use.

Written language like newspaper articles and books have other preferences, though. Style, brevity and being to the point might be more important. In a newspaper article, you might preferably use sich einer Gruppe anschliessen rather than sich an eine Gruppe anschliessen. But still, there's a limit - Your second example will very probably not be used by anyone without a preposition - be it spoken language or in writing, no one will ever say or write ich habe den Text der Tafel angeschrieben.

Also note there might be standing idioms that either prefer the one or the other (sich einer Gruppe anschließen might be considered such an idiom).

For a language learner and if unsure, the rule is maybe clear: Go for the prepositional object construct, it is simpler to learn and use - It's just easier to get it wrong without. Once you manage to use the finer points of the language, you will start to develop a feel when you can use dative objects.

  • This is a beautiful answer. For a non-native speaker it is hard to make a precise idea about usage frequency and thus the appropriateness in a certain register. Some other examples that occured: Jdm/an jdn schreiben/schicken. – User Oct 11 at 8:15
  • 1
    Still, the repetition of "an" is somewhat ugly. I would suggest "an die Tafel geschrieben". Der Tafel etwas anschreiben kann man nur, wenn die Tafel gerade kein Geld dabei hat, um die Zeche zu zahlen :) – Carsten S Oct 11 at 8:39
  • sich an eine Gruppe anschließen sounds incredibly awkward, because etwas an etwas anschließen means to wire up or to plug in. – Janka Oct 11 at 13:19
  • @Janka Ich schließe mein Fahrrad an die Strassenlaterne an hieß vor der Erfindung des E-Bikes eindeutig was anderes... – tofro Oct 11 at 13:23
  • @Janka Both of my examples are quoted from PONS dictioary and I as a non-native speaker just don't know which one or why I should choose a specific structure and not the other. – User Oct 11 at 13:50

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