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I'm trying to understand this sentence from a book:

Solche neueren Versuche, eine Literaturgeschichte des Deutschen Kaiserreichs oder der Weimarer Republik zu schreiben, zeigen jedoch rasch, dass auf eine genauere Darstellung der unterschiedlichen künstlerischen Ansätze nicht verzichtet werden kann und die literarischen Epochenbezeichnungen unter der Hand wieder eingeführt werden.

Clearly, können takes the third-person singular form in this sentence, but I can't seem to find what noun/pronoun this refers to. I believe I get the meaning of the whole thing, just unsure about this particular grammatical point.

10

You are searching in vain. There is no subject. The third-person singular form is the result of a semantic-structural necessity, not of agreement between verb and subject.

For verbs with an accusative complement, the werden passive is very intuitive (and readily comparable to English passive constructions):

  • Anna liebt [Bernd]Akk.. -> Bernd wird geliebt.
  • Christa isst [das Brot]Akk.. -> Das Brot wird gegessen.

This makes sense because in the original sentences, in essence, the subject is doing something with (respect to) the accusative complement -- by using the passive voice and simultaneously turning the accusative complement into the subject, we basically just reverse the way we look at the situation.

Under certain circumstances, verbs without an accusative complement can also be used in werden passive voice. (The key requirement for this to be possible is that the proposition must refer to either an activity or an action.) In these cases, there is nothing that could be "turned" into a subject, and so the distinctive feature of these constructions is the absence of a subject. The passive expresses that the activity/action is "being done/performed", ie it is taking place (there is no direct English translation). As is the case more generally in constructions without a subject, the finite verb here must be a third-person singular form.

Syntactically, the absence of a subject poses a bit of a challenge. In cases like yours where the verb comes last (because of its occurrence in a dass clause), there is no issue, but declarative statements are typically verb-second clauses -- and without a subject, the verb would come first. Therefore, in these cases, an "expletive es" (the terminology varies) is added to the sentence in subject position.

  • Dörte und Emil tanzen. -> Es wird getanzt. [= There is dancing happening/People dance.]
  • (...) dass Dörte und Emil tanzen (...) > (...) dass getanzt wird (...)

Your example simply poses the extra challenge of a modal construction. Other than that, though, the situation is the same:

  • Es kann auf eine genauere Darstellung der unterschiedlichen künstlerischen Ansätze nicht verzichtet werden. [= One cannot forego a thorough exposition of the different artistic approaches.]

  • (...), dass auf eine genauere Darstellung der unterschiedlichen künstlerischen Ansätze nicht verzichtet werden kann.

For more on such subjectless passive constructions in German, see eg http://clasfaculty.ucdenver.edu/tphillips/grammar/passive_no_subject_info.pdf.

  • 1
    Thanks, great answer. A minor point: It's not quite true that without a subject, the verb would come first. If there's no other sentence constituent, as in "Es wird getanzt.", then indeed "es" is required because nothing else can go first; but in the given example, the main clause could be "Auf eine genauere Darstellung kann nicht verzichtet werden.", with the prepositional phrase going first, the verb going second, and no "es" required. In fact the construction "Es kann auf eine genauere Darstellung nicht verzichtet werden." sounds a bit bureaucratic, precisely because "es" isn't needed. – Felix Pahl Nov 23 at 7:09
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The structure is

...Versuche ... zeigen ..., dass auf ... nicht verzichtet werden kann.

The second sentence, as a main clause (Hauptsatz) would be

Auf ... kann nicht verzichtet werden.

The part after "auf" is the object of the passive verb, so the subject is missing in this sentence. The word "kann" refers to an implied subject to the passive sentence

(Es) kann nicht verzichtet werden.

An active formulation would be

Auf ... kann man nicht verzichten.

or

...Versuche ... zeigen ..., dass man auf ... nicht verzichten kann.

  • You should mention the word order changes, if you change from main clause to subordinate clause. – äüö Nov 22 at 7:46
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"...dass auf eine genauere Darstellung der unterschiedlichen künstlerischen Ansätze nicht verzichtet werden kann..."

is very similar to

"...that a more detailed presentation of the various artistic approaches can not be dispensed with...".

Note that we are not replacing just a verb with a verb, we are replacing a verb+preposition combo with another, "verzichten auf" with "dispense with" - "verzichten" and "dispense" get a different (from the bare word) but well defined meaning by these commonly used prepositions. "Wir verzichten." is NOT "We dispense." :)

  • The analogy is interesting and helpful, but it's worthwhile to point out its limitations, as indicated in the answers by johnl and RalfFriedl: The English construction does have a subject, and its verb does stand in congruence with it -- you can't see this with the modal "can" that doesn't inflect, but you see it e.g. in "a presentation is not dispensed with" vs. "presentations are not dispensed with", whereas in the German construction it's "auf eine Darstellung wird nicht verzichtet" and also "auf Darstellungen wird nicht verzichtet", always third person singular. – Felix Pahl Nov 23 at 7:02
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Ich bin nicht sicher, ob im Englischen nicht äquivalente Formulierungen benutzt werden; ich meine schon:

"It can't be abstained from using English here."

Restructuriert:

"On using Englisch here, can't be abstained."

The noun "it" is implicit in the second formulation - at least this is possible in German.

  • 6
    Was that intended as a German or English post? – Stephie Nov 22 at 5:10
  • 3
    Your English isn't the yellow from the egg, but it goes. – Eric Duminil Nov 22 at 16:19

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