I'm an English native speaker living in Germany. My wife is German. I received an Email with the following short sentence.

I got the meaning wrong. Was told I was an idiot for getting it. So dear German speakers. What is the only clear way to understand this sentence. Quote, only the name was changed.

Wir sind erst zu dritt, ab ca. 22.30 mit Karl.

  • 2
    The way understanding it is to know the meanings of "erst" (here: at first) and "ab" (from, in a temporal sense). These words can have more than one meaning, so calling you an idiot for not getting the meaning is proably a bit harsh. – RHa Dec 31 '19 at 11:03
  • Sometimes the truth hurts RHa. If it is very obvious to native speakers what was implied and my interpretation is not possible to see, then, ich bin gezwungen "Vollidiot" Bezeichnung zu tragen. :( – phil soady Dec 31 '19 at 16:00
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    You are too harsh to yourself. At least without more context (knowing the family and the number of their members) it is not obvious but merely the most probable meaning. – Volker Landgraf Dec 31 '19 at 16:04
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    I assume that your wife already told you what the meaning is. What is your actual question? – Carsten S Dec 31 '19 at 17:11
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    @userunknown: Ich mag die (altmodischere?) Schreibweise von Uhrzeiten mit Punkt als Trennzeichen auch nicht, aber der Duden sieht sie offenbar nach wie vor als akzeptabel an. – O. R. Mapper Dec 31 '19 at 22:28

Karl arrives at 22:30 and he is the fourth. That's the way I understood it. Eventual uniqueness relies on the time the message was sent. If it was sent at 9pm (and also expected to be read before 22:30) then that's a clear meaning (assuming it is correctly written); that said, as pointed out by Christian, some modifiers would make the text more readable.

  • That is what was implied. I got it wrong. So you are confirming im an idiot. I understood the Parents with kid Karl will be late arriving at 22:30. I will check back in a few hours before marking as correct answer. Thx c.p. – phil soady Dec 31 '19 at 15:47
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    @philsoady Noone says your an idiot. – Bernhard Döbler Dec 31 '19 at 17:01
  • Nobody is an idiot for not understanding "erst" constructions. German modal particles are the final boss level of the language. – Kilian Foth Jan 1 at 7:24

I agree with c.p.'s solution ("Karl arrives at 22:30 and he is the fourth"), but the original sentence - without context - is too short for being unambiguous. Placed in different contexts, it will shift meaning.

The sentence lacks modifiers to make it unambiguous, and so the recipient will automatically add such modifiers depending on what information ever he has (e.g. situational context).

Sou you can resolve the sentence like:

Wir sind erst zu dritt, [und] ab ca 22.30 [dann] mit Karl.

which is c.p.'s solution. Based on everyday living experience it is the most probable situation. Also it is relatively simple.

But you could also resolve it like:

Wir sind erst zu dritt, [nämlich Paul und ich, und] ab ca 22.30 [dann auch] mit Karl. Und ganz am Ende, gegen Mitternacht, kommen noch Lisa und Lena dazu.

meaning that first they are two, then three, then five. Admittedly it is a rather complicated thought (especially as the narrator first says they are three of them, then makes a step back in time and mentions that they start with being two of them until the third person joins); but it is a legitimate interpretation of the bare-bone sentence.

The idiots are those who call you an idiot. (The only question is: how many are they, and at what point of time.)

  • Thanks Christian, es tut nicht so weh jetzt ;) – phil soady Jan 1 at 17:57

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