guys. I'm reading a book on German syntax (for theoretical purposes, since I don't speak German) and the author says (2) is an acceptable word order in German but (1) isn't.

(1) Was haben für Bücher den Fritz beeindruckt?

(2) Was haben den Fritz für Bücher beeindruckt?

I was wondering if you could have one interrogative element related to two für-phrases. Are either (3), (4) or (5) grammatical? If so, what interpretation do they have? Otherwise, how would you ask which kinds of books impress which kinds of people in German?

(3) Was haben für Bücher für Leute beeindruckt?

(4) Was haben für Leute für Bücher beeindruckt?

(5) Was haben für Leute beeindruckt?

Anyway, what I wanted to test was whether there is any context in which an initial interrogative element could be semantically related to both NP1 and NP2 but only after NP1 has moved leftwards past NP2.

[what/who/which/etc. ... Aux [ ... [ ... NP1 ...] ... NP2 ... [... NP1 ...] Verb]]

  • 1
    I don't know if there are any grammatical rules that make those legit but all those sentences sound very strange. This is not how you speak nowadays. Maybe in the past, if they are valid at all. Usually you would say: Was für Bücher haben den Fritz beeindruckt?
    – akuzminykh
    Apr 6, 2020 at 5:45
  • There is this phrase Was haben die Leute gelacht - which uses mentioned construct. I just can't remember to found it as question. So I would just simplyfy it like akuzminykh: Welche Bücher haben xy beeindruckt? Apr 6, 2020 at 5:53
  • Is (5) meant to be interpreted with was as the subject and für Leute as the object?
    – David Vogt
    Apr 6, 2020 at 8:13
  • For those who want to go deeper into this question I add two links: Constraints on Displacement and see page 655 in Reviewed by Hisatsugu Kitahara, Keio University Apr 6, 2020 at 8:59
  • 1
    @ShegitBrahm Noun phrase. Apr 6, 2020 at 10:06

3 Answers 3


First let it be said that this must be dealing mostly with spoken, non (normative) standard speech. (2) is definitely OK and productive in spoken Austrian, but I would never write it (also because using articles for people's names is considered non-standard). An equivalent alternative to it would be

Was für Bücher haben den Fritz beeindruckt?

The difference might be the topicalization of Bücher vs. Fritz, but this is not a strong contrast, IMO.

As the book suggests, (1) is unacceptable (although borderline grammatical -- it is recognizable, but the order is unidiomatic).

Now, (3--5) are all wrong. The whole construction this is based on is was für X, equivalent to welche X -- "which X" (this also exists in standard). The "für" on it's own has no real significance; outside of this constrution, it is just a preposition:

Was für Leute haben für ihn gearbeitet?

What sorts of people worked for him?

That you can split off the für X part in some ways is a curious observation, but still each für needs it's own was. If you wanted to ask for both the books and the people, you need to say

Was für Bücher haben was für Leute beeindruckt?

I would judge

Was haben für Bücher was für Leute beeindruckt?

as unacceptable here, but just because it is a really contrieved combination -- I think it would actually conform to the rules.

As for your question about one interrogative element gouverning two NPs, I don't think this is possible at all. No matter whether one has moved some parts. You can use coordination and semantic information, but that doesn't work for all cases:

Was für Männer und Frauen haben einander geheiratet?

Which men and women married each other?

But that's the same as in English: the correlative pronoun allows to express the to-way patient relation, but there's no equivalent for a one-way relation

*Was für Bücher und Leute haben [books -> people] beeindruckt.

Note: the standard form of this would always just use welche X instead of was für X. In which case the the splitting of the second part becomes impossible, of course. Was für X can be used in standard, but the welche form is preferred in written language.


3, 4 and 5 do not work, no. was für is a particularly devious construction. Even 2 strikes me as wrong, nevermind 1. That is, as for 2, it rather reminds of Was hat das heute viel geregnet (oh it has rained a lot today).

As for 3 etc, one should regularly use welch- to ask for a joined group

Welche Bücher werden von was für Menschen gelesen?

The opposite distribution too appeals prima faci

Was für Bücher werden von welchen Menschen gelesen?

There is no difference in practice, as far as I can tell. An empirical study with detailed surveys might show preferences, but these should blush in comparison to use of welche throughout.

The difference that I have in mind is incongruent. On the one hand, welche should introduce subclauses. On the other hand, it's a primary question word that should lead the question. These are simply two different usage patterns. There is no real subordination if both phrases are codependend. On the other hand, welch supposedly reflects the same root as Engl. like "similar", etc. This suggest the expectation of a certain community as coreference. Whereas was für asks for diversity. This parallels existential and universal quantification in logic. Existential and universal normal forms (leading with either) are however equivalent up to isomorphism, so that's no constraint on preference. Howsoever, this also roughly reminiscent of in-/definite determiners, welche Menschen Lesen _ Buch?, Menschen lesen welche Bücher?. Obviously we are drawn to assign agency primarily to humans as subjects. There's the Mantra that the most important part of a sentence should come last; conversely, the variable symbol that is in question, so far devoid of, yet to be filled with meaning comes first in a question.

Was für Bücher lesen Menschen.

Yet, the reverse does not work

* Welche Bücher lesen Menschen? No book has ever read a human.

This is less clear when the difference between agent and target does not exist. Compare Mario fand Silvia immer attraktiv, which interpretation depends on context, IMHO, in part on the sex of the reader.

Further, the wh- element in which ~ welch might just compare to the possibility-marking wohl (ja, das wird wohl so sein) and Dutch wellicht "vielleicht" (well likely, maybe) and even further to pronomial one, indeed ähnlich, alike

welche Menschen lesen was für ähnliche Bücher

and, if ähnlich compares to sel(b)-, then denselben comes to mind, but this would be misconstrued as backreference to a supposedly aforementioned selfsame group like people. Instead, sel- compares indirectly to En. same, Ger. sämtlich, or somanche, En. somany (though not ?some any), then so comes to mind

und, was ließt du so für Bücher? (*as for books, what do you read yourself?)

Was für Bücher lesen Menschen so?

  • Welche Bücher lesen Menschen does certainly work. It is grammatical, and the fact that Bücher are the object is implied by semantics. I'd just guess that a priori, was für is, by collocation, judged to be more likely an object, and welche a subject, but the meaning overrules that quickly. Apr 7, 2020 at 7:36
  • @Phipsgabler it works as much as I do--rarely, and not very well. The related example is undecidable (Mario fand Silvia ...). Bücher lesen Menschen is a joke, don't take it too serious. I'm glad you agree about object/subject, though welchen Weg nimmst du morgen? is not unusual. The problem arises only if the number gender coincides, so the verbal inflection cannot show the difference, as German does not mark ergativ. Except, we have a definite/indefinite distinction, which is the next best thing. Welche Bücher lesen Menschen strikes me as odd. The obvious counter is: welche Menschen?
    – vectory
    Apr 7, 2020 at 14:50
  • Für und "poor" als Kognate anzunehmen ist zwar äußerst gewagt, aber die Frage ist ja grauslich zerpflückt worden... ich hätte mich schon auch sehr für die wirkliche Etymologie interessiert! Zum Funktionieren: ich sehe da leider wirklich keinen großen Unterschied, außer vielleicht in der Frequenz. Aber das kann auch an meinem Regiolekt liegen. Apr 7, 2020 at 16:10

With some original context from the book (not Fritzens) this Q could make more sense. But like that there is only the unusual early "haben", and the "was für" vs. "welche" question.

Was für ein Glück! (Welch Glück!)

Welches Glück? (Was für ein Glück? Im Spiel?)

Was für ein Lied soll ich singen?

This is between "Welches Lied..." (sounds like a limited playlist/choice) and "Welche Art von Lied..." (too scientific).

Was soll ich für ein Lied singen?

This is slightly twisted - it happens easily when you start out with "Was soll ich ... singen" and midway decide to add a word.

Bianca Castafiore ist eine Sängerin.

Es gibt sie nur im "Tim und Struppi" - Heft

Sie singt: "Ha, welch ein Glück - mich zu sehen"

welch ein Glück, was für ein Glück

From Hurraki - looks like the kid prefers "was für ein".

("Welches ein Glück" is wrong.)

Gounod: „Ah! je ris, de me voir“ („Ha, welch ein Glück mich zu sehen")

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