From my understanding, in German the sentences "Der Hund beißt den Jungen" and "Den Jungen beißt der Hund" mean the same thing with the difference lying in the emphasis. (The first sentence would be an answer to "Who is biting the boy?" whereas the second would be an answer to "Who is the dog bitting").

However is that same sentence restructure able to be done with "Die Katze beißt die Frau"? Using the same rule as above "Die Frau beißt die Katze" would mean something different? Is that always the case or can the sentence be rearranged so that the same meaning is kept (possibly by emphasizing the second part of the sentence or by using context)?

Assuming that only in cases where one of the objects is masculine the sentence can be rearranged, I would assume that it would be rare to rearrange sentences since only some sentences could be. Is that the case?

  • Note that the verb should be in second position for all your examples. A similar question: german.stackexchange.com/questions/4069/…
    – David Vogt
    Jul 22 '20 at 13:24
  • 2
    There is nothing like direct or indirect objects. This term simply doesn't exist in German grammar. In German grammar you have dative objects, accusative objects, genitive objects, prepositional objects and something even things that look like nominative objects. Please do not learn things that don't exist, and please also tell your teacher to stop talking about things may fit well in 90% of all cases, but cause troubles in 10%. Jul 22 '20 at 13:43
  • @David Vogt , fixed
    – HanMah
    Jul 22 '20 at 13:45
  • @Hubert Schölnast I'm not using a German teacher so that is probably the source of my mistake.
    – HanMah
    Jul 22 '20 at 13:46
  • @HanMah: please leave a comment under an answer ( I assume you can do that "inside" your question) to hint that part of the answer became obsolete as your question got "fixed". Jul 22 '20 at 17:13

What you observe, is just ambiguity; ambiguity alone is not against any rules. For the full ambiguity note, that both substantives need to be feminine or neuter, since

Die Kundin begrüßt der Verkäufer

is non-ambiguous. Only at the end of the sentence it becomes clear, that Kundin is object, not subject, because we encounter an obvious nominative. (This is not a recommended approach, style guides discourage it therefore, it may even get a comment if written in a test, but is permitted.)

Note, that in a grammatically ambiguous example:

Die Brille nimmt die Frau zur Hand

additional knowledge concerning the abilities of pair of glasses is sufficient to resolve the grammatical ambiguity.

  • 1
    Linguistic Assessment Criteria for Explaining Language Change: A Case Study on Syncretism in German Definite Articles (van Trijp, 2013) argues that the German case marking system has evolved in this strange, appearently ambiguous way exactly because the ambiguity is much smaller than it seems. Jul 22 '20 at 17:34

First of all: Your second sentences both have the wrong word order. Correct is:

Den Jungen beißt der Hund
Die Frau beißt die Katze

Now to your question: Unfortunately the female article "die" is the same in the cases nominative (die) and accusative (die).

That makes it hard to understand the meaning without hearing the sentence.

Die Frau beißt die Katze

could mean BOTH:

The woman bites the cat


The woman is bitten by the cat

Depending how you pronounce the sentence. In written language there is no way without further context to see what is meant. That is why usually you avoid to write such sentences.

Of course if the sentence is a response to a question you can use it without ambiguity:

Wen beißt die Katze? Die Frau beißt die Katze.

Its clear from the question which way around the answer is meant.

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