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In a DW report today, the following 2 sentences appeared:

Mehrere Hundert Demonstranten haben in Bulgarien den sofortigen Rücktritt der Regierung von Präsident Boiko Borissow gefordert.

Original sentence:

Andernfalls würden sie das Parlament bei einer Sondersitzung an diesem Donnerstag blockieren, um seinen Rückzug durchzusetzen.

Now it was not clear to me who was going to be "bei einer Sondersitzung", parliament or the demonstrators. So I asked Google Translate and then reversed the translation, which produced this sentence. Notice that GT has changed the preposition.

Google Translate:

Andernfalls würden sie das Parlament auf einer Sondersitzung an diesem Donnerstag blockieren, um seinen Rückzug durchzusetzen.

If I truncate the sentence and perform the same procedure then GT does not change the preposition.

Original sentence:

Andernfalls würden sie das Parlament bei einer Sondersitzung an diesem Donnerstag blockieren.

Google Translate:

Andernfalls würden sie das Parlament bei einer Sondersitzung an diesem Donnerstag blockieren.

I conclude from this that, probably, either preposition is correct, although I don't know how to verify this.

But my original question remains. How does one tell in the second sentence to whom the "bei einer Sondersitzung" belongs, that is to say, who will be participating in "die Sondersitzung", or which group is it that will be engaged in "die Sondersitzung"? I know the parliament is the logical answer, but I am wondering if the sentence structure enforces that relationship or leaves it up to the reader to fathom?

  • Just a comment to the auf-vs-bei issue, which doesn't seem to be the actual question: the difference in this sentence between "bei" und "auf" is quite subtle. "Auf der Sitzung" can only be used if the action is part of the actual session. E.g. parlamentarians could pass a bill or hold speeches "auf einer Sondersitzung", but uninvited demonstrators are not part of the Sitzung. So they can do something "bei der Sitzung", but not "auf der Sitzung". The mistranslation by Google seems like a typical machine learning error to me. – HalvarF Aug 13 at 17:24
  • Never trust google translate to provide anything else but a very rough and clunky vrsion of the text. – Polygnome Aug 14 at 7:19
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I don't really understand what Google Translate's results have to do with this, but the syntactic answer to the question is: neither. In this case, the prepositional phrase is an (optional) argument of the verb phrase.

Sie werden das Parlament bei einer Sondersitzung blockieren.

means that the action of blocking will happen bei einer Sondersitzung. Now, the Sondersitzung is of course somehow more closely related to the parliament than the demonstrators (sie), but it is the action that is specified, not either of the participants.

Maybe a more clear example is

Er wird [das Auto] [bei einem Autohändler] kaufen.

Both he and the car will be at the car dealer; but it is the buying that is specified. Now, you could also interpret the bracketing differently in this case, as

Er wird [das Auto [bei einem Autohändler]] kaufen.

In this case, the car is specified with the preposition phrase. These sentences are quite indistinguishable, except for possibly a very weak difference in intonation (but hardly ever happening, I'd say). A third variant would be

[Der Angestellte [bei einem Autohändler]] wird [das Auto] kaufen.

In this case, the PP modifies the subject. (Er, bei einem Autohändler, wird kaufen is theoretically possible, but really weird.)

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  • I believe I understand from what you say that, in the original sentence, the prepositional phrase in question must belong to the Parliament because it follows immediately after "das Parlament". And if it were meant to belong to the demonstrators the sentence would have had to be written as, "Andernfalls würden sie, bei einer Sondersitzung, das Parlament an diesem Donnerstag blockieren, um seinen Rückzug durchzusetzen." Is that true? – user44591 Aug 13 at 17:39
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    Not quite. It belongs semantically to the parliament in some way, in this specific sentence. That is insofar as the action (blockieren) affects the parliament, and the Sondersitzung also naturaly happens there. If you say die Demonstanten werden das Parlament bei der Reiterstatue blockieren, the PP still describes just the action, but is not contextually related so much to the parliament as to the location of the demonstration. – phipsgabler Aug 13 at 18:05
  • And for the second part: I'd say it's still ambiguous. You can position the PP belonging to the verb phrase somewhat freely. – phipsgabler Aug 13 at 18:06
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Bei einer Sondersitzung is an adverbial. It does not refer to the demonstrators or the parliament but to the action of blocking.

Theoretically, it could refer to the parliament because it is placed immediately after "das Parlament". But this would not change the meaning. It would still effectively describe where the action of blocking happens because necessarily blocking the parliament must happen at the place where and the time when the parliament meets. So this ambiguity is only syntactical, not semantical.

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o Sitzung means conference, assembly, meeting, congregation, which is a proceeding/process and takes a while.

People can be in/auf einer Sitzung sein (both is correct, just regional different)

... and also bei - (at least in Austria, maybe unusual in Germany or Switzerland).

other examples: bei einer Versammlung, bei einem Treffen, bei einer Konferenz ...

o bei

further informations at https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/bei

beyond "Bedeutungen"

2d) im Bereich eines Geschehens, Vorgangs / proceeding, process

  • bei einer Hochzeit / wedding
  • bei der Diskussion

--> in these cases you also could use während / during, while - and that's the point.

In the sentence

"Andernfalls würden sie das Parlament bei einer Sondersitzung an diesem Donnerstag blockieren, um seinen Rückzug durchzusetzen."

... it's also correct to replace bei by während.

Because the demonstrants plan to disturb the extraordinary parliamentary session (they come from outside and they are not invited) and they plan to come during this proceeding/process, auf or in is in this case not correct.

But: If one or more of the parliamentarians or guests disturbs the session f.i. by making senseless noise, he

  • *stört in/bei/auf der Sitzung"

All three versions are correct, ok - maybe not political correct, maybe strategical useful ;-)

But also correct without any preposition: Er stört die Sitzung, blockiert die Sitzung ... etc.

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  • Thank you for the clear and informative explanation of these confusing prepositions, especially bei, which I find particularly difficult to use. – user44591 Aug 13 at 17:41
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In conjunction with the word "Sitzung" the word "auf" really sounds strange and I would always use the word "bei".

However, in conjunction with other words - for example "Parteitag" (party convention) - I would say that you can say that something happens "auf dem Parteitag" if the persons acting are the participants of the party convention or if the action belongs to the party convention's program.

The protesters in the newspaper article are not members of the parliament and the protests are also not part of the political activities, so "auf der Sondersitzung" is not correct here.

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