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I'm trying to work out why Nom. is used in „Es besteht kein Zweifel“ but Akk. is used in „Es gibt keinen Zweifel“?

I would have expected things to be identical for geben and bestehen, i.e. keinen Zweifel for both.

I've googled and found various things, e.g. there are Verben mit obligatorischem es and for some the es is always Nom. and for some it can be either Nom. or Akk.:

  • Es [Nom.] fehlt ihm an Deutschkenntnissen.
  • Ich versuche es [Akk.] mit Gitarrespielen.

But this situation isn't about the es (it's Nom. in both situations):

  • Es [Nom.] besteht kein [Nom.] Zweifel.
  • Es [Nom.] gibt keinen [Akk.] Zweifel.

So can someone explain the grammar behind using kein Zweifel with bestehen?

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The es in the sentence "Es besteht kein Zweifel" is what is known as a dummy subject. According to Hammer's German Grammar, 5e: "es is often used as a 'dummy subject' in initial position in order to permit the 'real' subject to occur later in the sentence. This construction is particularly frequent if the 'real' subject is a noun phrase with an indefinite article or an indefinite quantifier. It gives more emphasis to the 'real' subject. Es may be used in this construction with any verb in German. The verb agrees with the 'real' subject, not with the es." (p.58) Some examples given in Hammer's (the 'dummy' subject is in bold):

Es waren viele Wolken am Himmel. | There were many clouds in the sky.
Viele Wolken waren am Himmel. | Many clouds were in the sky.

Es saß eine alte Frau am Fenster. | There sat an old woman by the window.
Eine alte Frau saß am Fenster. | An old woman sat by the window.

Es liegen zwei Briefe für Sie auf dem Schreibtisch. | There are two letters for you lying on the desk.
Zwei Breife für Sie liegen auf dem Schreibtisch. | Two letters for you are lying on the desk.

So, "Es besteht kein Zweifel" could theoretically be rephrased as "Kein Zweifel besteht", although the latter sounds unidiomatic to me as a main clause, i.e. I would sooner say and expect to hear

"Es besteht kein Zweifel (daran), dass Deutsch eine schwierige Sprache ist."

than

"Kein Zweifel besteht (daran), dass Deutsch eine schwierige Sprache ist."

although the second sentence does not sound awful to me (native speakers may have a different opinion).

In contrast, in the fixed phrase "es gibt", es is the 'real' subject of the verb geben, which is why this phrase in German is always "es gibt" (i.e. unless you use it in a compound construction such as with a modal verb, but then the modal would agree with es, e.g. Hier soll es mehr Naturwald geben.). Consequently, whatever "it gives" (read: "there is" or "there are") is the direct (accusative) object, e.g. Es gibt keinen Zweifel, Es gibt einen Fehler im Text, etc.

NB that dummy subjects also exist in English (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/dummy-subjects), but the matter's less complicated because we don't have a prominent case system.

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  • I don't think that it is good to call something that is not a subject a dummy subject.
    – Carsten S
    Oct 6 '20 at 15:49
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    Außerdem bestehen Zweifel an etwas. Keine Zweifel bestehen an der Richtigkeit dieser Aussage. Daher fehlt in Deinem Beispiel etwas: "Kein Zweifel besteht daran, dass Deutsch eine schwierige Sprache ist." Dann hört es sich auch gleich besser an.
    – Carsten S
    Oct 6 '20 at 15:52
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    I don't think he explanation with the "dummy subjective" (alias: expletive 'es') is good here, because this is not what differentiates the two sentences. To me, the whole point seems to be that bestehen and geben have different verb valence. I think tofros answer is much clearer here. Oct 6 '20 at 16:36
  • CarstenS's formulation with daran feels much nicer. Oct 6 '20 at 16:51
  • I still find it hard to see the fundamental difference between es besteht and es gibt (despite the real subject/dummy subject vs standard subject explanation). I feel all the information is probably there in this answer and I just need to read it through a few times. I do have Hammer's German Grammar, so I'll take a look at it as well. Oct 6 '20 at 16:59
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The nominative is the "normal" thing - compare the English "there is no doubt".

The accusative in your second example is just the quirk in the German language that we express existance of something with "geben" - a transitive verb that wants (at least) an accusative object. (while English happily uses "is")

Replace "es gibt" with "es existiert" or "es besteht", which are both intransitive, and "Zweifel" falls back to nominative.

Also note the different usage of "es": With the transitive verb "geben" it is mandatory, with intransitives it's optional as long as we assure the verb is in second position:

  • Keinen Zweifel gibt
  • Kein Zweifel besteht
  • Kein Zweifel existiert
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  • What is the subject in "Es besteht kein Zweifel"? "es" or "kein Zweifel" ? Does "es" mean anything in that sentence? Oct 6 '20 at 12:31
  • @AlanEvangelista Please see my response, below. I think this answers your question.
    – user46223
    Oct 6 '20 at 14:05
  • @AlanEvangelista Es is a pronoun that occupies the Vorfeld (i.e. satisfies the rule that the verb can only be in the second position). That's its only purpose.
    – tofro
    Oct 6 '20 at 16:51
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    I'm not sure what you mean by 'nominative is the "normal" thing' while accusative is a quirk. If asked for the most common simple sentence structure I'd give an example like Ich gebe ihm den Ball, i.e. Nom. Sub. - Verb - Dat. indirektes Obj - Akkusativ direktes Objekt. As a very common sentence form, I'd call this normal and call a sentence featuring two Nom. Nomen quite unusual - I'd previously thought this unique to X ist Y. So you mean something different to me by normal, could you provide a bit more detail? I need a little more help understanding your explanation. Oct 7 '20 at 22:32

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