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I was given the following sentence to check if it was correctly written.

Die Uhr hängt über dem Schrank an der Wand.

The sentence (to me) looks correct, and just describes that the clock hangs above the closet on the wall; however, the answer key marked it as false. While researching this I found this sentence on esl.fis.edu with the two types of phrases switched around:

Das Bild hing an der Wand über der Tür.

Is the positioning of the prepositional phrases vital in these two sentences (either grammatically or for sounding natural)?

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You are correct, the answer key is wrong.

Die Uhr hängt über dem Schrank an der Wand. ← correct

German is head last. If there's no contradicting rule, the last item in a row is the most important one, and that also applies to multiple locational adverbials. The clock is mainly on the wall, and in particular, also above the closet.

Die Uhr hängt an der Wand über dem Schrank. ← semantically wrong

This in contrast treats an der Wand as the less important information and to me (as to any other native speaker, I think) it reads as if there was a tiny piece of wall above the closet, but no wall behind or next to it. That's not how walls are built.

Das Bild hing an der Wand über der Tür.

This on the other hand is okay as there is a tiny piece of wall above any door.

Das Bild hing über der Tür an der Wand.

And that one is also correct, as the first one. Head last.

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  • 11
    I disagree that „an der Wand über dem Schrank“ is semantically wrong. For me (German native) it sounds as correct as the other sentences. Otherwise: good answer Nov 2 '20 at 6:06
  • 3
    Agree with @TorstenLink - the clock is hanging on “that particular part of the wall above the cupboard”.
    – Stephie
    Nov 2 '20 at 6:41
  • I (native speaker) fully agree with Janka and would have given a similar answer. Therefore: +1 Nov 2 '20 at 9:04
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The sentence is correct, of good style and will be used by native speakers. But this is also true for the version where the prepositional phrases change place. There is just a subtile difference in meaning:

1

Die Uhr hängt über dem Schrank an der Wand.

This sentence says: The place where the clock hangs is somewhere on the wall. If you've found the wall, search for the closet that stands at this wall and look above it. There you will find the clock.

So, the order is:

  1. find the wall
  2. find the closet on this wall
  3. find the spot above the closet

2

Die Uhr hängt an der Wand über dem Schrank.

This description starts with the closet. When you've found it, you are asked to look above it. Somewhere above the closet must be a wall. In this case it makes more sense to think of a "wall" as a section of the wall, because maybe the whole wall continues also left and right of the closet. When you've found (the section of) the wall above the closet, you will find the clock there.

  1. find the closet
  2. find (the section of) the wall above the closet

I think version 1 is more natural and I would prefer it, because you start with the bigger object (the wall) and narrow down the place step by step. Version 2 also comes with the disadvantage, that you have to divide the wall into smaller sections.

But both versions are correct and will be understood. And both versions will be used by native speakers.


But be careful!

  1. correct: Das Bild hing an der Wand über der Tür.
  2. bad choice: Das Bild hing über der Tür an der Wand.

Sentence 2 asks you to look for the wall at first place, and in the second step you are asked to find a door that stands or leans on this wall. This makes no sense. A door is a hole in a wall, also in German.

But there is another way to interpret all the sentences discussed here: The two local descriptions can be interpreted independently of each other.

  • find the spot above the door (independently of the wall)
  • find the wall (independently of the door)
  • the clock is where both regions overlap

And now the phrase "über der Tür an der Wand" makes sense. But now this it no longer a sequence of description where the left one is refining its right neighbor. Now is is just a list of equivalent items and therefore needs a comma or the word "und":

Das Bild hing über der Tür, an der Wand.
Das Bild hing über der Tür und an der Wand.

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    Erm... no. Your „bad choice“ is perfectly acceptable, it just has a subtly different meaning. “An der Wand über der Tür“ specifies a particular part of the wall, “über der Tür an der Wand“ emphasizes a specific spot in relation to another object - e.g. above, not besides the door.
    – Stephie
    Nov 2 '20 at 8:29
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    This is confusing to me, not only because the answers don't seem to agree, but also because I thought the rule was that new information comes after known information. If it's a hanging clock then of course it's on the wall, where else? So that's known information. Where on the wall is new information so that comes last. (I'd use "cabinet" here btw. To me, a closet is usually tall enough that there wouldn't be room for a clock above it.)
    – RDBury
    Nov 2 '20 at 9:39
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    @RDBury Language is sometimes subtle. I'm a native speaker and thought both versions in the OP are fine, and equivalent. After reading Janka's answer I found that I learned something and that I agreed with it. That said, there are many many cases where colloquial speakers say something which is actually plain wrong without even noticing (dasselbe instead of das gleiche, hinaus instead of heraus, am optimalsten etc.). Compared to those Fehlleistungen the order of adverbial phrases is ... just very subtle. Another thing is that the wall part is actually redundant: Where else!? Nov 2 '20 at 13:12
  • @Bergi Vielleicht hängt die Uhr ja auch vom Matterhorn? Hab ich bloß noch nie gesehen, jedenfalls nicht in Wohnungen. But in any case I am not sure what you wanted to say (presumably that the order can make a difference, which is what I learned here; or that the clock can indeed hang from the ceiling. I suppose it can, I have just never encountered it). Nov 2 '20 at 17:21

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