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In an application on a drop down menu is an English button labeled "Copy username". Its intention is to copy a username into the PCs clipboard. Which way of translation would be correct for German language:

  • "Benutzernamen kopieren", because of accusative and omitted article (imagine "Den Benutzernamen kopieren")

  • "Benutzername kopieren"

More grammatically accurate seems actually the first version, but I do see the second one more often. In addition, the first version may seem to the user as plural of the second version "Copy usernames", which would be incorrect in regard to the buttons intention.

Can you please explain, which version would be correct?

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This topic is covered by the Duden grammar under sections 335 and 1530. Luckily, the author of the relevant sections, Peter Gallmann, has some publicly available lecture notes on the subject: Nomen, Kasusflexion: Die Unterlassungsregel.

What is observed is the syntactically conditioned dropping of the weak masculine singular ending ‑(e)n:

ein Orchester ohne Dirigent

ein Orchester ohne eigenen Dirigenten

The dropping of the ending is syntactically conditioned in that it only happens when the noun is not preceded by an article or adjective with an ending (rule F3 in the linked script).

Following Gallmann, Benutzername kopieren is perfectly acceptable. As you mentioned yourself, it has the potentially useful property of being unambiguously singular.

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The phrase »Benutzername(n) kopieren« is an ellipsis, i.e. a fragment of a sentence. The whole sentence might be something like this:

Ich möchte den Benutzername(n) kopieren.

Now we have a complete sentence, and only now we can analyze it, because grammar is the science of arranging and modifying words to create sentences. Grammar is not the science of creating fragments.

The sovereign of each sentence is the verb. Here we have a modal verb (»möchte«) which is something like the kings assistant, and a full verb (»kopieren«) which is the king. And this specific king wants to have its object in accusative case.

This accusative object is the part »den Benutzername(n)«. It consists of an article (which we don't care about here) and a compound noun.

The compound noun »Benutzername« is created from »Benutzer« and »Name«, and, as for all compound nouns, its grammatical behavior is dictated by the very last element only. So, we have to look only at the word »Name«.

Now, let's look at the declension table of this noun. There are many resources where you can find such tables, one of them is Wiktionary.

And for accusative case singular we have only one option:

den Namen

So, the only correct version is:

Benutzernamen kopieren

Period. That's it. End of Answer.


But wait! Who makes these rules? And who says they are always valid and have no exceptions?

There is nothing like a Committee for German Grammar, that makes and defines German grammar rules. It's the native speakers themselves who define these rules just by using the language the way they do. Authors of grammar textbooks just try to analyze a lot of sentences produced by a lot of different native speakers, and then they write down their findings. They do not make the rules.

So, maybe the native speakers unknowingly decided to have an exception for very specific cases without any author of textbooks realizing it. But how can we find such exceptions? Nobody wrote them down in books. So, we have to find them on our own.

My attempt to solve this and similar problems is to ask Google or any other search engine.1 This is not really accurate, but gives you a rough estimation:

  • search for "Benutzernamen kopieren" (including quotation signs)
    Ungefähr 893 Ergebnisse
  • search for "Benutzername kopieren" (including quotation signs)
    Ungefähr 559 Ergebnisse

893 is more than 559.

But these numbers become more precise (and always much smaller) when you navigate to the last page:

  • "Benutzernamen kopieren"
    Seite 14 von ungefähr 135 Ergebnissen
  • "Benutzername kopieren"
    Seite 10 von 100 Ergebnissen

Both numbers became much smaller, but still: 135 > 100. So, "Benutzernamen kopieren" is still more frequently used than "Benutzername kopieren". And this is why I still recommend the version with an ending -n.

But, these numbers also show: Maybe in the very specific context of exactly these two words, there is a conspicuous minority that speaks pro "Benutzername kopieren". So, if you feel better without the accusative ending, it will be accepted too.


1 Also Google's ngram viewer is a good resource, but it has not enough data for this specific question. And it analyzes only texts printed in books.

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    The confusion between nominative and accusative forms might arise from the ambiguity between using the term as standing for an entity, or for a name. If there were some object called "Eisbär" in the UI, it would be reasonable to have a button "Eisbär" kopieren -- and IMHO better than Eisbären kopieren (but note the quotes). Ceci n'est pas un Eisbär ;) – phipsgabler Apr 21 at 11:49
  • In other words, I'd argue that Eisbär and Benutzername can be used in material supposition in such a context. Kinda like the difference between set and setq – phipsgabler Apr 21 at 11:51
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    As a native german speaking software developer myself, I would strongly vote for "Benutzername kopieren", just to indicate that it is 1 user name that is copied. – king_nak Apr 21 at 14:57
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    I'm not convinced it's an ellipsis so much as a natural extension of the infinitive used as an imperative. (See Dartmouth, the section "General directives and recipes often use the infinitive:") By adding a question mark the imperative becomes a prompt; in English you might say "Save the file!" becomes "Save the file?" English never uses the infinitive as an imperative; even as an ellipsis it would be grammatically incorrect. But I suppose if the result is the same then it's a matter of interpretation. – RDBury Apr 21 at 17:53
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    I agree that, on general principles it should be the accusative. But king_nak makes a good point as well. Perhaps re-add the den to make everyone happy? Just make the font a bit smaller if necessary. – RDBury Apr 21 at 18:14

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