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Reading a Lustiges Taschenbuch (Der Fluch der Hexe, Vol. 538, pg. 12) I came across an episode where the three nephews and Onkel Dagobert are miniaturized due to magic and encounter a spider. The following conversation occurs:

Nephew: Spinnen sind harmlos, das lernt man jedenfalls in der Schule.

Onkel Dagobert: Und dann belehrt einen das Leben eines Besseren!

“And then life teaches you better” seems to be the sense of Onkel Dagobert’s statement, but I am not sure how to interpret eines Besseren. My guess is that it a contraction of “eines besseren Fakts” (in the genitive + nominalization of besser) -> of a better fact.

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    It might be interesting to you that "jemanden eines Besseren belehren" is a phrase in German.
    – Arsak
    May 13 at 8:39
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    Speaking of phrases: 'Nicht für die Schule, für das Leben lernt ihr' is a proverb teachers hand out to keep pupils motivated. Here the uncle questions it with 'life is a better teacher'. How ... subversive :-)
    – user41853
    May 16 at 9:20
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The adjective 'besser' can turn into a substantive 'der/die/das Bessere'. This is called 'Substantivierung' (nominalization) of an adjective. The nominalized adjective then falls under spelling and grammar rules of a noun.

https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/besser_Adjektiv

It is then an small step to the genitive 'des Besseren' (of a better) 'wurden sie belehrt' (were they taught), the 3 ducklings :-)

More about 'Substantivierung' (nominalization):

https://www.duden.de/sprachwissen/rechtschreibregeln/Gro%C3%9F-%20und%20Kleinschreibung#D72

Participles can be nominalized as well. 'suchend' (searching) and 'Suchender' (the searching person).

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    Let's make that 'der/die/das Bessere' !
    – TaW
    May 14 at 13:53
  • @TaW: sure, done.
    – user41853
    May 14 at 17:46
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The other answer IMHO fails to emphasize that jemanden eines Besseren belehren is a highly idiomatic phrase, with the compound meaning of being corrected or informed about a misconception. It's a bit difficult to translate consistently (cf. here), but perhaps a good version of Dagobert's answer is

Well, life makes you stand corrected!

Sich eines besseren belehren lassen (müssen) is a further idiomatic variant of this, even closer to "stand corrected".

As for grammar, the verb belehren, "inform", is nowadays used primarily with a prepositional phrase with über for the topic of information:

Ich habe ihn über die Sache belehrt.

I have informed him about the matter.

There seems to have been a genitive object in the past, but this is outdated now, only remaining acceptable in certain combinations like with eines Besseren or eines Anderen (ich habe ihn der Sache belehrt is something I can only imagine in something like a 18th century book).

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  • It is good to point out that it's an idiomatic expression, but I left that one out intentionally in order to keep my answer concise and focussed on the grammar. Btw., the original comic strip is American English, maybe you can find what Disney had the flightless birds say there ?
    – user41853
    May 13 at 8:57
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    Hm, but I believe the Lustige Taschenbuch is a European thing... May 13 at 9:05
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    BTW, there is one more idiom using "eines Besseren", namely "sich eines Besseren besinnen" ("to change one's mind")
    – Uwe
    May 13 at 12:34
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    @Uwe ... and the expression in Ermangelung eines Besseren (... mussten wir uns mit dem Vorhandenen begnügen) - DWDS. You find the meaning of ein Besseres (very elevated style) in nowadays' German in etwas Besseres. Combined with Ermangelung you may transform the structure into weil wir nichts Besseres hatten, in Ermangelung von etwas Besserem being slightly inconsistent from a stylistic point of view. May 13 at 15:34
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    @a_donda The original comics by Carl Barks decades ago were obviously written in English, but nowadays there are many authors from all over the world writing in their native language, so the original could be Spanish, Italian, French, German... and furthermore, in many languages translators have created their own characteristic style as already evident from the names, so the original need not be so similar. May 13 at 19:17

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