This sentence appears in today's DW Langsamer gesprochene Nachrichten:

Sie hatten häufig als erste ihre Arbeit verloren.

But the corresponding English is translated by Google Translate as:

Sie waren oft die ersten, die ihre Arbeit verloren haben.

Hammer's German Grammar, 16.6.2, states that there are English verbs with predicate complements in the accusative without corresponding constructions in German, and that

the German equivalents most often have a phrase with an "als" in apposition...

and it appears to me that that is what was done here in the DW sentence. But if that is true I still do not know when and how to form such a construction, and apparently Google Translate is in the same boat. Are these fixed phrases that one simply learns by rote or can someone explain when to identify the opportunity to use such a construction and how to formulate it?

What about these sentences? Is this a correct use of als and, if not, why not?

Sally considered John a fool: Sally hielt John als Dummkopf.

The jury believed him innocent: Die Jury hielt ihn als unschuldig.

The teacher caught several students cheating on the exam: Der Lehrer erwischte mehrere Schüler als Betrügen während der Prüfung.

  • 2
    Both sentences have the same meaning, and in this case the result from Google Translate is a correct sentence. Automated translation does not always generate the "best" translation and may even be wrong. For me as a native German it is difficult to tell rules when you can translate an English sentence using "als". Maybe you should show a few examples where you are unsure if it is possible to do so.
    – Bodo
    May 20 at 8:55
  • 1
    sorry, but I don't understand what you mean with "What about these sentences:" That doesn't have to do with als.
    – c.p.
    May 20 at 13:45
  • 2
    Google Translate is wrong too frequently to take it as reference, here in two cases: (1) Sie wählten Elaine Schatzmeisterin => correct: Sie wählten Elaine zur/als Schatzmeisterin. (2) Der Lehrer erwischte mehrere Schüler, die die Prüfung betrogen hatten (='cheated the exam') => correct: Der Lehrer erwischte mehrere Schüler... options: (2a) ..., die bei der Prüfung betrogen [hatten] or (2b) beim Betrügen während der Prüfung. Hatten indicates posteriority which I don't see in the original. May 20 at 14:03

Your three example sentences are understandable, but unidiomatic or incorrect uses of "als". The verbs that you used don't usually support "als" in the way you use it. For example, "jemanden für etwas halten" is a fixed expression with a clear meaning, and if you're not using "für", you're basically just using "halten", which in itself is a very general word and can have all kinds of different meanings.

So this should be:

Sally hielt John für einen Dummkopf.
Die Jury hielt ihn für unschuldig.

Other verbs work perfectly with als:

Sally schätzte John als Dummkopf ein.
Sally bezeichnete John als Dummkopf.
Die Jury sah ihn als unschuldig an.

You can in fact also use "als" with "jemanden für etwas halten", just not instead of the "für" part but as an apposition to the subject or object:

Als seine Chefin hielt Sally John für einen Dummkopf.
As his boss, Sally considered John a fool.

Sally hielt John als Ingenieur für unfähig.
Sally considered John incompetent as an engineer.

In the other example, als could be used, but it just sounds a bit strange because there's a more idiomatic way to put it. For erwischen, it's almost always "jemanden bei etwas erwischen".

So while

Der Lehrer erwischte mehrere Schüler als Betrüger während der Prüfung.

is not incorrect, is sounds off, and a more idiomatic way would be

Der Lehrer erwischte mehrere Schüler beim Betrügen während der Prüfung.

Alternatively, again, you can use a different verb and als:

Der Lehrer identifizierte mehrere Schüler als Betrüger bei der Prüfung.

So you can use als when it is part of an idiom or quite often as an apposition. However, if you're destroying a fixed expression like "jemanden für etwas halten" or are using it when there are more natural choices, it will sound strange.

  • Thank you. Very helpful, indeed.
    – user44591
    May 27 at 14:32

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