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Perhaps someone can explain the difference between the following two sentences:

1 - Es kann uns niemand den geringsten Vorwurf machen. 2 - Niemand kann uns den geringsten Vorwurf machen.

The first was written by Kafka, and confuses me. I believe it means the same thing as the second sentence (which would be perfectly straightforward) but I'm not sure. I've searched the available online dictionaries and this site for similar examples and have come up short. What effect or alteration in meaning does using this placeholder "es" create?

Here is the whole sentence in case a bit of extra context matters (I'm pretty sure it doesn't): "... wir müssen versuchen es [d. h., das Untier] loszuwerden. Wir haben das Menschenmögliche versucht, es zu pflegen und zu dulden, ich glaube, es kann uns niemand den geringsten Vorwurf machen."

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    Does this answer your question? "Es waren dies jene neuesten Telephone" from Der Verschollene by Kafka
    – RHa
    Aug 2, 2021 at 5:50
  • @RHa: I'm not sure that that answer is is applicable here, though they are both about Kafka. In the other question the es was used to avoid the awkward positioning of a long phrase, but that doesn't seem to be an issue here. I think the main difference is that Kafka's version is more passive, akin to using "It's not possible for them to ..." rather than "They can't ..."
    – RDBury
    Aug 2, 2021 at 6:22
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    For future reference, it may help to keep the question title in the same language as the question. In general the custom is to answer questions in the same language as they were asked, but that's difficult to apply when the question and title are in different languages.
    – RDBury
    Aug 2, 2021 at 6:29
  • @RHa: Thanks, that was helpful reading. Now I recognize that "es" is in no event the subject here, but rather a placeholder device, but it would still be good to understand how it alters the meaning of the sentence. Not sure the other post covers that.
    – cruthers
    Aug 2, 2021 at 6:32
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    I think the phrase "niemand kann" has more emphasis and passion than "es kann niemand". Perhaps that was the reason why Walter Ulbricht used the phrase "Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten" (June 15, 1961) - and started to build the Berlin wall on August 13, 1961.
    – Paul Frost
    Aug 2, 2021 at 8:24

1 Answer 1

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For most intents and purposes, there is no difference in meaning between (1) and (2).

If you want to go down and analyze very closely, variant (2) ("Niemand ...") puts a bit more emphasis on the subject "niemand", while variant (1) ("Es kann uns niemand...") deflects emphasis away from the subject of the sentence, which puts relatively more emphasis on its end ("einen Vorwurf machen") and on "kann", The effect is very weak here though, because "niemand" is still the first strong word in the sentence.

It might be worth noting that both variants are very natural to German native speakers. For learners of German, the variant with "es" might seem unnecessarily convoluted, but native speakers will find it very natural.

It's hard to tell whether the slight emphasis of the predicate was even Kafka's intention. It could also just be a matter of rhythm and a personal perception of what sounds better.

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  • Great, sounds good to me, thanks.
    – cruthers
    Aug 2, 2021 at 19:25

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