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A native German speaker tells me that one can say:

Er ist ein höhnischer Mensch.

but that one does not say:

Er ist höhnisch.

And the same holds true for verächtlich/spöttisch as well.

Is this true of standard German or is this regional? If true for standard German, are there other adjectives that have similarly restricted usage?

3 Answers 3

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From the grammatical point of view both usages are perfectly correct. So, your question is not about grammar but about style.

In a nutshell:
You use a word that already is rare not as it is used normally, but in a rare manner. And this is why both sentences sound a little bit odd. (But they are still both grammatically correct.)


Let's talk about grammar first:

Adjectives can be used in three different ways:

  1. attributive (as a left attribute of another word):
    As an attribute the adjective lives together with the referred word inside the same nominal group. (This is why here are only nominal groups shown. A full sentence also has a verb and often also some objects, for example: »Die schöne Blume blüht.« or »Das schnelle Auto gehört dem Sohn des Mannes, der jeden Donnerstag bei unseren Nachbarn den Rasen mäht.«)

    • attribute of a noun:

      die schöne Blume, das schnelle Auto, das kranke Kind

    • attribute of a participle:

      der ruhig fließende Fluss, die grün schimmernde Oberfläche

    • attribute of another adjective:

      die schön roten Mohnblumen, das unglaublich schnelle Auto

  2. predicative (as part of the Prädikat1):
    In predicative usage the adjective is bound to the subject (which often is a nominal group), and the glue is a copula. A copula is a verb like sein ("to be"), bleiben ("to stay") or werden ("to become") which doesn't describe an action but some kid of equality. In German also some other verbs (wirken, erscheinen, ...) can sometimes behave like copulas, while some other copulas (heißen) can't glue adjectives to subjects (heißen is a copula for names only).

    Die Blume bleibt schön. Das Auto ist schnell. Das Kind wird krank.

  3. adverbial (describing a verb, i.e. as a right attribute of a verb)

    Die Blume blüht schön. Das Auto fährt schnell.

1 In German grammar the term "Prädikat" is defined different than "predicate" is defined in English grammar. In English grammar anything but the subject belongs to the predicate, but in German only the verb and anything that is closely and directly connected with it belongs to the predicate. So all objects of a sentence belong to the predicate in English grammar, but in German grammar they are not part of the predicate.


You can use höhnisch in all three ways:

  • attributiv

    Das ist eine höhnische Aussage.
    That's a scornful statement.

  • predicativ

    Diese Bemerkung ist höhnisch.
    This comment is derisive.

  • adverbial

    Thomas hat sich höhnisch über Susannes Kleid geäußert.
    Thomas commented scoffingly about Susanne's dress.

As you see here, I used the adjective höhnisch to describe a statement, a remark or a comment, and this is the main usage of this adjective. It is mainly used to describe verbal expressions.

But you used it to describe a person:

Er ist ein höhnischer Mensch.
He is a taunting person.

Er ist höhnisch.
He is sniffy.

I'm not sure if this is the preferred usage in English, in German it's not. It is ok to use this adjective to describe a person, so there is nothing wrong about this kind of usage, but it's rare.

Among these alternative usages the adverbial kind sounds most acceptable to me (but only if the verb is a verb that describes some kind of talking), because in this case the adjective höhnisch again refers to a verbal expression:

Er spricht höhnisch.
He speaks sneeringly.

But the two other versions of using höhnisch to describe a person are rare.


Talking about rareness:

The frequency class of höhnisch is 16 (according to Institut für deutsche Sprache). This means that the most frequent German word (which is »der«) appears in German texts between 216 and 217 times more frequent than höhnisch. 216 = 65,536 and 217 = 131,072. So, you will find just one copy of höhnisch in a text where about 100.000 times the word der appears. And this means, that höhnisch is a rare word. Other adjectives with the same frequency class are: allegorisch, babylonisch, choreografisch, dialektisch, elsässisch etc.

The frequency of höhnisch was declining until 2005, but since then it became more popular again, as this Google Ngram shows:

Google Ngram "höhnisch" Source

So, you will not find this word really often in German sentences, even when it's used in its regular meaning (describing verbal expressions). But when it's used in its rare alternative meaning (describing persons) it is even rarer. And this is the reason, why both of your versions sound a little bit odd: They use a rare word in a rare meaning.

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  • I'm not sure there is a functional difference between an attribute of a participle and an attribute of an adjective; I would assume an adjective that can be applied to a participle is applicable to another adjective. (Both of them are adverbs in English, not that that terminology is as useful as it should be.) There are also attributes of adverbs, but I'm not sure if it's the same group as the other two. Adjectives also have nominalized forms (for example Erwachsener). That makes between 5 and 7 possible uses of an adjective in German.
    – RDBury
    Dec 20, 2021 at 10:53
  • @RDBury: German adverbs (heute, draußen, gern, zweimal, ...) are similar to adjectives, but adverbs can only be used adverbial. A nominalized adjective is no longer an adjective, so it's not a form of an adjective. It is a noun that is derived from an adjective. In German all adjectives that are not the first word of a sentence are written with a lowercase first letter, while all noun are always written with an uppercase first letter. The names "nominalized adjective" and "substantiviertes Adjektiv" are misleading. Dec 20, 2021 at 15:33
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Both is fine, though I'd not use "verächtlich" to characterize a person:

Höhnisch

This refers to the tone of a statement, expressing that it is done in a way to put down and make fun of someones mishap. So of course you can say "Er ist ein höhnischer Mensch" if you want to use it to describe the overall character of the person or you choose "Er ist höhnisch" to describe the former or the way the person acts in that moment - what exactly comes from context.

Verächtlich

This word usually does not refer to a person or their behaviour. Thus I'd not phrase neither 'Er ist ein verächtlicher Mensch' nor 'Er ist verächtlich'. Verächtlich refers to a deed or an action, to something a person does, like "Seine Taten sind verächtlich". If you want to describe the person, you I'd rather choose 'verachtenswert'.

Spöttisch

This again is used similar to 'höhnisch' to an action and can also be used to characterise a person.

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In both English and German an adjective can be used either as an attribute ("The blue coat") or as a predicate ("The coat is blue"). It's a bit easier to tell the difference in German because only attribute adjectives are declined, while predicate adjectives behave more like adverbs. Also in both English and German, there are a few adjectives that can be used in one way but not the other. An example in English is "sole": You can say "The sole survivor was female." But you can't say "The female survivor was sole." (Apparently you can use "sole" as predicate in legalese, but it's not used that way in everyday English.) I believe an example in German is eventuelle: You can say Die eventuelle Überlebende war weiblich. But you can't say Die weibliche Überlebende war eventuell. Not that you can't say something "is possible" in German, but you'd use möglich instead.

I don't have a list of such adjectives in German. In my opinion this should be part of the meta-data that is included in a dictionary entry, just as comparable/not comparable is included. DWDS does label eventuell as adjektivisch/attributiv, but DWDS isn't always consistent with labels. Fortunately, DWDS does have a wonderful usage database from which you can glean this kind of information for yourself.

PS. It should be mentioned that the present participle is never (well, hardly ever) used as a predicate in German, always as an attribute. Any use as a predicate is replaced by using the verb directly. So Der laufende Mann but Der Mann läuft instead of the Der Mann ist laufend.

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