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In the following sentence

Es ist nur einen Zentimeter groß.

why is it written with Accusative and not Nominative?

2 Answers 2

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This so-called accusative of measure (Akkusativ des Maßes) stands with certain adjectives such as groß, breit, hoch, weit, schwer. Some examples:

  1. Sie dachte einen Augenblick lang nach.
  2. Einen Tag später hatte man das Problem gelöst.
  3. Ihr Ziel lag nur einen Steinwurf entfernt.

Adjectives can also stand with a dative, genitive or a prepositional phrase:

  1. Ihre Ehe schien dem Ende nah.
  2. Er ist ein seiner Sache sicherer Jurist.
  3. Alle waren neugierig auf das Ergebnis.

The adjective forms a unit with the dependent phrase that can appear in first position (2.) and prenominally (5.).

See also 1, 2, 3.

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  • 1
    "Einen Tag später hatte man das Problem gelöst." is a wrong example, because time specification in German always goes with Akkusativ independent of the prepositions (does it not?).
    – gented
    Jan 20 at 10:44
  • This answer makes it look as if the adverbial accusative stood only with certain adjectives. It can also stand with verbs or, rarely, with nouns.
    – mach
    Jan 20 at 15:46
  • @gented I assume you're thinking of things like er spazierte den ganzen Tag, where den ganzen Tag specifies a duration. Später plus accusative is quite different: 1. it specifies a point in time; 2. the case is governed by the adjective (i.e. adjective and accusative form a unit, other adjectives demand other cases); 3. the adjective can also combine with accusatives that cannot stand alone in a temporal (temperospatial?) function, e.g. Einen Kilometer später kam schon die nächste Baustelle.
    – David Vogt
    Jan 20 at 17:19
  • @mach I have updated the answer. I do not see this accusative as adverbial, but as governed by the adjective. (I see no point in viewing einen Tag später as an example where an adverbial accusative modifies an adjective and einen Kilometer später or den Ärger gewohnt as examples where an adjective governs the accusative.)
    – David Vogt
    Jan 20 at 17:23
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    @DavidVogt: The difference becomes evident by the substitution test: adverbial accusatives can be replaced by adverbs, accusative objects by pronouns: In cases like einen Tag später or ich warte einen Tag, you can substitute einen Tag by the adverb lange, but in cases like ich bin den Ärger gewohnt or ich erwarte den Ärger, you can subsitute den Ärger by the pronoun ihn.
    – mach
    Jan 21 at 12:27
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In a German sentence, basically any part that isn't subject, object or predicative can be seen as a so called Adverbial. An Adverbial modifies the sentence by adding additional information, similar to how an adverb or adverbial clause in English can.

If you use a noun or a noun phrase as an Adverbial, you can express the way of the modification by the case. For example, an Adverbial des Zeitpunktes (adverbial of point of time) uses the genetive

Das wird euch eines Tages noch leid tun!

The accusative is used, among other uses, for periods of time

Ich habe den ganzen Nachmittag geschlafen.

or, as in your example sentence, the dimension

Es ist nur einen Zentimeter groß.

There are also terms like "adverbialer Genetiv" or "adverbialer Akkusativ".

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  • I think nur einen Zentimeter modifies groß rather than the sentence, but I take your meaning that when a noun phrase is used as a modifier then it takes the accusative case. To me, eines Tages and related expressions are figures of speech which don't need a grammatical explanation. The British have a similar expression but with a different meaning, for example "It's normally just a fry-up for me of an evening, ..." from "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban". I'm not sure if I can translate that to American, much less German.
    – RDBury
    Jan 21 at 19:21

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