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I was reading the usage notes for von on this Wiktionary page, where it talks about situations where using von instead of the genitive is obligatory, optional, and colloquial.

For the most part, I understand that von can be used in most cases colloquially, and I understand the first case where von is obligatory, but I am having trouble understanding the remark about personal and singular pronouns.

I had even more trouble understanding the section on circumstances where von is optional, i.e. both the use of the genitive and of von are correct German.

I'm not sure what it means by "applicative genitive form." It seems like someone copied this chunk from somewhere because it refers to "lemmas" which are not present on the wiktionary page.

Could someone explain (better than the wiktionary usage notes) when "von" is obligatory, optional, and colloquial?

I saw Replacing the genitive with a "von" construction, but it doesn't really go into detail.

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    Small note: By "see lemmas" the author means "see the wiktionary entry for zwei and drei". It doesn't look copy-pasted to me. A lemma is the canonical form of a word, the one that's usually the header of the dictionary entry. Eg here, "zwei" is the lemma for "zweier".
    – oowekyala
    Feb 11 at 16:44
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    I went ahead and updated the Wiktionary entry to use direct links instead of "lemmas". Other jargon of questionable value: "common noun" and "partitive genitive".
    – RDBury
    Feb 11 at 17:08

3 Answers 3

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The genitive has become a special case in Modern Standard German in that genitives need to be visible.

  1. *das Verhalten Kinder
  2. a. das Verhalten der Kinder
    b. das Verhalten einzelner Kinder

The plural form Kinder has no genitive suffix, with the consequence that it cannot be used as a genitive phrase on its own (1); an accompanying determiner or adjective with an appropriate ending (‑er in the instance above) is needed (2).

Alternatively, if Kinder is to be used as a genitive phrase on its own, substitution by von plus dative is obligatory.

  1. das Verhalten von Kindern

This substitution is also used when it is not obligatory (i.e. when a genitive suffix is available). Whether it is considered colloquial is a judgment call; there is a lot of free variation. Having said that, the Wikipedia entry for von has good examples for both apparently optional substitutions involving proper nouns (4) and quite clearly colloquial substitutions involving common nouns (5; the colloquial example is labelled with a hash mark).

  1. a. das Haus Angela Merkels
    b. das Haus von Angela Merkel

  2. a. das Haus der Bundeskanzlerin
    b. #das Haus von der Bundeskanzlerin

In the instance of the number adjectives zwei, drei, I do not see a case of optional substitution; rather, I would assume that these words have both inflecting and non-inflecting forms, with the inflecting forms satisfying the requirement that genitives be visible (6) and the non-inflecting forms (7) undergoing obligatory substitution. Thus, the non-inflecting forms of zwei, drei behave as all other number adjectives do, which only have non-inflecting forms (8).

  1. die Festnahme zweier Bandenmitglieder

  2. a. *die Festnahme zwei Bandenmitglieder
    b. die Festnahme von zwei Bandenmitgliedern

  3. a. *die Festnahme fünf Bandenmitglieder
    b. die Festnahme von fünf Bandenmitgliedern

For further reading, see the current edition of the Duden grammar under paragraphs 1272–1278 and 1534–1540. Alternatively, the author of the relevant sections, Peter Gallmann, has publicly available lecture notes: Genitivregel I, Genitivregel II.

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personal pronouns

In German you can say

Erich ist ein Freund des Lehrers.
Erich is a friend of the teacher.

Here the part "des Lehrers" is a genitive attribute of "ein Freund". Now let's assume, that I am this teacher and I want to say that Erich is my friend. In English you use the very same construction, just with a personal pronoun:

Erich is a friend of me.

But you can't do this in German. This is wrong:

Erich ist ein Freund des meiner.

In German you must use "von" + Dativ in this situation:

Erich ist ein Freund von mir.
Erich is a friend of me.

(A much more common way to say this in German is: "Erich ist mein Freund" = "Erich is my friend". But this is a different construction and not topic of your question. The construction "Erich ist ein Freund von mir" is correct, but rarely used, so better say "Erich ist mein Freund" instead.)


"singular" pronouns

"Singular pronoun" is not a category in German grammar. But German has (like English and most other languages too) pronouns that refer not to many but always to just one item. If you want, you can call these pronouns "singular pronouns", but in German grammar they are still personal pronouns (er = he), demonstrative pronouns (dieser = this), reflexive pronouns (sich = himself) etc.

In Wiktionary they use this example: "der Geschmack von diesem". "Diesem" is a form of "dies" and it is a demonstrative pronoun.

And again the explanation is the same as above:

In German you can say:

Der Geschmack des Kuchens ist etwas zu süß.
The taste of the cake is a little bit too sweet.

The part "des Kuchens" is a genitive attribute, so we have the same grammatical situation as above with the teacher. And now let's talk not about some cake, but about a very special cake, for example about the cake that I am eating right now. Imagine, we are standing in front of a pastry buffet, and we are tasting some tiny cakes. But one of them is much too sweet. In English you can point with your finger on this specific cake and say (maybe while still chewing on that cake):

The taste of this is a little bit too sweet.

And again, if you want to say this in German with something in genitive case, then you're wrong:

Der Geschmack des dieses ist etwas zu süß.

You must use "von" + Dative in this situation:

Der Geschmack von diesem ist etwas zu süß.
The taste of this is a little bit too sweet.


optional "von" when there is an applicative genitive form

There are many phrases where there exists a genitive form that is grammatically correct and also is used by native speakers (so there is an applicative genitive form, i.e. a form that you can apply if you want), but native speakers still often use an alternative construction with "von" + Dativ that expresses exactly the same meaning:

Dieses Gebäude ist das Ergebnis der Arbeit vieler.
Dieses Gebäude ist das Ergebnis der Arbeit von vielen.
This building is the result of the work of many.

The word "vieler" is the genitive form of "viel" (many), and you can use either this genitive form or the construction with "von" + Dativ. Both versions are correct, both of them are used and both of them will be understood.

Or with numerals:

Die Verbindung zweier Atome heißt Molekül.
Die Verbindung von zwei Atomen heißt Molekül.
The compound of two atoms is called a molecule.

Btw: A lemma is just the form of a word that you will find in a dictionary. So, the lemma of "zweier" is "zwei". And when you consult this lemma in Wiktionary, you can read this:

The genitive case takes the form zweier if no article or pronoun is preceding: Vater zweier Kinder – “a father of two children”; but: der Vater der zwei Kinder – “the father of the two children”. The form zweier is somewhat elevated; even in formal writing it is sometimes more natural to avoid it (Vater von zwei Kindern).

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    I'd strongly disagree that "Erich ist mein Freund" is more common than "Erich ist ein Freund von mir". Especially if a woman says it, the two sentences actually mean different things ("boyfriend" vs. "a friend"). But there may be regional or age-related differences. Feb 11 at 13:55
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    On another note, it's actually "Erich is a friend of mine" in English, not "... a friend of me", which complicates your analogy with German a bit. Feb 11 at 13:56
  • @Raketenolli: It does seem like overkill to use both "of" and a possessive pronoun. I don't know what the rule is in English, but apparently there are three possibilities, with "of" + possessive (double possessive) occurring in English but not in German.
    – RDBury
    Feb 11 at 16:32
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    The interesting wrong examples to talk about would be *der Freund meiner, *der Geschmack dieses, as *der diese(r) doesn't exist at all and der meine does not signify ich.
    – David Vogt
    Feb 11 at 16:53
  • Wiktionary distinguishes between cases where it is optional to use von (i.e. still formally correct), and cases where it is colloquial (i.e. common/understandable in constructed German). Which are which? Feb 12 at 10:04
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As a rule of thumb:

If you can express the possessive using the genitive, use it - If you instead use "von" + dative, it's very probably colloquial.

Das ist das Auto meines Vaters

Das ist das Auto von meinem Vater

Sie ist die Mutter zweier Kinder

If you cannot mark the genitive with an adjective or pronoun, use "von" + dative. It's mandatory here.

Sie ist die Mutter von fünf Kindern (there is no "fünfer Kinder")

Der Durchschnittsverbrauch typischer Mittelklassewagen ist in den letzten Jahren stetig gefallen (adjective as a marker)

Der Durchschnittsverbrauch Mittelklassewagen ist in den letzten Jahren stetig gefallen (no marker)

Der Durchschnittsverbrauch von Mittelklassewagen ist in den letzten Jahren stetig gefallen (instead use "von")

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