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Here are two sentences about drinks in Hesse:

  1. In Hessen trinkt man Apfelsaft und Apfelwein.
  2. In Hessen kann man Apfelsaft und Apfelwein trinken.

My textbook Grammatik aktiv A1-B1 puts these into the passive voice:

  1. In Hessen werden Apfelsaft und Apfelwein getrunken.
  2. In Hessen kann Apfelsaft und Apfelwein getrunken werden.

Why kann and not können? As I understand the object in the active voice becomes the subject in the passive voice, thus 'Apfelsaft und Apfelwein' which is plural, as demonstrated in the first example.

What's going on? What is the subject in the second passive sentence?

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  • 2
    The phenomenon is not due to coordination. grammis.ids-mannheim.de/systematische-grammatik/1037 I vote to reopen.
    – David Vogt
    Feb 21, 2022 at 8:31
  • I have reopened the question due to the argument presented by @DavidVogt
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Feb 21, 2022 at 10:03
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    "können" can in fact be used here instead of "kann".
    – neuhaus
    Feb 21, 2022 at 10:39
  • @DavidVogt: how is that link relevant though? "Apfelsaft und Apfelwein trinken" is neither a "fester Ausdruck" like "Sprüche klopfen" nor a Reflexivum.
    – HalvarF
    Feb 21, 2022 at 14:04
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    @HalvarF The link hints at an answer to the question under what circumstances do accusative objects not become subjects under passivisation? I would have interpreted OP's example similarly.
    – David Vogt
    Feb 21, 2022 at 14:28

2 Answers 2

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In Hessen kann Apfelsaft und Apfelwein getrunken werden.

In the context of a practice grammar, I assume that this sentence is simply a mistake; Apfelsaft und Apfelwein goes with plural können.

However, you will encounter similar examples in the wild for two reasons. Firstly, elements conjoined by und do not always trigger plural agreement; see also Agreement between verb and "und-conjoined" subjects.

Pizza und Pasta schmeckt selbstgemacht am besten.

The second reason is that sometimes, accusative objects do not become promoted to the subject, as mentioned in Übergangsphänomene zum subjektlosen werden-Passiv. Two examples from the linguistic literature:

Heute wird Karten gespielt.1
Es wird Walzer und Foxtrott getanzt.2

Relatedly, German also has impersonal passives of verbs where a reflexive accusative remains under passivisation.

Hier wird sich nicht nackt den Leuten gezeigt.3

Note that the fact that these sentences do not have a subject is not a problem in itself; German allows impersonal passives from intransitive verbs.

Da wurde gelacht und gestaunt.

1 This is the form the example takes in the recent literature. However, the example unter diesen wurde fleißig Karten gespielt from a novel by Bertha von Suttner was discussed in 1892 in Zeitschrift für deutsche Sprache; see Google Books.

2 As far as I can ascertain from googling, the example is due to Ariane von Seefranz-Montag, Syntaktische Funktionen und Wortstellungsveränderung: die Entwicklung "subjektloser" Konstruktionen in einigen Sprachen, München: Fink, 1983.

3 Example 15.89 from Stefan Müller, Deutsche Syntax deklarativ, available here.

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  • As opposed to most comments, this answer differentiates multiple possible distinct problems. +1 I think, it is worth mentioning that the last sentence does not have any subject at all. The existence of senteces without a subject is a surprising finding to must native language speakers. The example in my university grammar class was Nach drei Stück Torte wurde ihr schlecht., and I think it is an even better example, because it sounds even less correct to add an es.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Feb 21, 2022 at 18:27
  • A similar mismatch between plural subject and singular verb can occur in English: "Here is David and his wife Julia." I assume such grammatical "irregularities" occur in most natural languages. Native speakers tend to have an intuitive understanding of grammar, while learners struggle with rules set down by grammarians. There are occasional disagreements between intuition and logic, so I suppose the moral is that, when it comes to grammar, not every exception disproves the rule.
    – RDBury
    Feb 21, 2022 at 19:45
  • @jonathan.scholbach: Another example of "subjectless" sentences are familiar imperatives. While Stell du die Teller auf den Tisch, is possible, the du would be nearly always be dropped. I would still consider du to be the subject, but that it has been dropped using the power of ellipsis, that's a matter of interpretation though. Impersonal imperatives, since there is no finite verb, are truly subjectless. There are even "verbless" sentences: Je weniger, desto besser.
    – RDBury
    Feb 21, 2022 at 20:05
  • @RDBury One strength of David's answer is to point out that the explanation "the plural got lost in the and-conjunction" is not the only possible explanation, but it could also be genuinely caused by the passive construction. The sentence might thus be categorical different from "Here is David and his wife Julia".
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Feb 21, 2022 at 21:21
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In addition to @DavidVogt's good answer, I also see an aspect in the difference between werden and werden können in the example sentence. After all, it's not the auxiliary verb werden of passive voice that is left in singular in the example sentence, but the extra modal verb können.

In the simple case of a passive sentence,

In Hessen trinkt man Apfelsaft und Apfelwein.

becomes

In Hessen werden Apfelsaft und Apfelwein getrunken.

Here, the grammatical subject of the sentence is clearly "Apfelsaft und Apfelwein", and it makes complete sense to put the verb in plural. The subject of a sentence in passive voice is simply what would be the object in active voice.

However, if you add the modal "können" and set that to passive voice, you get a strange new implication:

In Hessen kann man Apfelsaft und Apfelwein trinken.

becomes

In Hessen können Apfelsaft und Apfelwein getrunken werden.

While this is a perfectly correct sentence, what it unintentionally seems to imply is that Apfelsaft und Apfelwein are now able to do something, namely getrunken werden. However, it's not Apfelsaft und Apfelwein that are enabled here, they are still only the ones that are being drunk.

To avoid that, it makes extra sense in a sentence with "ge___t werden können" to separate the subject that can do something from the "passive voice subject". A formal or implied subject clarifies this separation:

Es kann in Hessen Apfelsaft und Apfelwein getrunken werden.
In Hessen kann Apfelsaft und Apfelwein getrunken werden.

Es, and also the implied subject in the second line, doesn't represent Apfelsaft und Apfelwein here. It's also not man. It's not even enabled by kann. It's a formal subject much like in the sentence "Es regnet.", with "Es kann...werden." meaning "There is an opportunity to..." in a completely impersonal sense.

Es kann jetzt gewettet werden.
Jetzt kann gewettet werden. (Bets can be placed now.)

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