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This appeared in the dialog of a recent Tatort episode:

Wenn alle Beteiligten nur wissen, was sie wissen dürfen, wenn alle nur denken, was sie denken sollen, dann wird kein Ermittler und sei er noch so gut, ausreichend Beweise finden, die für eine Anklage reichen.

sei er noch so gut

appears to be translatable as something like, "no matter how good he may be" or, more word-for-word literally, "be he yet so good". But I do not understand several aspects of this construction.

  1. This is not indirect speech, nor is it imperative, so why use subjunctive I?
  2. The word order seems wrong with the verb in first position when the statement is neither a question nor an imperative.
  3. The word-for-word English interpretation seems to somewhat miss the intended English meaning. Is this a fixed-phrase or is there a more general class of statements to which this belongs?
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    This is basically a construction sui generis: grammis.ids-mannheim.de/konnektoren/406925
    – David Vogt
    Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 21:22
  • I don't seem to understand what that site is saying, could you write a simpler version of what is written there for noobs like me? @DavidVogt
    – Babu
    Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 5:29
  • This expression exists in (somewhat old-fashioned) English: ... be he ever so good
    – Numeri
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 12:38

1 Answer 1

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Your list of reasons for the subjunctive is far from being complete, so the appropriate one is missing. This is a short concessive clause stating an assumption, and also making clear that it is an assumption. (An assumption is no stated fact, so the indicative would be wrong.) I note, that your good first translation … he may be is pretty similar in that respect.

The construct is very broadly applied in mathematics (see this question), but the lower frequency elsewhere is not due to an explicit rule.

DWDS corpora search has numerous further examples, here only for er.


I took the term concessive clause from my printed grammar. It was defined there to contain a counter-argument too weak for changing the outcome, so it may translate to

... even if admitting that ...

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  • OK. That addresses the question of the use of the subjunctive. In my defense Hammar's German Grammar devotes only a small paragraph at the end of Chap. 14 to this usage, titled, "The Konjunktiv I of sein or the sein-passive can express a proposition," which I take to be identical to what you are calling an assumption. But there remains the questions of word order and the mismatch between the German and English taken word-for-word. Hammar is no help in that.
    – user44591
    Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 15:19
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    The verb order is explained by the fact that sei er noch so gut is a subordinate clause, and subordinate clauses can be verb-first. This applies to conditional and concessive clauses in particular.
    – RHa
    Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 19:24
  • Introductory grammars tend to not go into much detail on subjunctive I since it's not used very often in conversational German. I gather the dialog in Tatort is meant to have an academic flavor, something like "CSI" where everyone talks like a scientist.
    – RDBury
    Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 19:47
  • I have never heard of a subordinate clause, not separated from the main clause by a comma, and which is additionally begun with "und". "und" is specifically categorized as a coordinating conjunction (Hammer, Table 17.1), not subordinating. So how could it begin a subordinate clause?
    – user44591
    Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 21:42
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    "Concessive conjunctions typically include the equivalents for English 'although' and the forms which correspond to English 'however', 'what(so)ever', etc." Hammer, 17.6.
    – user44591
    Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 12:46

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