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In conversation with two native-speaking Germans, I wished to translate the sentence

The distance between the men and the errant robot was being cut down momentarily —

which I attempted with

Der Abstand zwischen den Männern und dem umherstreifenden Roboter war rasch vermindernd --

They corrected my attempt with

Der Abstand zwischen den Männern und dem umherstreifenden Roboter war sich rasch vermindernd --

or, alternatively,

Der Abstand zwischen den Männern und dem umherstreifenden Roboter wurde rasch vermindert --

What is the grammatical explanation for these corrections?

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    While the grammar is correct, a native speaker would probably say "Der Abstand [...] verringerte sich rasch" or "Der Abstand [...] wurde rasch kleiner" or "Der Abstand [...] schrumpfte rasch". Same meaning. We don't really use "vermindern" with "Abstand". "mindern" always carries a expectation of decreasing in value or impact. But a distance of 40 meters isn't worth more (or less) than a distance of 30 meters. It's less in absolute numbers, but not in value.
    – nvoigt
    Nov 17, 2022 at 9:46
  • "Vermindern" is indeed somewhat rare, I would consider it higher register than "verringern".
    – RHa
    Nov 18, 2022 at 7:06

1 Answer 1

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You think vermindern is ergative, which it isn't.

There is a class of verb called ergative. These verbs can be used with and without object, and the object in transitive usage has the same role as the subject in intransitive/unaccusative usage. An example for this is "decrease": In

The distance decreased.

and

The man decreased the distance.

it is always the distance that decreased, although it is first the subject and then the object. These verbs are very common in English, where this alternation is a common pattern. German also has such verbs, for example "zerbrechen"(to break).

However, in German another pattern is more prevalent. Instead of becoming intransitive, the verbs become reflexive. Having no object would be considered incorrect. We have

Der Abstand verminderte sich.

and

Der Mann verminderte den Abstand.

The passive, as suggested, is also a way to not state the agent:

Der Abstand wurde vermindert.

The meaning is closer to "the distance was decreased". In constrast to "Der Abstand verminderte sich" this explicitly states that there is someone who decreased the distance (in a most likely conscious action). So "verminderte sich" or "verringerte sich" is the better translation.

Whether a verb is transitive/intransitive or transitive/reflexive has to be remembered. For example, you could also have used to verb "schrumpfen" (to shrink), which is ergative:

Der Abstand schrumpfte.

Note: The terms transitive, intransitive, ergative, etc. seem to be not used consistently. This answer uses definitions from the English Wikipedia.

See also this question about ändern (to change).

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    Re terminology, the classification I use in my notes is "Ambitransitive (agentive)" and "Ambitransitive (ergative)" with "Ambitransitive" a classification for verbs with optional objects. In the end what matters is the way it is used, not how you describe it. It appears that reflexive vermindern is less common than one might expect, though certainly possible. The hurdle for English speakers is that while a DE-EN dictionary may say that it means decrease, the grammar is different; you can't just replace "decrease" with "vermindern". The same happens for many words, especially verbs.
    – RDBury
    Nov 17, 2022 at 2:51
  • So if we use a monolingual dictionary would the role of the verb in this case be clear? How do we identify these verbs in a dictionary?
    – John Lamb
    Nov 17, 2022 at 12:59
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    @JohnLamb: Well, it depends on the dictionary: In DWDS (e.g. verringern) one has to check examples, which list "sich verringern" and "den Abstand verringern". Duden lists transitive and intrasitive separately, as in zerbrechen, verringern
    – Dodezv
    Nov 17, 2022 at 13:06

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