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In conversation with 2 native German speakers, I wanted to translate this sentence:

We can push at Rule 2 and pull at Rule 3 and we can’t get anywhere.

The meaning here is that, we can act by applying the principles in either or both of rules 2 and 3, but it will not accomplish the goal.

So I said:

Wir können auf Regel-2 schieben und auf Regel-3 ziehen und wir können nirgendwo kommen.

The German speakers corrected me with:

Wir können auf Regel-2 schieben und auf Regel-3 ziehen und wir können nirgendwo hinkommen.

But DWDS shows the following examples:

Die Zeit, 15.10.2013 (online) Zu einer Abkühlung oder einem Anstieg des pH-Wertes wird es den Prognosen zufolge nirgendwo kommen.

Die Zeit, 14.04.2011, Nr. 16 In dieser Mischung aus literarischem Roadmovie und Gaunerkomödie hat jedes kleine Detail seinen Sinn, nirgendwo kommt der Erzähler ins Schwafeln, nichts ist überflüssig.

I am thinking that both versions are valid, as well as "nirgendwohin kommen" and "zu nirgends kommen". Any insights would be appreciated.

3 Answers 3

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Before answering the actual question, let's have a look at pushing and pulling on rules:

The verb »schieben« means to apply physical force on a thing to move it in a sliding manner over the ground. But a rule is not something physical. You can't touch a rule and especially you can't change the location of a rule because rules usually don't have such a fixed location. I think what you mean is changing a rule. So in a figurative sense you don't want to move the unchanged rule to another place, but you want to change its shape and leave it where it is now. For changing the shape there are many German verbs, in this case the pair »zupfen« and »zerren« fits very well. Even better are »herumzupfen« and »herumzerren«:

  • zupfen: to twitch at something, to pluck, to pick
    »Zupfen« means: you grab a tiny extension of a bigger thing with your fingertips, pull on it and then release it (often used when playing string instruments in the pizzicato mode, but also hairstylists do it with their customers hair). The aim of »zupfen« is never to move the big thing.
  • herumzupfen: zupfen without having a plan. You do it because you are bored (on your clothes for example) of just to see to what it may lead.
  • zerren: to tug, to wrench, to jerk, to twitch
    Very similar to zupfen, but you grab big parts of the bigger thing and pull with both hands on it. The aim of »zerren« is often to move the big thing, but not necessary. »Zerren« often doesn't move the object. (But »schieben« by definition describes the movement of the pushed object.)
  • herumzerren: zerren without having a plan.

So, I would say it this way:

Wir können an den Regeln 2 und 3 herumzupfen und -zerren, aber wir werden damit nirgendwohin kommen.
We can pick and tug at rules 2 and 3, but we're not going to get anywhere with it.


Answer to the actual question

First of all you should be aware, that the verb »kommen« (to come) can also mean to have an orgasm, while »hinkommen« (to come to a place) never can have this meaning. And this is why this is the correct translation:

Wir können nirgendwo kommen.
We can't have an orgasm anywhere.

The adverb »nirgendwo« is a local adverb, so grammatically it stands for a place or a location. It definitely does not stand for a movement. But kommen (if not meant in a sexual way) always needs a context of movement:

Phone dialog:
Alice: »Ich bin im Supermarkt. Kannst du bitte zu mir kommen?«
Bob: »Ja, ich komme gleich.«

Here both people are talking about Bob moving towards the supermarket. So we have a movement and we can use kommen.

But when the context explicitly provides a location that is not the target of a movement, then any verb describes an action, that happens at this place, without leaving this place and without entering this place.

Georg geht in der Küche.
Georg walks inside the kitchen.

Here the context clearly provides a place (this happens by using the dative case), so gehen can only happen inside this place. Georg doesn't enter the kitchen and he doesn't leave it. He walks in circles inside the kitchen.

Georg kommt in der Küche.

Here we have the very same context: Here it is the dative case, that defines, that the action happens on/at/in a place; in your example it was a local adverb (nirgendwo). But the effect is the same: It means that Georg doesn't enter the kitchen and he doesn't leave it. And the only way to interpret the verb »kommen« in a non-directional context is, that Georg has an orgasm in the kitchen.

Georg kommt nirgendwo.

Here the prepositional object with dative case is replaced with the local adverb of your example. I already explained what this means: Georg does not have an orgasm anywhere. The last part of your sentence (Wir können nirgendwo kommen) is just a variation on this theme.

What can you do?

Use another verb instead of »kommen« (to come). The best choice is »hinkommen« (to get to a place). It is a separable verb, which means, that the prefix hin can be separated from the verb in some grammatical situations and then stands at the end of the sentence:

Ich werde morgen hinkommen.
I will get there tomorrow.

Ich komme morgen hin.
I will get there tomorrow.

So, you can say:

Wir können nirgendwo hinkommen.
We can get nowhere. (We have nowhere to go.)


About your examples from DWDS

These examples use different patterns:

es kommt zu etwas
something occurs

jemand kommt in eine Tätigkeit
someone gets into an action

These phrases use the verb kommen, but not in a local sense. It uses it in a modal sense. Here are the correct translations of your examples:

Zu einer Abkühlung oder einem Anstieg des pH-Wertes wird es den Prognosen zufolge nirgendwo kommen.
Cooling or increase in pH is not projected to occur anywhere.

In dieser Mischung aus literarischem Roadmovie und Gaunerkomödie hat jedes kleine Detail seinen Sinn, nirgendwo kommt der Erzähler ins Schwafeln, nichts ist überflüssig.
In this mixture of literary road movie and rogue comedy, every little detail makes sense, nowhere does the narrator get into rambling, nothing is superfluous.

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  • Wow! kommen is a very complicated verb. But, if I understand you correctly, I could have correctly written, "Wir können auf Regel-2 schieben und auf Regel-3 ziehen und wir können zum Erfolg nicht kommen." Regarding the use of schieben, are not German creative writers, like English ones, allowed to use words in slightly bent ways?
    – user44591
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 14:35
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    @user44591: No. »Wir können auf Regel-2 schieben« means »we can push on top of rule 2.« Here what is missing is what you want to push on top of the rule. But it is also wrong, because rules are not physical things, so they have no top on which something can end after it has been pushed. For the same reasons, »auf Regel-3 ziehen« (pull on top of rule 3) is wrong. »Und« is not the best conjunction in ... Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 15:29
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    ... this sentence. It means »in addition« but you want »as a result«. Therefore, »aber« is more appropriate (although »und« is still possible). In »wir können zum Erfolg nicht kommen.« you use an incorrect word order. Correct is »wir können nicht zum Erfolg kommen.« The positioning of negations is very tricky and there are many rules that deal with it. One of these rules is that when you use a modal verb (like »können«), you put the negation after it. Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 15:29
  • So many wonderful insights in all of these answers! I love reporting my mistakes, because I learn so very much. Unfortunately, I did not fully convey the context, which includes the important point that the rules do actual, physical pushing and pulling. But I have settled on this translation finally: Wir können mit Regel-2 schieben und mit Regel-3 ziehen aber können nicht vom Fleck kommen. Thanks to all for the help.
    – user44591
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 15:56
  • @user44591: »Wir können mit Regel-2 schieben« means: »We can push with rule 2.«* This means, that rule 2 is a tool that can be applied to a thing, and when you do so, the thing is pushed. - Is this what you are meaning? But this is not the same as »We can push at Rule 2« which means, that we can push a thing so that at the end it is located on top of rule 2. Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 17:24
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The difference in this context boils down to "come at some place" versus "come to some place".

Let's first take a look at

Wir können nirgendwo parken.
We can't park anywhere.

With "kommen", this would be

Wir können nirgendwo kommen.
We can't come anywhere.

(and I won't go any further into the naughty insinuations ;) )

But what you want to express is more "we can't come/get to any place", "we can't get anywhere". So you need a sense of direction, which is provided by the "hin-":

Wir können nirgendwo hinkommen.

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  • But the intended meaning here has nothing to do with a physical place, but rather with accomplishing a goal. There is no physical movement involved.
    – user44591
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 22:11
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    @user44591 The place and the movement to it are used figuratively, in English as well as in German. "To get somewhere", "to get nowhere", "to get anywhere" all technically refer to a place with "-where". You, figuratively, try to move towards your goal. It's similar in German. Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 22:55
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We can push at Rule 2 and pull at Rule 3 and we can’t get anywhere.

I would not translate this literally, but according to the meaning. An idiomatic translation of to get anywhere or to make progress is vorankommen or vom Fleck kommen. Therefore, I suggest:

Wir können an Regel 2 herumschieben und an Regel 3 herumzerren und kommen doch nicht voran/ vom Fleck.

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  • 2
    A nice way of expressing what is meant. Unfortunately it doesn't answer the question. :(
    – Olafant
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 5:02

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