At 1:30 in this video from today, the narrator says

[...] Fleischessende [...] sollen stärker vertreten werden.

Does this mean "people who are currently in the process of eating meat ought to be represented better?

But according to my textbook, the participle is used for word deriviation if the people who are meant by it are currently in the action of doing so. "I am eating meat" - "Meat-eating people".

So is the participle 1 used incorrectly in this example?

  • 5
    A textbook has the purpose of helping learners. Its role is not to make prescriptions to native speakers. Do not be surprised if reality differs from a textbook; it is to be expected.
    – David Vogt
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 8:16
  • 2
    Note that progressive is just one of the many possible uses of a present participle in German (and actually, one of the rarer ones). Here, it's simply a fancy adjective.
    – tofro
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 8:35
  • 2
    Using the present participle has become more frequent in recent years as way to skirt around the gender issue. Whereas, say, "Studierende" used to mean people who were studying then & there, it is routinely instead of "Studenten und Studentinnen" these days.
    – Ingmar
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 16:34
  • 2
    @Ingmar The use of "Studierende" to mean "Studenten und Studentinnen" seems to have been reasonably common for quite a long time: If occurs at least four times in this documentary from 1959, at 23:00 (1x), 27:07 (1x) and 42:25-43:00 (2x)
    – njuffa
    Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 3:36
  • 2
    This is an example of die Dokumentierenden der Partizipierenden erklären den Zusehenden das Vorgehende in einer Weise, die es den Bewußtseienden unter den Zusehenden erlaubt, nicht zu Protestierenden zu werden.
    – bakunin
    Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 9:26

6 Answers 6


While the previous answers have already given a very thorough summary on the the general issues of gender-neutral language, the answers haven’t focused on the core linguistic issue of nominalized participles that much, so here’s my addition on that end:

The “rule” that nominalized participles require that the person is performing the action right now is often brought up in these kinds of discussions and has found its way into a number of textbooks, but the empirical evidence just does not support it.

Notably, the Duden doesn’t include this as a rule, presumably because there are a number of words that break (and thus already disprove) this supposed rule, with their usage far predating the current debate about gender-neutral language.

Vorstandsvorsitzende and Alleinerziehende are among the most common, and their usage is, of course, perfectly fine even if these people are not chairing a board meeting or interacting with their children that very second. Other common words, often with centuries of usage behind them, are Auszubildende, Gewerbetreibende, Leidtragende, Reisende und Diensthabende (even Studierende, a common flashpoint of these debates, first occurred as far back as the 18th century, far before regular enrollment of women at German universities was a thing).

So the simple answer to your question is: Yes, you are mistaking something, because your textbook is wrong. When it comes to the details, prescriptive textbooks often are, since they need to simplify broad varieties of usage into easily understandable and learnable rules.

A related, more interesting question is: Why is it wrong? And why do quite a number of native speakers actually do say that, in their intuition, nominalized participles describe things that are happening right now? Part of it certainly is that they’ve been taught the above rule, as well, but is that it? What’s going on here?

Well, the exact behavior of participles depends on the underlying verb or verb phrase – in particular, how we conceptualize the activity in question.

Schlafende, for example, can only really be called so when they are in fact sleeping that very second, simply because schlafen is a very clearly bounded activity that excludes any other (conscious) actions at the same time.

In the case of einem Vorstand vorsitzen or ein Kind allein erziehen, however, our understanding of this activity is usually that it is not merely temporary, but rather a kind of status, and this carries over to the participle. The other examples above are also linked to a kind of status which holds for a certain period of time.

The problem is that many words can be used both with a habitual/status-like or a progressive meaning. Since standard German does not have a grammaticalized progressive form (some German dialects do, see the so-called “am progressive” or “Rheinische Verlaufsform”), disambiguation is usually down to adverbials and other context.

The verb phrase Fleisch essen as in Alex isst Fleisch, for example, is used in (at least) two ways:

  1. generally/habitually eating a certain food as part of your diet, e.g., Alex isst [seit Jahren] Fleisch.
  2. eating something for one specific meal, e.g. Alex isst [gerade] Fleisch.

Now (1) doesn’t really seem very different from ein Kind allein erziehen or einem Vorstand vorsitzen – it’s something that holds for a certain (longer) period of time. Even if Alex is sleeping or swimming or skydiving, I can easily and truthfully say Alex isst seit Jahren Fleisch, but probably not Alex isst gerade Fleisch.

And that’s where the conflicting intuitions come from: a lot of people were taught the above rule, namely that nominalized participles usually derive from type (2) meanings – but that was never really the case, anyway, and is breaking down even more as people increasingly derive from type (1) meanings.

For more and more people, (1) is becoming the default derivation target, and for them, phrases like schlafende Fleischessende are perfectly acceptable. But other people still have (2) in their mind and then schlafende Fleischessende is, of course, absolute nonsense.

If you’re interested in learning more about the theoretical background, I’d suggest reading some textbooks about event semantics, which can provide a good starting point for a more formal analysis of this.

  • @OranMatheus: Ertrinkende would be the progressive meaning - they are "am Ertrinken" (drowning), rescue may still be possible or they are still alive but rescue is not possible any more. Ertrunkene are dead, drowned as opposed to drowning.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 10:04
  • 1
    Good answer I think that another reason that “Schlafende” would be understood to only refer to people in a sleeping state is that the other interpretation, people who regularly sleep, would just be everybody and hence not useful
    – Carsten S
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 10:07
  • Wir kennen aber den Schläfer, als a) Agenten auf Abruf, b) Schüler, der meist nicht bei der Sache ist - beides metaphorisch. Der Beitrag ist m.E. sehr wertvoll aber geht nicht weit genug. Was ist der Unterschied zw. einem Schmied und einem Schmiedenden? Der Schmied ist von Beruf Schmied, der Schmiedende nur vielleicht. Daher wird "Schmiedende" insb. dann eingesetzt, wenn jmd. schmiedet, der eben kein Schmied ist. Es hängt also oft - jedoch nicht immer - davon ab, ob es für die Tätigkeit eine Berufsbezeichnung o.ä. mit diesem Wortstamm gibt. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 16:22
  • Daher hätte man früher, ohne mit der Wimper zu zucken, "Fleischesser" gesagt, denn es gibt keinen Beruf "Fleischesser" oder vergleichbares, was gemeint sein könnte. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 16:32

The German language has a severe and politically very hot debated problem with the way how it's grammar represents genders of people.

In English nouns do not have a gender. In English only 8 pronouns carry a grammatical gender, but in German every single noun has a gender. And this includes nouns that name single people or groups of people like professions (teacher = Lehrer, Lehrerin), confessions (catholic = Katholik, Katholikin), of other categories (diabetic = Diabetiker, Diabetikerin).

As you can see from the given examples, there is always a masculine and a feminine form for words that name people, and we are conditioned since centuries, to connect the grammatically masculine form to male persons and the feminine form to female persons.

And the problem, that arises from this method is, that there is no proper way in German to name a person without revealing this persons biological sexus.

To overcome this, German has had the »generic masculine«, also for centuries. This simply uses the grammatical masculine gender for both biological sexes. And this was also a good solution in the patriarchal society of the past, where women had no rights. Women were subordinate to men in society, so it was only logical to reflect that in language. (In Austria, where I live, women needed permission from a male relative to earn their own money until 1978, and in some regions of Switzerland women did not get the right to vote in local elections until 33 years ago, in 1990.)

But in a modern society, where men and women should have equal rights, it is an anachronism if women have to continue to be co-meant by the generic masculine.

But the generic masculine has another problem. It sometimes does not work as expected. If someone says »Kindergärtner«, »Kosmetiker« or »Haarstylist« the listener almost always has a male person in mind because these are typical female professions and therefore people with these professions usually are called by the female form: »Kindergärtnerin«, »Kosmetikerin« or »Haarstylistin«, but only if they are really female. Never will a male nurse teacher be called »Kindergärtnerin«.

And for these reasons words like »Student«, »Lehrer« or also »Fleischesser« are problematic, because they are grammatically masculine.

Many ideas were implemented as tempt to solve this problem:

  • Using both forms

    Verehrte Bürgerinnen und Bürger
    Dear citicens

    Die hier beschäftigten Krankenpflegerinnen und Krankenpfleger
    The nurses employed here

    The disadvantage of this solution is obvious: its too long.

  • Using brackets and slashes

    Verehrte Bürger/innen
    Dear citicens

    Die hier beschäftigten Krankenpfleger/innen
    The nurses employed here

    Jede(r) Student(in) möge sich bitte bei ihre(m/r)/seine(m/r) Betreuer(in) melden.
    Each student should please report to their supervisor.

    This becomes unreadable with excessive use.

  • Binnen-I

    BürgerInnen, KrankenpflegerInnen

    This is the female form with a capital letter I in the middle of the word. It evolved from the slash-method by merging the slash that was most often followed by a lowercase »i« (»/i«) to an uppercase »I«.

  • Asterisks and colons

    Bürger*innen, Bürger:innen, Krankenpfleger*innen, Krankenpfleger:innen

    This is in use on many universities and some private institutions and is an attempt to include also non-binary biological genders in a gender-sensitive language.

But most of these ideas work only in a written or printed form. In spoken language you can't hear if a letter is capitalized, and also slashes, brackets, asterisks and colons are items that will not be present in spoken language.

And so, there is another idea in use for many years: The usage of the nominalized participle:

die Studenten, die Studentinnen → die Studierenden
die Lehrer, die Lehrerinnen → die Lehrenden

And so also:

die Fleischesser, die Fleischesserinnen → die Fleischessenden

This solution has the advantage, that it also works with spoken language, but it still has the disadvantage, that it only works well in the plural form. Because in the singular form you still are forced by grammar to reveal the biological sexus of the person:

English: I see a student.
German, old words: Ich sehe einen Studenten. Ich sehe eine Studentin.
German, new words: Ich sehe einen Studierenden. Ich sehe eine Studierende.

And the other problem with nominalized participles, of course, is exactly what you mentioned: Their original use is to describe an action that is currently taking place, but now they are used to describe a permanent state. So it's a new meaning superimposed on the original meaning. But many people are willing to accept this new meaning because, despite all its drawbacks, it is still one of the most widely accepted attempts to bring more gender neutrality into our language.

Just to show you, how emotional this topic is discussed, and how politically charged it is:

I live in Lower Austria, this is one of the nine states of the federal republic of Austria, and the government of this state is a coalition of two parties: mid-right ÖVP (Österreichische Volkspartei = Austrian Peoples Party) and far-right FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs = Freedom Party of Austrian). Yesterday (2023-07-21) they have issued a decree prohibiting Lower Austria officials from using gender-inclusive language. Anyone who has a job with the state of Lower Austria and uses the internal I, asterisks, colons or other signs to express gender equality will face disciplinary proceedings.

Die Presse: Niederösterreichische Verwaltung verbietet Gender-Stern und Binnen-I
Kronenzeitung: Niederösterreich: Verbot für Gendersternchen & Co.
Der Standard: Gendersternverbot für niederösterreichische Landesverwaltung liegt vor

I, on the other hand, am a researcher and lecturer at a university of applied sciences in Lower Austria. And we not only have unisex toilets for all genders in our university building, but we also have a service regulation in force that requires all employees to use gender-neutral language. When I write a message to my students, I have to use asterisks. I'm not allowed to use the words »Student« or »Studentin«, I must use »Studierende«. I must not only do this in written documents, but also when I speak to students or colleagues. If I didn't do it, my bosses would have a serious talk with me, and it would have negative repercussions when trying to extend my service contract.

And so different institutions with different political orientations try to influence German grammar with constraints and regulations.

  • 12
    Nice and thorough answer. I would contest, however, that there is no way to use forms like "Student:in" in spoken language. At least in certain parts of society is common to read those gender neutral forms with a glottal stop before the suffix. This is often called the Genderpause. Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 14:57
  • 14
    "...the patriarchal society of the past, where women had no rights." this is a rather loaded characterization of affairs, and a gross oversimplification. Historically, women had markedly fewer rights in what is now southern Germany and Austria, as compared to the north. But to say that they had no rights is simply false. I'd kindly ask you to correct this, as your otherwise excellent answer does not rely on this odd claim.
    – user56347
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 15:47
  • 2
    English does not have grammatical gender, but it does have assumed genders for certain nouns and there is a similar trend to get rid of the -man, -woman, -ess, suffixes, usually by replacing them with -person: waitperson, craftsperson, spokesperson, ... . Last I checked, the word "nurse" is still problematic, with "male nurse" being used when applicable. I guess there are similar issues with the profession in German; is Krankenpflegende gaining any traction?
    – RDBury
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 19:00
  • 3
    "to name a person without revealing this persons biological sexus" - I suggest to replace "revealing" with "implying". "revealing" suggests that the person's gender is a fact, knowledge about which is conveyed. But this is not the case; if you use the generic masculine form to refer to a woman, the masculine gender of the word cannot "reveal" the woman's male gender, because said woman has no male gender to be revealed. It can only (falsely) imply the male gender. Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 11:59
  • 2
    I find it somewhat disingenuous to start with 'this is a hotly debated area' and then only present it from one perspective. From your description it looks like their is agreement that something needs to change and discussion is only about how whereas the actual hot debate is about whether anything has to be changed at all.
    – quarague
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 6:38

I'm pretty sure this is gender neutral way of saying "Fleischesser(in)". It would have been unusual at best to use this construction in the past, but in recent times there is a trend to replace gender specific words with gender neutral words. The theory is you take the adjective form of the present participle ("Fleisch essend") and nominalize it to form a noun. I'm assuming the reason it's not mentioned in your textbook is that it's a recent innovation. See Wikipedia for details and examples.

  • 7
    @323242323242, I don’t know where you got that on-going process idea, but by your logic a “fleischfressende Pflanze” would have to be constantly eating.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 12:59
  • 1
    @CarstenS How can you differentiate between "milchtrinkendes Baby" being "baby currently drinking milk" and "baby drinking milk in general" then? Ambiguous? Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 16:59
  • 4
    It can be both, just as “das Baby trinkt Milch”.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 17:13
  • 1
    Die 3 tot im Graben liegenden Zufußgehenden sind natürlich ein Problem und die den Arztberuf Ausübenden lassen sich mit Klammern wie darstellen: (A|Ä)rzt(in)? Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 11:22
  • 1
    @userunknown: Die Einschätzung zu gestelzt, bürokratisch und auch manipulativ teile ich. Ich meinte nur: wenn sie schon tot sind, sind sie vielleicht vorher gegangen, aber Gehende sind sie dann nicht mehr... ist nur eine weitere "Zündstufe" der Satire (Realsatire?)
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 17:56

It's a deviation from textbook use of the participle with the goal of gender neutral language. A comparable deviation is putting an asterisk in the middle of a word like in "Vegetarier*innen". Whether using these deviations is warranted for the "greater good" is a hot and politicized debate.

Using participles in that way has been around since the 1980s in progressive circles or at universities ("Studierende", "Lehrende") and is widespread today, so good textbooks would well be able to have picked it up and to mention it by now.

  • 3
    Already in the late 1970s I saw the inscription "Studierendenhaus" on the facade of the former Studentenhaus.
    – Paul Frost
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 10:17

why is the news not abiding by German language rules?

It is abiding by the rules.

In 2018, the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung published Empfehlungen zur „geschlechtergerechten Schreibung“ (Recommendations for gender equitable orthography). At its core are six criteria for what they consider appropriate:

Geschlechtergerechte Texte sollen

  • sachlich korrekt sein,
  • verständlich und lesbar sein,
  • vorlesbar sein (mit Blick auf die Altersentwicklung der Bevölkerung und die Tendenz in den Medien, Texte in vorlesbarer Form zur Verfügung zu stellen),
  • Rechtssicherheit und Eindeutigkeit gewährleisten,
  • übertragbar sein im Hinblick auf deutschsprachige Länder mit mehreren Amts- und Minderheitensprachen,
  • für die Lesenden bzw. Hörenden die Möglichkeit zur Konzentration auf die wesentlichen Sachverhalte und Kerninformationen sicherstellen.

Gender equitable texts should

  • be factually correct,
  • be understandable and readable,
  • be fit to be read out (in view of the aging of the population and the tendency in the media to make texts available in readable form),
  • ensure legal certainty and clarity,
  • be transferrable with regard to German-speaking countries with several official and minority languages,
  • ensure that the readers and listeners have the opportunity to concentrate on the essential facts and core information.

Apart from that, no compulsory rules have been set.

In a preparatory paper for these recommendations, the responsible working group looked at different strategies for gender equitable writing. Under "Stilistische Strategien" (stylistic strategies) they noted, among others,

Ersatzformen: geschlechtsneutrale übergreifende Formulierungen/Abstrakta: weder Frauen noch Männer sprachlich sichtbar („Studierende“, „Lehrkräfte“, „Direktion“, „Gäste“)

Substitute forms: gender-neutral comprehensive formulations/abstracts: neither women nor men are linguistically visible(...)

When evaluating the different strategies used in a corpus of texts examined, they found:

Beim allergrößten Teil aller Textsorten können in fortlaufenden Texten die aufgeführten stilistischen und grammatischen Strategien Anwendung finden. Sie entsprechen den sechs formulierten Kriterien der sachlichen Korrektheit, der Verständlichkeit und Lesbarkeit, der Vorlesbarkeit, der Rechtssicherheit und Eindeutigkeit und der Übertragbarkeit, zum größten Teil ermöglichen sie auch die Konzentration auf die wesentlichen Sachverhalte und Kerninformationen. Orthografisch entsprechen diese Strategien den Normen des amtlichen Regelwerks.

The stylistic and grammatical strategies listed can be applied to the vast majority of all text types in continuous texts. They correspond to the six formulated criteria of factual correctness, comprehensibility and readability, fitness to be read out, legal certainty and unambiguousness and transferability, and for the most part they also allow concentration on the essential facts and core information. Orthographically, these strategies correspond to the norms of the official regulations.

The other "grammatical and stylistic strategies" included in this approval are listed on p. 3 of the above paper. There are too many to list them here.

The council at the time was much more sceptical regarding the various "shortening strategies" (shortened words, use of punctuation like dashes, brackets or asterix inside words, upper case I). Regarding the use of punctuation, the council last week proposed a supplement to the "Amtliches Regelwerk" (official rules, to be approved by the relevant ministries in all participating countries).


These are two sides of the same coin. Technically, progressive verbs have no clearly defined start or end, but conventional meaning. We distinguish past particple der umgezogene and present participle der umziehende – mainly by Ablaut. This does simply not apply to essen because e and umlaut ä have merged

? Wir äßen um 12:00.

Wir essen um 12:00

Phonologiclly, it would probably go back as far as nasalization, n-stems marking feminity, cp. Kollege, Kollegin, plural die Kollegen rather than College, Collegiate or else. Including Fleischesser in this with /r/ [ɐ], the dental Auslaut, fleischessend, is in this view epenthetic, in practice often realized as bare /n/ – same as in English where *runned would be hypercorrect. Ich renn / run – rannte / ran – bin gerannt / 've run'.

? the participle is used for word deriviation if the people who are meant by it are currently in the action of doing so

The pragmatic side of it is difficult. Your textbook is incorrect to simplify things. The Herausgeber of a book is always herausgebend. You might as well argue that the publishing publisher published is wrong, but there is enough evidence to the contrary, because to be a publisher is frequentative.

gez. der häufig schwadronierende.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.