Here is a sentence from a book:

»Verzeihung«, grummelte er, als der kleine alte Mann ins Stolpern kam und beinahe hinfiel.

Is "ins Stolpern kommen" a legit phrase? Couldn't find it on Dict.cc. If so, then what does it mean exactly?

3 Answers 3


German makes liberal use of Funktionsverbgefüge (in student grammars often referred to as Nomen-Verb-Verbindungen; googling that term will yield many lists and explanations). The idea is that a semantically light verb (i.e. the verb doesn't contribute much meaning to the whole) combines with a noun or prepositional phrase that carries the main meaning.

jemandem eine Frage stellen = jemanden etwas fragen
eine Untersuchung durchführen = etwas untersuchen
ins Stolpern kommen, geraten = stolpern

In this particular instance, kommen or its synonym geraten signify a change of state (inchoative) that was probably not intended. That is the kind of meaning that semantically light is supposed to refer to.

Das Auto geriet ins Rollen. The car started rolling.
Er geriet in Schwierigkeiten. He got into trouble.
Sie geriet ins Zweifeln. She began to have doubts.

By switching out the verb, one gets other shades of meanings. For instance, bringen adds a causative subject; stecken refers to a state.

Er geriet in Schwierigkeiten. He got into trouble.
Seine Geschäfte brachten ihn in Schwierigkeiten. His dealings got him into trouble.
Er steckte in Schwierigkeiten. He was in trouble.

  • Unsere Antworten unterscheiden sich deutlich. Zu sagen, "German makes liberal use of", ist fast wie zu sagen, "Deutscher macht dies und das", oder schlimmer, "Angela Merkel hat ...", was ja wirklich häufig vorkommt. Tatsächlich bedient sich der übliche Sprecher keiner vorgefertigten Grammatik. Das liegt vermutlich daran, dass die existierenden Grammatiken unzureichend sind. Ob das rekonstruierte Verbgefüge als *kam-ins auf Partizip (urgermanisch pp. *kumanaz, en.wiktionary) oder so was zurück zu führen sei, steht gar nirgendwo, oder?
    – vectory
    Jul 31, 2023 at 15:52
  • Also worth noting that by far not every "Nomen-Verb-Verbindung" counts as a Funktionsverbgefüge. For example "Auto fahren". Jul 31, 2023 at 22:47

The relevant meaning of kommen (which admittedly has quite a few) is in DWDS enumeration, 11a: to arrive in a difficult/unpleasant situation/state.

There is no peculiar shift in the meaning of the other parts of the example sentence.

The phrase appears not unusual, even if I consider

... als der kleine alte Mann stolperte ...

as equivalent and sufficient. May be, the author wanted to describe a situation, where the man stumbled for a few steps and barely managed to stay upright.


Is "ins Stolpern kommen" a legit phrase?

It's not unusual, depends your measure of legitimaty.

If so, then what does it mean exactly?

The quote connotation gives it away, "als er […] beinahe hinfiel".

It's not clear what you think that isn't clear to you. It is a set phrase with liminal examples in support or against it. As a set phrase, a more thorough analysis would depend on its age. For example, kommen has many abstract uses but its reconstructed root is thought to have meant "step" (Pokorny, IEW: *gwem-), which should be immediately relevant, if the phrase is possibly old (the same holds for geraten, cp. lat. gradus "step", gresso "to go", congress; ein wohlgeratenes Kind is something else, compare raten, Rat geben, daran wäre dir wohl geraten, and so it has to mean basically wohl erzogen "well educated").

Stolpern however has no such deep rooted semantics of that I'm aware. A more general translation might be hazard: He came into hazard and almost fell. St-initials are generally difficult to reconstruct because sta- (stehen, stellen, etc.) caused sweeping analogy, compare jemandem ein Bein stellen, eine Falle stellen, im Stau stehen (instead of ~ sein), english stub, stumble, stammer, stop, stomp, but also trip, I'm tripping balls, fumble, bumble, and rather uncertain jam (? he marmeladed his toe).

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