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Which is correct?

Ich schreibe dir eine Nachricht

Ich schreibe dich einer Nachricht

Idiomatically speaking first one seems correct. But, it seems to me, that sich "you" is the target of the action, shouldn't it be the accusative object?

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    "target" is not a grammatical category in German, and neither are "direct/indirect object" as in English. German has cases, and specific cases are governed by specific verbs. Aug 29, 2023 at 6:34
  • Second variant would be: "Ich schreibe eine Nachricht an dich". I'm not the grammar specialist, but the focus would be a bit different, like "I'm writing a message for you" vs. "I'm sending a message to you".
    – U. Windl
    Aug 29, 2023 at 6:43
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    What is ‘target’ supposed to mean? It’s not a grammatical category, and it bears no obvious resemblance to object categories. To the extent that sentences containing verbs that could semantically be said to have a target or beneficiary, that target will normally correspond to the indirect (dative) object, not the direct (accusative) object. Aug 29, 2023 at 15:52

7 Answers 7

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I think you may be thinking of two-way prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen), where the prepositional object takes accusative when it's the target or direction of an action. That only works for two-way prepositions though. For objects of the verb itself the rule doesn't hold.

Part of the problem may be that "to write" in English has two kinds of object depending on context, and these take different cases in German. (German is actually rather helpful in providing that information.) For example I can say "I'm writing a letter," or "I'm writing you." In the first case German uses the accusative, "Ich schreibe einen Brief," but in the second German uses the dative case, "ich schreibe dir."

An easy, if not always reliable way of keeping track of this for an English speaker is that the dative often replaces the preposition "to" in English. You, don't say "I'm writing to a letter," so use the accusative "einen Brief" in German. You can say "I'm writing to you," so use the dative "dir" in German.

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With verbs as schreiben, that "target" logic isn't too helpful. That's why you have to remember for each verb which objects it takes. A good dictionary tells this with

  • (jmdm.) (etw.) schreiben

This clears it up that there is an optional dative object which is a person, and an optional accusative object which is a thing. It also tells you variants as

  • (etw.) an jmdn. schreiben

with an optional accusative object which is a thing and a mandatory prepositional object an+accusative which is a person.


For your example, you have another way to guess that

Ich schreibe dir eine Nachricht.

is the correct one. The dative object tells who bears the result of the action. Most times, who benefits from it. It's you who benefits from writing the message. Not the message who benefits from writing you.

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I think you misunderstand what is meant with "the target of the action". I'll try to break it down.

Who is the subject? - I.
What is the action? - Writing.
What is the goal/target of that action? - To get something written. In this case it's a letter, but it could also be a book or a bill or whatever. So the result of that writing process is your accusative object.

Don't get confused by knowing that the resulting letter will be sent to someone.

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There are rules for what becomes object or subject of a clause, but "target of the action" is not one of them. Your example actually demonstrates why it is wrong to describe the function of the object in this way (although it's a traditional formula).

"Nachricht" is the accusative object here because it comes into existence. In general, if something undergoes change in the course of an action, it will become the direct object (of a transitive verb).

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„Ich schreibe dir eine Nachricht.“ → “I’m writing you a message.” is correct.

You can use questions to find the objects: “What am I writing?” → “A message.” (direct object aka accusative object; the work piece so to speak) “To whom am I writing?” → “(To) you.” (indirect object aka dative object; the intended recipient)

In your second example, “you” and “a message” flip their function (as work piece and recipient): „Ich schreibe dich einer Nachricht“ → “I’m writing you to a message.”

To clarify what is happening here, let’s use the questions again: “What am I writing?” → “You.” (direct object aka accusative object) “To whom am I writing?” → “(To) a message.” (indirect object aka dative object)

While it is not wrong grammatically, it rarely makes any sense. You would have to talk to the text you’re writing and then give it to something called “a message”: “Dear diary. From now on, I’m writing you to a message. Not a real message of course, but a club called ‘A Message’, with whom I’ll be sharing my most intimate secrets.”

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    You might be astonished how limited the help provided by "asking for it" is for a non-native speaker: Basically zero. What seems naturally for a native speaker does not help the non-native at all - If you don't know how to use it how should you know how to ask for it?
    – tofro
    Aug 30, 2023 at 8:03
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In German, verbs can have zero or more objects, some of them optional. Verbs can have objects in genitive, dative or accusative case. You must know the possible objects and cases for each verb.

There is no such case as "target" oder direct/indirect object in German. It may help as a rule of thumb if you don't know a particular verb, but a rule of thumb is hopefully in correct in many cases, but not always.

In the case of "schreiben", you can have an accusative object for what is written, and a dative object for who receives what is written.

So your first example is "I write (addressed:) to you (what:) a message". That is what you want to express, you are sending a message to a person.

Your second example is also grammatically correct. It means "I write (what:) you (addressed:) to a message". It just doesn't make sense to send a person to a message.

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When considering a ditransitive verb, be it English or German, it helps to keep the model verb "give" (for English) or "geben" (for German) in mind. The direct/accusative object is the object being given, while the indirect/dative object is the object being given to, where the direct object ends up. Observe:

Ich gebe dir eine Nachtricht.
I'm giving you a message.

In English, and German apparently, verbs of creation (make, bake, build and, yes, write) can be ditransitive, implying that the direct/accusative object (the thing created) was made for and thus given to the indirect/dative object.

Side note: the fact that English still puts indirect objects before direct objects, despite completely collapsing the distinction between dative and accusative even in the pronouns, is probably the source of your confusion. Just remember: In ditransitive verbs, the indirect object comes first, and that takes the dative in German.

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  • Fun fact: "Dative" is derived from the Latin verb "dare", which means "give" - the case in Latin was used to denote the benefactors/recipients of actions, as opposed to the agent or patient
    – No Name
    Aug 30, 2023 at 23:10

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