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In Bertolt Brecht's, Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, Wang is looking for lodgings for the gods, when he says,

Das ist dumm. Der Herr Fo ist gerade nicht zu Hause, und seine Dienerschaft wagt nichts ohne seinen Befehl zu tun, da er sehr streng ist.

Er wird nicht wenig toben, wenn er erfährt, wen man ihm da abgewiesen hat, wie?

This phrase,

wen man ihm da abgewiesen hat

I think is saying, "who he has turned away." But I would have thought that would be written,

wen er da abgewiesen hat

Why was it written as it was, and what is the "man" doing there?

2 Answers 2

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Shorter sentence:

Er erfährt, wen man ihm abgewiesen hat.
He learns who he has been refused.

Without "ihm":

Er erfährt, wen man abgewiesen hat.
He learns who has been refused.

The part after the comma as a question:

Wen hat man abgewiesen?
Who has been refused?

This part as a statement:

Man hat jemanden abgewiesen.
Someone has refused someone.

The word »man« is the first »someone«, the word »jemand« is the second.

So, the word »man« names the person that decided to reject. This person is not closer determined, and the English word »someone« does exactly the same.


I think, what you confuses even more, is the word »ihm« (English: him) which is the dative form of the personal pronoun »er« (Englisch: he). This word exists in the sentence as a free dative. This means, it is not a mandatory object of the verb and it is also not the inner part of a prepositional phrase. This free dative is also called »dativus incommodi« and it indicates the party, that suffers from the action. The thing or person, that is named in a dativus incommodi is neither the cause of the action (this is here »man« or »somebody«), nor is it the thing or person that is the direct victim of the action (this is the rejected person). It is a third party or thing that indirectly bears the consequences.

Here is an example:

Barbara is the boss of a company. Martin is her human resources manager, and Simon has applied for a job in Barbara's company. Barbara knows Simon very well, and knows that he would be ideally suited for the open position. But she knows nothing about Simon's application, and Martin knows nothing about Simon's particular suitability. For some reason, Martin decides to reject Simon. But from Barbara's point of view, Simon would still have been the best choice for the vacant position. So Barbara also suffers from the fact that Martin rejected Simon.

Barbara wird sich sehr ärgern, wenn sie erfährt, wen Martin ihr da abgewiesen hat.
Barbara will be very upset when she finds out who Martin turned her away from.

Barbara wird sich sehr ärgern, wenn sie erfährt, wen man ihr da abgewiesen hat.
Barbara will be very upset when she finds out who someone turned her away from.

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  • Fantastically clear explanation of something I had not encountered before in German. I am very grateful.
    – user44591
    Sep 23, 2023 at 15:06
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    It's great that you have explained the use of dative here, but I don't think that your English translations for it are accurate.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 23, 2023 at 15:12
  • @CarstenS: I know, that my English is not perfect. I've done my best. Feel free to edit my answer and correct any errors. Sep 23, 2023 at 15:58
  • I don’t think that there are good direct translations. Normally I’d think that it’s best to just ignore the “ihm” in the translation, but of course that’s not very helpful here.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 23, 2023 at 17:30
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No, that isn't what it means.

  • wen – accusative object: whom (the person who was turned away)
  • man – nominative subject: one, someone, a person not specifically defined (the person who turned someone away)
  • ihm – dative object: to him (the person who was affected by the turning away, the one he was turned away from)

So the subclause means "whom someone turned away from him", "who was turned away from him". The speaker is worried that Herr Fo will be angry that someone turned someone away from him who shouldn't have been turned away.

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  • Thank you for a good explanation, but it doesn't make clear to me in what circumstances I may expect to see similar constructs in German, so I do not understand how to use it.
    – user44591
    Sep 23, 2023 at 15:07
  • @user44591 What part of the "construct" confuses you? The accusative object, the subject, the dative object? To me as a native speaker there is nothing special about that construct, it is an ordinary use of all these grammatical features.
    – wonderbear
    Sep 23, 2023 at 19:35
  • Unfortunately, there is nothing in English to which I can relate this construction. That is to say, being an English speaker, I have no idea how to use this construction. The closest English to which I can compare does not include an indefinite reference to the person who does the turning away, so why one would include that, whether that component is necessary, optional, or conditionally required, etc., etc., I have no idea.
    – user44591
    Sep 23, 2023 at 23:38
  • @user44591 Does it help to translate "man" to "someone"? "… when he finds out whom someone turned away from him" I realize that "man" is a pronoun with no good equivalent in English, but it really doesn't mean anything special in this sentence that it doesn't mean elsewhere too.
    – wonderbear
    Sep 24, 2023 at 10:58

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