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In the lead-up to the last election in Germany in 2020 there were several articles that contained the headline:

Kann Scholz Kanzler?

(I have encountered other questions in exactly the same three-word grammatical form, but cannot recall them.)

Moving to the present, a headline in today's Spiegel Online is:

Kann Merz den Rechtspopulisten?

https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/news-des-tages-friedrich-merz-saporischschja-meta-und-kuenstliche-intelligenz-a-529e9046-2cbb-480e-bbf8-d539448c3d26

So my question is: Why not Kann Merz Rechtspopulist?

Feel free in your answer to address the following additional questions:

  • What is the missing transitive verb indicated by the accusative case or is den Rechtpopulisten in the dative?
  • Is the difference between the two headlines because Kanzler is a job and Rechtspopulist is not?
  • Are both formulations grammatical?

I have subsequently found two further examples:

Kann Flick Bundestrainer, haben sie sich in Deutschland gefragt,

https://www.derstandard.de/story/2000141225586/showdown-gegen-spanien-bleibt-deutschland-im-wm-rennen

Kann Ursula von der Leyen EU-Kommissionspräsidentin? https://www.idowa.de/politik/kann-ursula-von-der-leyen-eu-kommissionspraesidentin-1662525.html

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    I've never watched it, but in 2009 and again in 2012 there were two seasons of a "political casting show" called Ich kann Kanzler!. The phrase might have its origins there, and then "spread out" to similar phrases like "... kann Bundestrainer". Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 6:59

4 Answers 4

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You don't have to put too much tought into it as they are all ungrammatical. Kann Scholz Kanzler? was clearly chosen because of the alliteration.

To be grammatical, it must be:

Kann Scholz den Kanzler geben?

Kann Merz den Rechtspopulisten geben?

The relevant verb phrase is etwas geben — to play the role of something.

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  • The slight difference being that "Kanzler" is a job (I shy away from calling it a profession) - "right-winger" is not. It is a a state - of lacking morals and brains. The one you can do, the other you are. (In fact to be that you need to be unable to do a lot of things.)
    – bakunin
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 18:58
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    I don't think that matters in that phrasing. Or in any other A=B phrasing.
    – Janka
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 20:16
  • Thanks for your answer. Maybe the alliterative "Kann Scholz Kanzler?" was the first example of this usage and then others followed it (see my edit to my question). That said, I can understand the Scholz question (= Does he have it in him to be Kanzler?). But that interpretation makes less sense in the Merz example.
    – Shoe
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 5:41
  • Yet that's exactly what the phrase intends. It's ironical, trying to present "right-wing populist" as a kind of skill. Commented Oct 1, 2023 at 23:01
  • Kann Scholz den Kanzler geben is way worse than kann Scholz Kanzler. Also, the meaning isn't the same; the latter isn't limited to playing a role.
    – David Vogt
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 9:20
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Even if both of your examples are ungrammatical (they're missing an infinitive, so, no need to think about rules at all), one thought could apply:

To align with "Kann Scholz Kanzler", "Rechtspopulist" probably should actually be accusative, so your example should be "Kann Merz Rechtspopulisten?".

There's only one Kanzler (Bundestrainer, EU-Kommissionspräsidentin), so there is no need for a definite article, but (unfortunately) a lot more Rechtspopulisten. So, in order to make it clear that "Rechtspopulisten" is singular, they might have added the article. (And, admittedly, "Kann Scholz Rechtspopulisten?" would sound even more wierd).

Another thought would be "Kann x y?" could even be (somewhat) acceptable in an actor/theatre/role situation where you'd ask "Kann Schmitz den König Lear?", i.e. in a situation where x plays a role which gives yet another twist to the headline.

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  • There is no need to postulate a missing infinitive, as können also combines with an accusative: nichts/etwas/alles, Französisch, Tango, Karate, den Dreisatz, die Vokabeln, Kunststücke können.
    – David Vogt
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 16:05
  • Ein Test für akkusativ oder nicht wäre ein zu beugendes Adjektiv einzufügen (deutscher Bundeskanzler), wenn @janka nicht prinzipiel recht hätte, dass das sowieso kein standarddeutsch ist. Ob es andere Kanzler geben kann, ist theoretisch offen. Daran geht die Antwort recht praxisorientiert vorbei. Wirklich akkusativ wäre: Der frühe Vogel kann mich mal. worauf der dritte Absatz letzter Satz anspielt; vielleicht auch nicht. Es wage ich mir zu vermuten.
    – vectory
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 17:36
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Basically, the construction is a so-called "Ellipse" (ellipsis): Some words are left out. This is a little bit artistic, and, in fact, here, a little bit a mockery. "Kann Merz Rechtspopulist?" would have been O.K. too.

Howere, in my own feelings, there's a litte difference between a "job" (Kanzler) and an "attitude" (Rechtspopulist).

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my question is: Why not Kann Merz Rechtspopulist?

The headlines of the form "Kann Scholz Kanzler" are a joke, which does not work so well when the advertised capability requires a more complex construction.

  • What is the missing transitive verb indicated by the accusative case or is den Rechtspopulisten in the dative?
  • Accusative geben or spielen.

    It is a common expression in the theatre, e.g. den Hitler geben or Hitler spielen. In that case it is obvious that nobody wants to really become Hitler.

    In colloquial speech the meaning is broader, ein gutes Bild abgeben, eine bedeutende Rolle spielen, sich irgendwie aufführen, den Betroffenen mimen etc.

    It is not always clear to which extent such phrasing developed wider semantics out of the theater or, conversely, had existed earlier to develop a narrow sense in theater. To amend the text with “spielen” is not necessarily negative, but it very well might imply that politics is a game show.

  • alternative: none

    Motivations for brevity are various. Headlines have a high demand for brevity. Colloquial speech might be reductive when no specific standard verb to complete the sentence exists.

    Können is known to work as a full verb: "ich kann Deutsch." This appears to stem from its relation with kennen and it might mean “speak” as such. This is relevant in acting where a large part of the job is memorizing lines. So one might say: Er kann den Faust (indeed, German vortragen "to recite, present" is compatible with to portrait both phonologically and, for what it's worth, semantically). This also holds in politics: Er kann Verkehrsrecht. It can be extended to groups of people: Er kann sowohl Rap als auch Schlager ... (quotation needed).

    One could not until recently say, "Ich kann Fahrrad [fahren]". Now one can "Cloud", for example. That's definitely a broader phenomenon.

    • By the way: English memes are borrowed into German in a similar way: laughs in French ~ lacht auf Französisch translates very well, but laughs in Computer are intentionally absurd. This comes in part from image macros of closed captions to verbalize audible contextual clues in movies (it seems).
  • Is the difference between the two headlines because Kanzler is a job and Rechtspopulist is not?

I don't really think so. It appears to be a matter of style.

Kanzler is a title. For example, when Ratzinger was elected pope, news papers titled Wir sind Papst. This is alluding to achievements, like Weltmeister sein.

Corollary: For an actor to embody a role to the point that one might say he has become Death can be the ultimate compliment, a title indeed. As said, this isn't always desirable.

Rechtspopulist may be in a different typological category because it is not a unique position, though it could be used in a rigid hierarchy as title such as chief propagandist "Reichspropagandaleiter" Josef Göbbels.

It is a label, but still, somebody could embody the respective qualities in the genre to the point of becoming the role model. I guess this might be implied. The more or less obvious allusion to Kanzler could point to plans for Friedrich Merz to enter in or meddle otherwise in elections.

Corollary: That's speculation and the news are wise to be as reserved as possible.

That said, the most striking difference between the headlines is in the morphosemantics: to have a good command of alt-right rhetoric is a capability, which can be described by a topic noun in a kann-construction. So the phrase Kann Merz Rechtspopul[…] would be emended with the uncountable noun Rechtspopulismus. This I'm sure is an entirely different type of noun from Kanzler.

However, that is not the question. The choice of accusative, “den Rechtspopulisten”, is a natural alternative which sounds classy. It appeals to the conservative reader by use of more conservative grammar, so to speak.

  • Are both formulations grammatical?

No, Scholz kann Kanzler is not correct. It cannot be negated. Compare Ich kann kein Deutsch, ich habe den Faust nicht auswendig drauf, was kann ich überhaupt:

Ich kann [nicht/kein] Kanzler.

Ich kann Kanzler [nicht].

It is possibly acceptable in a different word order:

? Kanzler kann er überhaupt nicht.

What I'm trying to say is that the variation is computationally too expensive to be easily digestible. Remoteness of constituent parts in a sentence (tree diagram) can inhibit understanding: "For instance, particle verbs in English don't like to have verb and particle separated too far." (@GregLee in response to @JKnappen on linguistics.SE, What constitutes a Long Distance Dependency, and how can it be quantified?; the other answer speaking of a parasitic “gap” might be relevant, but I am not a linguist by any means).


Even if we accept one form, which is fairly simple, the analogy to another form does not always work.

To me it feels like -rechts- is enough to separate populist from the verb kann. This becomes more obvious when negation is amended.

Further discussion exceeds my ability, to be honest. Especially the homophony of inf. and acc. -en is confusing. The notion that there are different types to be analyzed for Kanzler and den Rechtspopulisten or, as I would argue, den recht[est]en Populisten, is well meaningful.


regarding the additional examples

  • Kann Flick Bundestrainer, haben sie sich in Deutschland gefragt,
  • Kann Ursula von der Leyen EU-Kommissionspräsidentin?

These may be emended with a comma. Apposition is quite common with titles and the comma is optional as are other typographies.

Frau von der Leyen (EU-Kommissionspräsidentin) hat gestern ...

In this view, the Matrix clause is elliptic:

Kann Frau von der Leyen […]?

Such constructions exist: ich kann nicht mehr; kann er denn [du weißt schon …]?, könnten Sie vielleicht [zur Abwechslung mal behilflich sein, aus dem Weg gehen]? etc. (also Englisch: Could you …; Could you not?)

This doesn't work when Hansi Flick isn't Bundestrainer yet (he became coach of the national team in the same year the quote is from). One would have to ask, wird er Bundestrainer [werden]? Wird er ein Populist werden?


Nur eine Randnotiz ist an der Stelle das eher kindersprachliche darf ich die Marmelade, kann ich ein Eis. Jüngst stand übrigens "Darf er so?" zur Wahl als Jugendwort des Jahres.

Darf Merz rechts-...? Ist eh subjektiv. Die einen rufen ja, die andern sagen HDF!

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  • Thank you for the effort you have put into answering my question. I appreciate your insights on the issue. I didn't quite get what you meant by "These may be emended with a comma. Apposition in the Nachfeld is quite common with titles and the comma is optional as are other typographies." If you could explain this section I would be most grateful.
    – Shoe
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 8:33
  • de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apposition but I am not sure if this always Nachfeld
    – vectory
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 9:06
  • Thanks. I get the concept of apposition, which is pretty similar in English and German, but I'm not clear how apposition applies to the German sentences I cite in my question.
    – Shoe
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 12:30
  • 5here's not much to understand. "Kann Scholz?" is a well formed question. The apposotion usually applies to the Subjekt, equivalent to determinative title Kanzler Scholz. In the given case it is adverbial to modify the Verbal Phrase but not inflected. On the surface level the analytic construction is similar to a more synthetic den X-en [machen], which is inflected for case. This is very different on the syntax level, yielding an oblique object to a transitive verb. In fusional languages like German the outcome is usually lexicalized something like Affen machen (go ape shit).
    – vectory
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 19:12
  • A similar problem regarding inflection is variation in dating Montag, der/den/dem. One might ask "Kannst du [am] Montag?", "Kannst du Montag, [_/den/dem] 13.[er/en/en] Mai?". 1, 2 3
    – vectory
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 19:25

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