1. Could the arguments of German verbs be in the form of prepositional phrases? In other words, can prepositional phrases serve as arguments of the verbs, or do they always play adverbial roles and are to be classified as adjuncts?

  2. Assuming that prepositional phrases can indeed be arguments of verbs: When a prepositional phrase is an argument, how are the cases of its constituents determined? Do all the constituents are licensed by the head preposition alone?

I was wondering if there is a "hierarchical supremacy of case licensers" in German, unambiguously dictating which of the case licensers must operate in a given situation. Within the prepositional phrase, should it be the head preposition that licenses the cases to its immediate constituents? Notably, I assume that within prepositional phrases, the verbs, being “masked” by the prepositional head, would not be allowed to license the cases. Am I correct?

If head prepositions are the sole case licensers of the constituents of prepositional phrases, then the case markers of the constituents should not be interpreted "syntactically." I think, in this situation, the case markers encode lexical information (excluding prepositions that can be followed by either dative or accusative case where the case markers could be interpreted as encoding semantic information such as movement). Now, if the prepositional phrase is functioning as an argument (assuming a positive response to the initial question), how can we determine its syntactic role? Is it only through semantic considerations that such syntactic roles can be determined (for example, by examining the verb and observing that it requires a direct object, and then identifying the prepositional phrase with the syntactic role that aligns)? Of course, the sentence word order can also help in determining the syntactic role of the phrase.

  • 3
    The best (in my opinion) practical reference for all things valence theory related in German is Elektronisches Valenzwörterbuch deutscher Verben on the Grammis website. If you filter on verbs whose compliment includes prepositional phrases over a thousand entries are listed.
    – RDBury
    Commented Apr 25 at 16:56
  • Thank you very much for your comment and for introducing the website. Commented Apr 25 at 19:37

1 Answer 1


Prepositional phrases can be arguments, in German and in English alike. However, in the grammar of German, "adverbial" is not defined as an adjunct – rather, it is defined as a constituent of the clause for which the verb does not select a grammatical feature (like a case). So, adverbials can be case-marked noun phrases, but such a case appears by itself, it is free case (or "semantic case") instead of governed case. In contrast to that, you are dealing with an object, if the case is governed by the verb.

Now, there are also "prepositional objects", i.e. objects introduced by a preposition. They are called objects because the preposition is selected by the verb (like a case feature is selected with other objects): e.g. "auf jemanden warten" (wait for someone); the "auf" cannot be replaced by any other preposition. So this is not an adverbial, it is an object because it has a grammatical feature that is governed (the preposition itself is that feature).

Adjuncts are of course the typical instances of adverbials. But an argument (in the sense of a complement that is semantically required) can also be an adverbial, when it is free to take any form. An example would be a phrase with directional meaning – with movement verbs, the directional is semantically needed (it is an argument), but the preposition can be chosen freely. So you could not call it a prepositional object in that system, it is an adverbial (and an argument at the same time). At least this is the usual system in German grammar, I am not sure wether the same definition would be given in the grammar of English. See the references in https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adverbiale_Bestimmung , especially in the section https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adverbiale_Bestimmung#Adverbial,_Angabe_und_Erg%C3%A4nzung ).

2. Correct, the preposition governs case in German. This case is not governed by the verb, therefore. As said above, with a prepositional object like "warten auf jemanden", the preposition is selected by the verb, and the accusative case "jemand-en" is selected by the preposition. I would assume that dative or accusative government of "auf" will depend on the property of being a locative or directional preposition, and that this will be a feature that can be selected by the verb (but not the case). I am not aware of any proposals that make the verb directly responsible for such an accusative case (but who knows).

Syntactically prepositional objects follow dative and accusative objects in German, they are the arguments closest to the clause-final position of the verb. I think the same holds for obligatory adverbials / adverbial arguments. The semantic role of these arguments is defined by the verb and you can also predict their position, so there does not seem to be much difficulty in determining the function of such PPs in the clause

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    Would like to upvote this twice, very comprehensive.
    – Janka
    Commented Apr 25 at 18:57
  • @alazon: Thank you very much; I cannot describe in words how I am grateful to you. Your answer clarified everything for me. Even you answered the questions I had in mind but not asked. Thank you very much. Commented Apr 25 at 19:36
  • @Janka I fully agree with you. While upvoting twice is impossible, there is the option of giving a bounty. It is outrageous that an answer like this: german.stackexchange.com/a/76927/15393 got 25 upvotes, while at the same time true gems like the on here get so little attention.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Commented Apr 25 at 23:25
  • @JonathanScholbach, to me this is not outrageous but just a sign that this answer has a very niche audience. I for my part have no idea what the question or the answer are even about.
    – Carsten S
    Commented May 1 at 12:19
  • @CarstenS Maybe outrageous is too strong a word. Of course I agree with you that the number of points one receives for an answer results from a factor of (perceived) quality and size of the audience. I just wanted to express that it is a pity that a high-quality, very informative answer can get way fewer points than a mediocre one (like the one I linked).
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Commented May 1 at 20:30

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