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I have read the following example in https://www.wordreference.com/deen/bewusst :

Der Patient muss sich bewusst sein, dass er ab jetzt sein Leben ändern muss.

English translation:

The patient must be aware that he has to change his life from now on.

What's the meaning of "sich" in this German sentence? The reflexive meaning does not make sense with "sein" "(equivalent to "to be"), as one cannot take the action of being to himself.

Is "sich bewusst sein" just an expression that must be learned without looking at the meaning of individual words? Or can the "sich" be dropped?

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    Your example can be rephrased without sich: Dem Patienten muss bewusst sein, .... I consider this as better anyway.
    – guidot
    Commented May 12 at 7:33
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    @guidot: I think a sentence with the dass-clause as the subject and the former subject turned into a dative object might be even more confusing. Commented May 12 at 11:56
  • As a German learner in intermediate level, I confirm that this sentence without a subject is even more confusing. Commented May 12 at 15:31

3 Answers 3

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What's the meaning of "sich" in this German sentence? The reflexive meaning does not make sense with "sein" "(equivalent to "to be"), as one cannot take the action of being to himself.

Why not? "to be aware" is a non-reflexive action in English, but "sich bewußt sein" is a reflexive action in German - and the "sich" is the token of this reflexiveness.

Ich bin mir bewußt, daß [...] - I am aware of [...]
Du bist Dir bewußt, daß [...] - You are aware of [...]
Er/sie/es ist sich bewußt, daß [...] - He/she/it is aware of [...]

etc.

Notice that "bewußt" is not a Verb itself but an Adjektiv/Adverb, like "aware". Used as an Adverb it means "knowingly" or "purposefully":

Er macht das bewußt auf diese Art. He does it like this on purpose.

So, he knows it could be done differently but does it like this for a (maybe hidden?) reason.

Also notice that the meaning of "bewußt" and "aware" are not completely analogous: there is a Nomen "Bewußtsein", which can mean "awareness", but also "consciousness".

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  • DWDS gives a paradigm for the grammar: "sich [Dativ] einer Sache bewusst sein, werden". Adjectives don't normally take a reflexive pronoun in English or German. I'm not sure if you'd call it a fixed phrase or not, but to me this is an exceptional case. Despite the form, bewusst is not a participle, so grammatically it's just an adjective. (FWIW, I gather the "bewußt" spelling is now superseded.)
    – RDBury
    Commented May 11 at 21:48
  • It's not that singular. There are other examples like "sich einig sein", "sich unsicher sein". Commented May 11 at 22:19
  • "bewusst" ist an adjective, not an adverb!
    – Alazon
    Commented May 12 at 8:08
  • @Alazon: "bewußt" can be both (like most Adjektiva) and in "bewußt sein" it is used as an Adverb.
    – bakunin
    Commented May 12 at 11:16
  • I see you define "reflexive verb" as a verb that takes a reflexive pronoun, regardless if the meaning is reflexive or not. I initially got confused because I understood "reflexive verb" as the use of a transitive verb when the subject and object of the sentence are the same (and there is no object when the copula verb "sein" is used), but I got it now. Some verbs and verb expressions without reflexive meaning require "sich" in German and a learner of the language must simply memorize them. Commented May 12 at 15:20
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The verb phrase bewusst sein can be used in two different ways. Compare:

Die Nebenwirkungen müssen dem behandelden Arzt bewusst sein.

Der behandelde Arzt muss sich der Nebenwirkungen bewusst sein.

That sich acts as a dative object so it tells who has to bear the result. Who is the receiver of the awareness. This is what you very much want to emphasize in this context.

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  • The 1st example doesn't make sense to me. IIUC it says the side-effects are aware of something, but the intended meaning is that the doctor is aware of them. If you want the side-effects as subject of the sentence, wouldn't "Die Nebenwirkungen müssen dem behandelnden Arzt bekannt sein" make more sense ? Commented May 12 at 14:36
  • That is just the same with another adjective. There is a verb bekennen, that's true. But that bekannt in your example has a very different meaning from the Partizip II of bekennen — to confess. Compare: Er hat sich zu seiner Schuld bekannt. You can't even build a passive voice sentence for this because there's no way to be confessed. And again, there's this extra sich in there. Puzzling.
    – Janka
    Commented May 12 at 15:43
  • I think your problem is that you translate bewusst with aware while you translate bekannt with known. It doesn't work this way as the logic of those phrases differs from the English logic.
    – Janka
    Commented May 12 at 15:49
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Two grammatical construction patterns meet here, which I would first like to explain separately:

1. Kopula mit prädikativem Adjektiv

copula with predicative adjective

A copula (plural: copulas or copulae) is a verb that does not express an action but couples (binds) something to the subject. These are the three most important German copulas:

  • sein

    Hans ist Diabetiker.
    Du bist groß.

  • bleiben

    Ihr bleibt Schüler.
    Wir blieben gesund.

  • werden

    Sandra wird Mutter.
    Ich werde hungrig.

Translations:

Hans is diabetic.
You are tall.
You remain pupils.
We stayed healthy.
Sandra becomes a mother.
I am getting hungry.

What is bound to the subject is either a noun or an adjective. In rare cases, an adverb can also be bound to the subject ("Ich bin hier" = "I stay here") and a noun phrase can always be used instead of a single noun ("Ihr bleibt viele fleißige Schüler" = "You remain many diligent students"). It is important to note that what is bound to the subject by the copula is not an object. It is part of the predicate according to the definition of the term "predicate" used in German grammar.

"Predicate" in English grammar: All parts of a sentence that do not belong to the subject. In particular, all objects are counted as part of the predicate in English grammar.
"Predicate" in German grammar: All parts of the sentence that belong directly to the verb. If something is an object, it does not belong to the predicate.

If a copula binds an adjective to the subject, this is called a "copula with predicative adjective" ("Kopula mit prädikativem Adjektiv")

The fact that the adjective is part of the (German) predicate also means that this adjective and the copula behave together in the same way as an ordinary verb. The copula and adjective together form a verb-like unit.

2. Echt reflexive Verben

genuinely reflexive verbs

In English, many transitive verbs can be used reflexively, and this is also the case in German:

I wash my car.
Ich wasche mein Auto.

I wash myself.
Ich wasche mich.

In German grammar, when a transitive verb is used reflexively, it is sometimes also called "uneigentlich reflexiv" or "unecht reflexiv" ("pseudo reflexive"). But there are verbs in the German language that always have to be used reflexively without a transitive use being possible:

Peter schämt sich.
Ich freue mich des Lebens.

Translations:

Peter is ashamed.
I rejoice in life.

Such genuinely reflexive verbs do not exist in many other languages, including English. On the one hand, this often causes problems in learning and understanding them if you have only spoken languages in which the reflexive nature of verbs is only a variant of transitivity; on the other hand, it is also difficult to translate genuinely transitive verbs into a language that does not have this feature. You then always have to resort to other constructions, as I just did.

3. Echte Reflexivität bei Kopula mit prädikativen Adjektiven

True reflexivity in copulas with predicative adjectives

The two phenomena described above can also occur together, and this is even relatively common: a copula and an adjective behave together like an ordinary verb, and this verb is genuinely reflexive, i.e. it necessarily requires the use of a reflexive pronoun.

Here are some examples:

  • Sich sicher sein

    Ich bin mir sicher, dass das die beste Entscheidung ist.

  • Sich schuldig fühlen

    Er fühlt sich schuldig wegen des Unfalls.

  • Sich klar werden

    Ich muss mir über meine Ziele klar werden.

  • Sich gewiss sein

    Sie ist sich ihrer Sache gewiss.

And of course also:

  • Sich bewusst sein

    Sie ist sich der Konsequenzen bewusst.

Translations:

I am sure that this is the best decision.
He feels guilty about the accident.
I need to be clear about my goals.
She is sure of herself.
She is aware of the consequences.

In all of these cases, the use of a reflexive pronoun is mandatory in the German sentence, but must be omitted in the English translation since there are no genuinely reflexive verbs in English.

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  • My whole confusion is indeed that in English reflexive pronouns always indicate a reflexive action and they are always used with transitive verbs when the subject and the object of the sentence are the same. In German, there is no reflexive meaning in these "genuinely reflexive verbs", we must just memorize that "sich" is required. Commented May 12 at 15:21
  • @AlanEvangelista: I disagree that there is no reflexive meaning for these verbs. As a German native speaker, I have a very strong reflexive sense in sentences like Ich freue mich. Der Unfall ereignet sich. Ich habe mich erkältet. Du irrst dich. etc. Whenever I want to express something like that in English, I feel sad that I can't convey this reflexive emotion in English. In most cases, it is also possible to use a non-reflexive version of the same sentence in German (Ich bin glücklich. Der Unfall ist passiert. Ich bin erkältet. Sie haben Unrecht.) But this ... Commented May 12 at 17:14
  • ... feels weaker because there is something missing that I want to express. Perhaps you don't feel the lack of this possibility because you're not used to having this additional way of expressing yourself. Commented May 12 at 17:14

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