Nominative/Accusative Ambiguity

Because the nominative and accusative are identical except for masculine singular, I have thought about how this could create an ambiguity.

To use the example from Anja's video (

Der Hund beißt den Mann

Den Mann beißt der Hund

The subject/object distinction is clearly defined by the cases of the articles.

But what if I change the genders?

Die Katze beißt die Frau

Die Frau beißt die Katze

In this example, the cases have the same forms - how is problem this resolved? Do we rely on word order to distinguish between subject and object, as in English, or is it just ambiguous, and I am left to determine from context, that it makes for more sense for the cat to be doing the biting?

February 18, 2019


Yeah, in 99% of all cases, in order to figure out Germans would apply this fallback assumption: the regular order is subject, predicate, object. Like in English.

Btw. In all Indo European languages accusative and nominative neuter nouns look the same. So this ambiguity is not a specific German problem.

February 18, 2019


February 22, 2019 in English

you get the same thing in spoken English: Is I said the sparrow
"I", said the sparrow,
or: I said, "The sparrow"


February 18, 2019

That's not really the same thing. I meant assuming S-V-O word order as the default, as is done in English.

February 22, 2019

Also, in addition to the other responses: intonation can help with the meaning (only in spoken form, obviously).

  • Let's say, person A says "Die Katze beißt die Frau" (The cat bites the woman).

  • But person B didn't quite understand and asks "Wen beißt die Katze?" (Who does the cat bite?).

  • Then person A answers "Die Frau beißt die Katze", (It's the woman that the cat bites) and here, you would somehow emphasize Die Frau, (the woman). I can't think of other situations in daily life where you would chose this rather strange and confusing structure. But in this particulat case, I've actually heard it being said in that way.

February 19, 2019
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