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Grammar and variation in the classroom: A roadmap for a qualified solution to grammatical cases of doubt in contemporary German



Grammar is the structural foundation of successful communication, language use, and literacy development. Grammar is therefore sometimes viewed as the heart of language with an important place in language teaching. In a classroom setting, regulation of grammar knowledge through teachers is strongly influenced by teachers' linguistic competence and beliefs. In this paper, we will first show the diversity in this knowledge by means of teacher interviews and speeded grammatical-acceptability data from pupils and students. We will then sketch a socio-and psycholinguistic perspective on several selected morphosyntactic variables in German. These will be discussed with reference to social forces that determine what is standard in a language (language norm authorities, language experts, model texts, and codifiers). Finally, we will draw a roadmap for teachers, language practitioners and editors looking for a qualified solution to grammatical cases of doubt in contemporary German and provide practical examples by drawing upon the German reference corpus.
Grammar and variation in the classroom: a roadmap for a qualified
solution to grammatical cases of doubt in contemporary German
Vít Dovalil1,2, Adriana Hanulíková2
1Department of Germanic Studies, Charles University Prague
2Department of German, University of Freiburg
Adriana Hanulíková: 0000-0001-9010-4185
Vít Dovalil: 0000-0002-3982-8206
Abstract: Grammar is the structural foundation of successful communication, language
use, and literacy development. Grammar is therefore sometimes viewed as the heart of
language with an important place in language teaching. In a classroom setting, regulation
of grammar knowledge through teachers is strongly influenced by teachers’ linguistic
competence and beliefs. In this paper, we will first show the diversity in this knowledge
by means of teacher interviews and speeded grammatical-acceptability data from pupils
and students. We will then sketch a socio- and psycholinguistic perspective on several
selected morphosyntactic variables in German. These will be discussed with reference to
social forces that determine what is standard in a language (language norm authorities,
language experts, model texts, and codifiers). Finally, we will draw a roadmap for
teachers, language practitioners and editors looking for a qualified solution to
grammatical cases of doubt in contemporary German and provide practical examples by
drawing upon the German reference corpus.
Keywords: variation, standard variety, norm, social actors, grammaticality judgments,
grammatical cases of doubt, teaching German grammar
1 Introduction
The oral and written form of language used in instruction at school often leads to tension
with respect to norms and standardization in many language communities. As an
illustration, the German secondary school curriculum stipulates that pupils should be able
(amongst others) to correctly form syntactic and lexical structures, to develop strategies
for writing in accordance with norms, and to be able to clarify cases of doubt
(Bildungsplan des Gymnasiums, 2016: 41, 56). In compliance with the educational
standards for the German language, pupils are expected to use the standard language and
to pay attention to successful communication and thus to the effect of their language
actions (Beschlüsse der Kultusministerkonferenz, 2004: 8). Likewise, in the Dutch
educational context, “nearly all teachers talk about how well they are aware that Standard
Dutch is expected from them” (Delarue & Lybaert, 2016: 250). These expectations and
the classroom practices may sometimes clash, not only because there are many
misconceptions about the norm and standard. Interestingly enough, secondary school
curricula in German-speaking countries such as Germany, Switzerland or Luxembourg
do not specify which kind of Standard German should be taught (Davies et al., 2014: 8).
Many teachers, who are expected to act as (or like?) norm authorities, often face
difficulties in handling language variation in general and cases of doubt in particular.1
These cases of doubt are conceptualized as cases where a unified opinion on
conformity of concrete variants with standard norms does not necessarily exist, and
where even competent speakers repeatedly have difficulties in making appropriate
decisions and in using the most appropriate variants (Klein, 2018: 1-11, see also
Dürscheid, 2011). The existence of the cases of doubt is an expression of general
variation of languages, which does not mean that any variation would necessarily result
in cases of doubt. The doubt is caused by the effect of two or more variants being broadly
functionally equivalent. With respect to an educational context, cases of doubt are loaded
by normative expectations (exclusive monovariant solutions, sharp dichotomy of correct
and wrong). This goes hand in hand with the fact that doubts represent problems pertinent
especially to written text production (Klein, 2018: 12-13, 21-23) and its evaluation.
Competent speakers such as teachers or editors may treat only seemingly inappropriate
variants as mistakes. A competent speaker refers to someone who is aware of variation
and of the selection of an adequate variant for various text types (Köpcke, 2011: 301;
Klein, 2018: 21). In language communities with a detailed and long tradition of
codification, these aspects reflect on the existence of standard language ideology with its
simplistic right-versus-wrong perspective (Köpcke, 2011: 302). This ideology usually
leads to a long-term insecurity on the part of those language users who are exposed to
such teaching practices. This may result in deformed attitudes towards language variation
(Klein, 2018: 28-34).
A bulk of studies dealing with norms and grammar variation in the classroom
settings has focused on the social and didactic challenges that teachers face in language
classes and how these can be improved (e.g., Vesper, 2007; Hennig & Müller, 2009;
Davies & Langer, 2014; Plewnia & Witt, 2014; Maitz, 2015; Davies et al., 2017;
Ransmayr & Vasylchenko, 2019; Nygård & Brøseth, 2021; Rothstein et al., 2021; Elsner,
2021). These contributions show that continuous grammar teaching is important and
improves explicit long-term grammar knowledge of the pupils. On the one hand, there are
numerous cases of doubt that pupils (and others) stumble upon. On the other hand, norms
and recommendations change over the years, resulting in diversity with respect to
linguistic knowledge and use.
Related to Germany, substantial gaps in pupils’ language competence and literacy
skills (among others) – as revealed by the PISA results – led to heated education policy
discussions (Waldow, 2009; Imhof, 2005). Reflections on teachers’ education and
competence were at times included in such discussions (Imhof, 2005; Rothstein et al.
2014; Rothstein et al., 2021).
One aspect of such discussions concerns the way how teachers vary in their
grammar correction practices and often lack the necessary knowledge about language
variation in order to foster pupils’ grammar skills. Rothstein et al. (2014: 36) categorize
the future teachers’ metalinguistic knowledge of German grammar as a “catastrophe”.
Though a more mitigated picture across different studies in Germany and Switzerland can
be found in Felfe (2020: 346), it is out of dispute for the German educational context, that
teacher education in the field of linguistics needs substantial and sustainable
improvements (e.g., Rothstein et al. 2014; Felfe, 2020; Rothstein et al., 2021). The school
curricula and the university education are focused on literary texts and analysis, while the
linguistic competence of the future teachers usually plays a comparatively smaller role.
Hence, the linguistic knowledge of the future teachers may not meet all expectations
posed by the educational standards and be largely dependent on an individuals’ personal
commitment to linguistic issues.
Given that practicing teachers rarely have the necessary time to find suitable
opportunities to obtain further linguistic qualifications, the aim of this paper is to provide
a few ways showing teachers, language practitioners as well as editors how to extend
their linguistic knowledge. We will first provide some basic research background on
variation, norms and standards before turning to practical tips for a qualified solution to
grammatical cases of doubt in contemporary German. We intend to exemplify how
teachers handle various language problems on the one hand, and provide suggestions of
how these problems can be approached on the other hand. The paper does not aim at a
full linguistic analysis of those linguistic problems, nor can it provide a detailed
comparative research on language use in all German-speaking countries.
2 A few notes on standard(s), norms, and language variation
What is a standard variety? The traditional approach focusing on what variant is an
element of the standard variety draws upon a concept of language use according to which
the status of a variant such as standard or non-standard does not depend on contexts and
may be evaluated as an objective statement. Thus, instead of asking what is the standard
variety, we need to ask who decides about what is, or is not, an element of the standard
variety in interactions with whom, how this decision is made, in what social networks,
based on what intentions and interests, and under which circumstances (Dovalil, 2013b,
p. 165). When the concept of standard variety has to be analyzed appropriately as socially
conditioned, the relevant agents and their actions have to be identified. Such a socially
more realistic perspective concentrating on the agents and their behavior is offered by
Ammon (1995, pp. 80-82, 2003, and 2015, passim) who tries to answer this question by
identifying the relevant social forces. In his opinion, the norms of the standard variety are
constituted in mutual interactions among codifiers, norm authorities, model
speakers/writers, and linguists. Due to this broader foundation, it does not appear
adequate to rely on one source only (e.g. a specific grammar, dictionary, or handbook).
Following such an approach, the social actors and their decision-making processes related
to the cases of doubt are put in the foreground.
This methodological background makes it clear that language norms cannot be
taken for objectively existing entities, because they depend on social actors, their status,
influence and power relations. This means that an emphasis is placed on the nature of
norms being negotiated within interactions, consequently on the necessity to collect other
kinds of data in addition to those based on evidence of forms in corpora (language use),
their frequencies and correlations with various areas, text types, etc. According to this
qualitative approach, language norms cannot be derived from mere language use, without
taking metalinguistic activities (corrections, comments, evaluative remarks,
recommendations, etc.) of the relevant social actors (typically e.g. teachers or editors)
into account.
Norms represent mental entities with regulatory effects, which become
empirically observable in various discourses (e.g., corrections, recommendations,
sanctions). From the ontological point of view, norms are neither identical with mere
formulations in books (dictionaries, grammars, or other handbooks), nor with the
language use itself. If language users do not read the codification then the formulations
do not reach their consciousness and therefore do not become mental entities. This
means, unread formulations cannot bring about regulatory effects. More importantly,
norms reflect unequal influence and power relations of language users; they re/produce
such relations at the same time. Norms are indexical in nature, changeable in the course
of time and can be stabilized by unified repetition of the decision-making processes or
other patterns of negotiation.
The issue of frequencies as simple evidence for norm is viewed critically in our
approach. As Gloy (2004: 396) puts it, regularities can only be taken for legitimate
reference to norms. However, due to the fact that regularities may emerge not only
through complying with norms, but also in other ways, it is not necessary to infer from
regularities to norms.2 These high frequencies allow the linguists to formulate only a
preliminary hypothesis that remains to be proven. Logically, social phenomena or
patterns of behavior which happen relatively often do not have to correspond to norms
under all circumstances (for further discussion on why norms should not be mistaken
with highly frequent phenomena, see Dovalil, 2020b). Admittedly, the facticity itself, i.e.,
frequently occurring variants (or, more generally speaking, patterns of behavior) may
cause normative effects, but this does not have to be the case in all situations. Using cell
phones regularly when driving a car, crossing streets at a red light, or even shoplifting are
very common phenomena, but they do not comply with social norms. Analyzing (social
as well as language) norms necessarily means taking evaluative components of various
practices into consideration.
To iterate, we need to explore the metalinguistic activities conducted by the
relevant social actors to identify the norms. Next to the language use, these metalinguistic
activities pose the most relevant source of data. For this reason, it is important to provide
teachers, language practitioners as well as editors with a roadmap to an adequate
understanding of norms and standard varieties. By doing so, the clash between the
expectations posed by the educational standards and teachers’ practices may be mitigated.
3 Grammar knowledge and regulation of knowledge: two methodological
There are different variants one can encounter in the oral and written usage. For example,
the English phrase ‘with old yellow material’ can be expressed by two structural variants
in German: mit altem gelbem Stoff or mit altem gelben Stoff (Nübling, 2011). Similarly,
the phrase ‘the woman waved’ can be expressed as die Frau hat gewunken or die Frau
hat gewinkt. Many linguists, teachers as well as pupils show insecurity when asked
whether all or some of these phrases comply with written norms (e.g., Dovalil, 2006;
Zahradníček, 2009; Davies et al., 2014; Lehmkühler, 2015). A teacher needs to convey
which of the two options may be used in what context, and whether there are further
possible variants. But what if teachers themselves are in doubt? As a matter of principle,
they can consult a grammar or ask their colleagues and get a piece of information
quickly. However, depending on the grammar, the recommendations might substantially
differ. Moreover, studies using questionnaires or interview techniques imply that even
teachers differ with respect to their knowledge of norms and their correction practices
(e.g., Davis & Langer, 2014; Knipf-Komplósi, 2018; Dovalil, 2011).
To know how specific grammar knowledge is transmitted, or intervened in, by
teachers and to understand the challenges these teachers face, Lehmkühler (2015) asked
teachers how they behave as norm authorities towards cases of doubt in German. Her
research seeks to map patterns of solving selected grammatical problems by German
teachers in a southern region of Germany (Baden). This interest in specific patterns of the
behavior towards language was in the foreground, not the individual variants, which were
supposed to primarily illustrate more general relations. She relied on semi-structured
interviews, which turned out to be the only feasible possibility of collecting data. A more
valuable alternative to this method would have been the participant observation (for an
overview, see Lamnek, 2010: 498-581) of the teachersʼ decisions made directly in the
classrooms as well as observation of their correction of the pupilsʼ tests and homeworks.
On the other hand, semi-structured interviews render more valuable data than traditional
questionnaires, because the interviews allow the researchers to clarify obscure
formulations or to solve other problems that may emerge during the data collection.
One of the interview questions concerned the regulation of the case government
of the German preposition wegen ‘because of’. Should one use the genitive case and say
wegen des Regens, or should dative be used instead as in wegen dem Regen ‘because of
the rain’? While two teachers responded that it definitely should be genitive both in the
written and spoken contexts, two further teachers said that they do not correct the pupils
in the spoken context because most pupils would not get it anyway. They argued that they
were not meticulous, because from time to time they themselves use the dative form in
colloquial speech. All of the teachers considered genitive as the correct form that
corresponds to the norm.
A second question referred to the past participle of the verb winken ‘to wave’ and
the two variants gewunken und gewinkt ‘waved’. Most teachers provided categorical
responses, suggesting that there is only one correct form (gewunken). One of the teachers
said that she had experienced mockery because of her statement that gewinkt is the
correct form (Lehmkühler, 2015: 136-137, see also Dovalil, 2020a: 189-190). As will
become clear in section 5.1, this teacher's answer is in accordance with the codification,
although the dynamics of language change leads to less strict evaluation of other variants.
These few examples illustrate the divergence of teachers’ knowledge and
regulations and suggest that teachers as norm authorities at times act stricter than the
codification, and at other times the codification is stricter than their decisions.
Furthermore, it should be pointed out that there was a general sense of frustration or even
resignation in the teachers’ responses with respect to the social as well as didactic
challenges the teachers face (Lehmkühler, 2015). Overall, the interviews show that there
is just as much diversity in linguistic knowledge as there is in language forms. Having
said that, the interview data cannot be overestimated of course, because declared opinions
by the respective teachers do not need to correspond to the actual practices in the
Further evidence for variation in linguistic knowledge across 82 students and
pupils comes from speeded grammaticality judgements (Hanulíková, 2019), an
experimental task that resembles a classroom situation in which a teacher decides
whether a pupil’s utterance is or is not grammatically acceptable. Grammatical
acceptability judgments are among the most widely used experimental paradigms in the
domain of grammatical knowledge, linguistic evidence, and grammatical assessments.
Participants are usually asked to provide a categorical or a gradient judgment on a
sentence or an utterance and are often provided with a certain time window in which a
decision should be made. Hanulíková (2019) examined acceptability judgements of
morphosyntactic variation in German utterances as a function of speaker accent (regional
vs. standard) and listener background (students and pupils from different school types).
The accent manipulation was of a particular interest, since it has been long known that
teachers use speech style as an important social cue when they evaluate pupils (e.g.
Seligman, Tucker & Lambert, 1972; Choy & Dodd, 1976), though there are many further
cues such as gender, social class, ethnicity, and personality that may shape teachers’
beliefs and attitudes (for an overview, see e.g. Powel & Beard, 1986/2018). Perhaps
unsurprisingly, Hanulíková showed that there is substantial variation in the beliefs about
what is grammatically acceptable and that this variation is modulated by inter-individual
differences as well as by the perceived accent of the speaker.
For example, the regionally restricted or non-standard use of the relative pronoun
wo instead of die in phrases such as Die Party, wo wir besucht haben, war etwas seltsam
‘The party that we attended was a bit strange’ spoken in a standard German accent were
rated as grammatically acceptable by almost 20% of the university students, and by about
50% to 80% of the pupils from a high school and a vocational school respectively. In
contrast, the acceptability of the same utterances spoken in a regional accent dropped
significantly (by about 20 percentage points) across the two groups of pupils but not in
the group of students. All but students were influenced by the accent of the speaker and
rated dialectal variants more often as acceptable when produced by a standard speaker as
compared to the same variants spoken in a non-standard regional accent. Similarly,
standard variants were more often rated as grammatically unacceptable in a regional
accent compared to the standard accent. Interestingly, high school pupils showed the
most normative judgments when the speaker had a regional accent while students’
judgments appeared to follow their subjective normative expectations irrespective of the
speaker's accent.
Taken together, this study shows that in addition to the individuals’
morphosyntactic knowledge and beliefs about grammar, speaker accent co-determines
grammaticality judgements, in particular for listeners with limited linguistic background.
Thus, it’s not only the grammatical competence but also stereotypical beliefs about, and
attitudes towards, non-standard varieties that may lead to inappropriate interventions in
grammar knowledge. It is therefore imperative to raise more awareness for speech and
grammar variation within the educational setting.
Regardless of the diverse perceptions and evaluations of the cases of doubt and
grammatical variants, it remains the teacher’s task in the classrooms to make a decision
on doubtful cases. In order to make informed decisions, teachers might benefit from a
spectrum of approaches. As mentioned above, one quick way to get an answer on
doubtful cases is to ask another teacher, or to consult a grammar, though we have seen
that replies may substantially diverge. Additional sources of information are therefore
4 A roadmap for teachers
The question of who participates in processes of negotiating norms as a relevant social
actor has been answered by the model of social forces which determine what is standard
in a language (Ammon 2015). Drawing upon this model, we suggest four practical
solutions to resolve grammatical cases of doubt:
a) Consultation of codification (grammars, dictionaries or other handbooks) is quick
and relatively easy, since many resources are available online nowadays.
Codification poses a collection of language norm formulations, not of norms as
b) Reading scientific literature is very informative but may be rather complex.
Linguists provide other language users with expert opinions, which may differ
from the codification. Looking up suitable texts for respective language problems
may end up as time consuming. However, recommendations following from the
scientific literature are very valuable, going beyond the codification mentioned
c) Searching in corpora (or at least in web search engines) has become very popular
since the 1990s. The biggest corpus of the German language, the German
Reference Corpus (Deutsches Referenzkorpus, DeReKo), contains more than 50
billion tokens primarily stemming from newspapers. These extensive data are
publicly available; the registration of the users is free of charge. One of the many
advantages of DeReKo is the possibility of classifying the collected data according
to several tens of text types. This classification may be projected at least into the
stylistic differentiation between the spoken and written language.
d) Discussion with colleagues, experts, or language advice services is very quick and
useful. Language norm authorities may share various good practices in solving
language problems when they are expected to correct other users’ language
production. However, finding out how norm authorities handle the grammatical
cases of doubt, which variants they correct and which they do not is a very
challenging task. If compared to the three points mentioned above, analyses of the
decision-making processes on the part of the authorities are by far the most
difficult issue.
Ideally, one gets information from all these sources. In such a case – and particularly
when a general consensus is reached – the decision is very reliable. It means that experts’
opinions (b) correspond to what is codified (a), for what one can get convincing empirical
evidence in the relevant text types in the corpora (c) as well as to how other teachers
handle the grammatical cases of doubt (d). These four options illustrate how exactly the
theoretical model by Ammon (1995 as well as 2015) may be utilized for our needs. This
approach also explains the thesis of language norms being negotiated among relevant
social actors. The next section showcases several selected examples.
5 Showcases
5.1 Past participle of winken ‘to wave’
The German verb winken, including several prefixes (such as ab-, durch-, heran-, heraus-
, zu-), is mostly classified as a regular verb (see, e.g. Helbig/Buscha, 2001: 40), but this
categorization is regarded as undisputed for the form of preterit only. In the case of the
past participle, two variants occur in spoken and in written German. In detail, interesting
differences can be found in the codification. Surprisingly, the electronic dictionary Duden
(27.9.2021, categorizes this verb
explicitly as irregular(!), which looks confusing because the regular form gewinkt is listed
in the first place. The irregular form gewunken follows in italics and in brackets in the
second place. This order of prioritized forms is repeated in the grammatical section in
connection with the paradigm of the tenses (“gewinkt, auch: gewunken”). The irregular
forms with prefixes (durchgewunken and abgewunken) are evaluated as colloquial in this
online resource.
In contrast, the handbook of the cases of doubt (Duden 9, 2007: 1011) codifies the
verb as regular unequivocally. The form gewunken is commented on as colloquial.
Interestingly enough, Duden 4 (1998: 144) evaluated the irregular form gewunken
explicitly as non-standard. At the same time, the dynamics of the development in favor of
the irregular form – going beyond the use in dialects – was commented on. Such
comments opened less strict possibilities of evaluation of this form. The last edition of
this grammar allows for both variants without further comments (Duden 4, 2016: 505).
Valuable differentiation can be found in another electronic resource. The
Grammar of the variants of standard German (see Variantengrammatik des
Standarddeutschen, is
focused on the distribution of variants in different areas of the German-speaking territory
in Central Europe. This grammar states that the forms of the past participle can be created
both as regular and as irregular variants, the form gewunken being mostly used outside
the territory of Switzerland (see Figure 1). Based on the DeReKo corpus, transparent
overviews with maps containing detailed diagrams of regional distribution as well as
figures of frequencies of the competing forms are easily accessible at
Figure 1: Relative frequency of occurrence of the variants gewinkt (blue) and gewunken
(red) in German-speaking areas. The light circles indicate that there are insufficient data
This scope of description brings a great amount of detailed information. At the same
time, it may give rise to new challenges for dealing with normativity in teaching practice,
because it opens spaces for turning this descriptive approach into its prescriptive
counterpart, quite independently of, or even against, the original goals of codifiers and
A cursory search in the biggest corpus of German (without prefixes, stylistic or
any other qualitative variation herein) suggests that the ratio of the frequency of the
variant gewunken to that of the variant gewinkt is 1884:1201 (27.9.2021, Deutsches
Referenzkorpus).3 From a purely quantitative point of view, it could be argued that the
irregular form cannot be neglected and simply disqualified as non-standard.
Expert opinions heading towards the evaluation of both variants as approximately
equal standard can also be found (e.g., Zahradníček, 2009: 148-149, Dovalil, 2006: 92-
93, 120-123, and 173-174).
The extent to which teachers in schools correct both competing variants can be
exemplified by a set of interviews recorded and analyzed by Lehmkühler (2015). As
described in section 3, these data indicate considerable heterogeneity in their practices.
There is some evidence for corrections in both directions: gewinkt is corrected in favor of
gewunken and vice versa (Lehmkühler, 2015: 110-111 and 136-137).
5.2 Structures tun ‘to do’ + infinitive
Unlike the previous grammatical variable, the use of the verb tun ‘to do’ in complex
predicates with a full verb is described in grammars of contemporary German relatively
uniformly. Generally speaking, the use of this structure in written texts is quite rare.
However, a reliable common denominator of the codification consists in the fact that
using the full verb in the emphatic position at the very beginning of a sentence before the
finite form of tun can be viewed as standard, as e.g. Trinken tut/tat er nicht ‘He does/did
NOT drink’ (capital letters denote phrasal stress) (Duden 4, 2016: 435; Duden 9, 2007:
892; Engel, 1996: 476; see also
F%C3%BCgungen). Other variants, in which the finite tun would be used as auxiliary
verb, are considered as non-standard. This applies both to the forms of indicative and
subjunctive mood in such structures in which this finite tun would precede the infinitive
of the full verb (i.e. er tut/tat/täte nicht trinken ‘He does/did/would not drink’). The use
of tun in the subjunctive mood is exclusively realized by means of the auxiliary würde in
standard German. Interestingly, however, Hanulíková (2019: 209) has shown that pupils
attending a vocational school rated the non-standard subjunctive variant spoken by a
standard German speaker twice as often as grammatically acceptable relative to high
school pupils and students. Given that these respondents come from southern Germany, it
should be pointed out that the tun-structure is used in southern areas of the German-
speaking territory (including Austria as well as Switzerland) more often than in the north.
Regardless of this, the tun + infinitive is typical for spoken contexts in any case
(Brinckmann & Bubenhofer, 2011).
To put it ex negativo, general dismissing of this construction as non-standard does
not seem entirely appropriate (Erben, 1969; Brinckmann & Bubenhofer, 2011;
Schwitalla, 2006). From the functional sentence perspective’s point of view, it fills in a
gap in German sentences in which the lexical function connected with the full verb is
supposed to be emphasized. This goes hand in hand with the marked word order in which
the rheme precedes the theme. In analogy, this emphasis is possible in various structures
with modal verbs (TRINken würde/muss/te man IMmer WIEder ‘One would/has to/had to
DRINK ONCE aGAIN’) or with participles (geTRUNken hat/te er NICHTS ‘He has/had
not DRUNK ANYthing’).
5.3 Declension of two or more adjectives as attributes in nominal phrases without
Nominal phrases containing a masculine or neuter in the dative singular such as ‘with old
yellow material’ can be realized by means of two variants: mit altem gelbem Stoff or mit
altem gelben Stoff (Nübling, 2011). From the structural point of view, both adjectives
carry the ending -em in the former variant, corresponding to the strong declension and
indicating all necessary grammatical categories (dative singular of masculine and neutral
nouns). In the latter variant, solely the first attribute has the ending -em, whereas the
second element carries the very unspecific ending -en. The pattern of this second variant
reminds us of the declension relations within usual nominal phrases with an article.
Obviously, both the definite and indefinite article (as well as other words which are
similar to the article, see the term Artikelwörter in German) represent the left bracket of
the nominal phrase, which has to contain the total grammatical information. Hence, this
strong declension is the only possibility for the left bracket. Other attributes, following
the first element, tend to the uniform weak declension, which corresponds to the
grammatically unspecific ending -en. What plays an important role is the first element of
the nominal phrase: the articles as well as the words similar to the articles (e.g. pronouns)
influence the declension of the following adjectives in that the strong declension of the
first element brings about the weak declension of the following attribute. This means that
the status of the article and pronoun is definitely different from that of the adjective. The
substance of the problem consists in the question whether an adjective in a nominal
phrase without article, representing its left bracket, can influence the declension of
another adjective. May this first adjective become stronger than the second one, provided
both elements belong to the same part of speech?
Answers to these and similar questions are discussed in the research literature, in
which semantic as well as syntactic factors determining the respective kind of declension
are considered (Nübling, 2011; Münzberg & Hansen, 2020; Peter, 2013; Trost, 2006;
Wiese, 2009). With regard to codification, which has opened itself to more liberal views
recently, the grammatical argumentation in favor of the parallel declension remains
unequivocally as correct. Besides this variant, the weak declension of the second
adjective has started to be preferred in many texts (Duden 9, 2007: 38). The Duden
grammar goes even further and states that in cases in which the strong parallel inflection
could be expected, only the first adjective with the ending -em is also allowed (Duden 4,
2016: 967). This tendency is bolstered by the formulation in the Grammar of the variants
of standard German in that both variants are regarded as correct (http://mediawiki.ids-
en_im_Dativ_Singular). Their territorial distribution is illustrated in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Relative frequency of occurrence of the variants strong (blue) and weak (red)
declension of the second adjective in German-speaking areas.
5.4 Case government of the preposition wegen ‘because of’
The variation of the case government of the preposition wegen ‘because of’ has been one
of the most intensely explored grammatical problems for decades. The relatively strict
codification, preferring the genitive, has been on the wane. Helbig & Buscha (2001: 358)
evaluate the dative in nominal phrases with an article as colloquial. However, they admit
that in plural – when the genitive form cannot be indicated – the dative is allowable.
Referring to written standard German, the Duden (9, 2007: 985) also classifies the dative
as “not correct”. The genitive is definitely preferred, whereas the dative depends on
specific conditions: this case may be used as an alternative variant only if the genitive
cannot be formally realized. The evaluation of the discussed variation by the Grammar of
the variants of standard German sounds liberal, too. Interestingly enough though, the
recommendation related to the impossibility of indicating the genitive explicitly as some
sort of precondition for using the dative instead is commented on as a circumstance that
cannot be confirmed. As for the frequency of the competing cases, the prevalence of the
genitive in the written text types throughout all areas comes off as quite convincing
( The quantitative relations
of both variants are shown more exactly in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Relative frequency of occurrence of the variants wegen + dative (blue) and
wegen + genitive (red) in German-speaking areas.
Teachers’ practices reflecting the decision-making processes between these two variants
look relatively heterogeneous (Lehmkühler, 2015: 40-41). Some teachers distinguish
between the spoken and written language and they tend to correct the dative in favor of
the genitive in the written texts. Some others feel rather frustrated and seem to give up
such corrections, because there are more serious problems to deal with (Lehmkühler,
2015: 123, 150, 134). These examples prove once again that the lack of unity in these
practices appears to be quite common.
When stylistic differentiation is taken into consideration, the use of the dative is
broadly acceptable for linguists as well (Davies & Langer, 2006: 199-210; Dovalil, 2006:
98-100). The community of experts opposes such practices in which the dative should be
categorically dismissed as non-standard. For example, Dovalil (2006: 225) collected
graded judgments for wegen with dative or genitive from professors of German
linguistics. He reported that some of the respondents evaluated the dative variants even in
formal texts as standard (almost 40 %), while others restricted the acceptability to
informal texts or to spoken language.
Further evidence for such stylistic differentiation comes from an experimental
study in which young and older adults were asked to repeat and complete utterances
spoken in a casual or careful (standard) speech style (Engel & Hanulíková, 2020). The
proportions of the dative case variants used by both age groups increased in response to
casual speech style. Perhaps unsurprisingly, young adults used more dative variants
overall. This study shows once again that social cues such as speaking style may activate
morphosyntactic variants, opening doors for didactic (possibly even gamified)
implementations of stylistic associations with dative and genitive variants.
5.5 How to conduct a simple search in the German Reference Corpus
Having illustrated several succinct examples in previous sections, we now turn to
DeReKo. One of the clear advantages of this corpus consists not only in the total amount
of data, but also in its easy accessibility and in user-friendly software tools. This corpus is
administered by the Leibniz Institute for German Language in Mannheim, an institution
of public service. DeReKo works on the basis of the software COSMAS II (Corpus
Search, Management and Analysis System). It is the largest corpus of texts of
contemporary German, containing more than 50 billion tokens (a useful and concise
overview of DeReKo is provided by Lüngen, 2017). Although most of the texts are taken
over from newspaper resources (such genres as news, reports, feuilletons, etc.), many
other genres are included (fiction literature, biographies, scientific texts, interviews,
protocols). The vast majority of these texts can be classified as written German. The
amount of linguistically tagged corpora has been rapidly rising since 2010.
The precondition for conducting corpus search is that the users need to register.
Having been registered and logged in, the user has to choose an archive in which s/he
would like to search. The users have the possibility to define their own corpora. When the
archive is selected queries may be input. The formulation of a query depends on how
complex the search should be. Examples of such more complex queries (distance of
words, variants within word formation, words outside one single sentence, logical
operators AND or OR, etc.) conducted by means of formal operators/signs are also
offered. To get more information about how to formulate more complicated queries, users
may click on additional help (“cookbook”). For more details on how to work with the
corpus, see Kupietz et al. (2010).
To illustrate several basic functions of DeReKo, the simple grammatical variant
gewunken is selected. For a quick query, it is sufficient to put the individual form in the
window and click on ‘search’. As a result, the total number of the forms appears (1884 on
27.9.2021). There are several ways how these results can be presented. The first
possibility is KWIC (= key word in context), which displays the respective word in the
middle of the screen, with a part of a sentence on the left side and with the other part on
the right side. This kind of presentation provides the user with a cursory overview of the
forms. If the user is interested in more information characterizing the text in which this
form occurs then s/he can click on full text. The number of sentences preceding (and
following up) the word can be defined to specify the size of the context. The full text also
displays the bibliography. A very practical feature is the possibility of exporting the data.
ASCII and RTF are the formats in which the data can be exported and saved.
Another practical function of the software consists in sorting the data according to
the text types, territories, topics, documents, or time periods in which the data were
published. The search of the form gewunken shows 24 text types in total (e.g. feuilleton
(4 occurrences), reportage (8), interview (14), commentary (26 occurrences), editorial
(1), book review (1 occurrence) etc.). If compared with the variant gewinkt, the situation
looks slightly different, because gewinkt is mostly used in reports (88 occurrences),
whereas it is recorded only three times in interviews. This information offers the user an
opportunity to assess the stylistic nature of the respective text. Drawing upon the full
texts, it is possible to encounter such additional features as occurrence within the direct
speech, which indicates covered orality, or further relevant information.
As for the countries in which the data were published the user finds out that the
form gewunken mostly occurs in the German sources (1486 occurrences), followed by the
Austrian (297), Swiss (86) and Luxembourgish ones (15 occurrences). The very fact,
however, that most occurrences come from Germany, is certainly influenced by the fact
that DeReKo contains most sources from German newspapers. Hence, too simple or too
straightforward conclusions could be somewhat misleading. A brief analysis concerning
the competing form gewinkt shows that it also occurs mostly in Germany (807
occurrences), but this time, it is followed by Swiss (239), and only after that by Austrian
(150) and Luxembourgish (5 occurrences) sources.
Obviously, much more analysis could be carried out herein. The purpose of this
short sketch is to provide teachers, language practitioners, and editors (as well as
students) with a couple of possibilities of identifying some differences between the
analyzed forms.
6. Concluding remarks
We have provided a roadmap for teachers and language practitioners (as well as editors
and students) to find a qualified solution to questions about language variation and to
grammatical cases of doubt. Four different sources of information were presented:
codification, experts’ opinion, corpora, and teachers’ practices. The consideration of all
of these sources provides a comprehensive approach, but raises no claim to completeness.
Even though the content of this approach may appear complex at times, we hope to have
conveyed that linguistic variation in general and morphosyntactic cases of doubt in
particular are a rewarding intellectual endeavor that will benefit teachers as well as pupils
and students in the long run. In their function as norm authorities, practicing teachers
should strive for a more informed treatment of language variation (see also Durrell, 2012,
and Klein, 2018), which means that simple binary assessments consisting of one correct
monovariant and other incorrect variants cannot be the ultimate goal of the school
curriculum. In order to evaluate and assess pupils’ spoken and written performance, an
explicit and profound linguistic competence with respect to language variation is a must.
However, this might not suffice since further social factors such as stigmatisation and
stereotypical beliefs about non-standard varieties may result in inappropriate
interventions in grammar knowledge. It is therefore imperative to raise awareness for
factors that affect speech and speaker perception and evaluation as well as speech and
grammar variation within the educational setting.
Finally, it should be the responsibility of the educational system and the
stakeholders to equip future teachers with the necessary linguistic awareness and
knowledge. This is hard to achieve if students get a minimal amount of grammatical
content and/or are allowed to avoid attending less popular grammatical topics during their
university education (students from many parts of Germany do reflect on this problem in
personal communications with their professors). Since grammar appears to be extremely
unpopular among pupils (Nilsson, 2002; Felfe, 2020), students and future teachers can
carry on such an attitude (Nilsson, 2002: 97-98, 100), even though some questionnaire
studies show that many teachers enjoy teaching grammar (Felfe, 2020: 341). Depending
on the individual teacher, grammar may or may not completely disappear from the
classroom practices. Many didactic approaches show engaging ways of teaching
grammar and variation and how to move away from the red-pencil-associated grammar
lessons (Nilsson, 2002; Felfe, 2020; Köpcke & Noack, 2011). The contribution of
linguistics (and this paper), however, cannot be about the regulation of variation in the
classroom setting. As this paper illustrates, there are several informed ways of how to
relax a monovariant and the wrong-right dichotomy in cases of doubt. Instead, the terms
(more or less) appropriate and (more or less) inappropriate language use in a specific
context seem to be a more adequate designation. A better understanding of norms and
language use may contribute to more adequate attitudes towards language variation and
change and decrease frustration for all parties involved.
This work was supported by the European Regional Development Fund project
“Creativity and Adaptability as Conditions of the Success of Europe in an Interrelated
World” (reg. no.: CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000734).
Declaration of Conflicting Interest
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research.
1. Language norm authorities are defined as social actors who are expected to
legitimately correct other users’ language production. For the power-related
asymmetry between norm authorities and norm subjects, it is enough when
norm authorities are believed to be sufficiently qualified and when their
corrections, recommendations or other acts are perceived as relevant,
trustworthy and hence, taken seriously. Issues concerning the weakening
status of norm authorities are discussed in Dovalil (2020a: 189-192). The
process of the constitution of language norm authorities is discursive in
nature: “The authority of teachers is an omnipresent feature of classroom
contexts that structures life and order. [...] The standard can be used by
teachers to discern themselves linguistically from their pupils.” (Delarue &
Lybaert, 2016: 246-247)
2. For completeness, we provide the German original: „Regelmässigkeiten
schliesslich sind legitime Hinweise auf möglicherweise zugrundeliegende
Sprachnormen; da sie aber nicht allein durch Sprachnormen, sondern auch
anderweitig zustande gekommen sein können […], ist der Schluss von ihnen
auf Normen nicht zwingend“ (Gloy, 2004: 396). Another strong argument can
be quoted from a later paper by Gloy (2012: 29): “Eines sind
Regelmäßigkeiten nun aber gewiss nicht: der direkte Nachweis von
Sprachnormen. [...] Aus der theoretischen Annahme, dass Normen Gründe für
Regelmäßigkeiten sind, folgt nicht, dass Normen deren einzige Gründe sind;
der Umkehrschluss, dass Regelmäßigkeiten ergo auf Normen (und nur auf
Normen) zurückgehen, ist deshalb nicht zulässig.” (authors’ translation: There
is one thing that regularities are certainly not: the direct evidence of language
norms. [...] From the theoretical assumption that norms are basis for
regularities, it does not follow that norms are their only basis; the reverse
conclusion that regularities are ergo based on norms (and only on norms) is
therefore not permissible.)
3. This rough ratio amounted to 1804:1169 in January 2021.
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Address for correspondence
Adriana Hanulíková
Deutsches Seminar - Germanistische Linguistik
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Platz der Universität 3
79098 Freiburg
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Full-text available
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