Over at German Language Stack Exchange, the question was asked what the structure of the sentence

Ihr Antrag ist abgelehnt.

is, and what the word abgelehnt can be classified as. Traditional German grammar apparantly classifies the expression as a static passive (Zustandspassiv) in which the word abgelehnt is, of course, the past participle of the verb ablehnen.

I posted an answer which sparked extended comment discussion between me and another user, arguing that while that view is not wrong, the bolded word can also be classified as a predicative adjective (connected to its noun via the copula verb) and the sentence therefore as a normal to be sentence. Part of my argument was that the word abgelehnt can also be used attributively — a position I usually considered open mainly for adjectives:

Der abgelehnte Antrag …

My questions being:

  • is either of the two classifications (past participle partaking in a stative passive versus adjective) considered wrong?
    • and if that is the case, what are the arguments for not allowing the ‘wrong’ classification?

I tried to find similar cases here on Linguistics, but the only one I found was this question asking about the word found. Of course, there is a striking resemblance, but the found in the question I just linked was accompanied by further fragments; much more suggesting that found be closer to a past participle having replaced a relative clause.

  • I would be much obliged if someone can find me a better title.
    – Jan
    Sep 15 '15 at 17:47
  • 1
    I think both classifications are fine. And one 'word' can definitely belong to two different word classes. For example in Polish, 'jutro' can be an adverb as in 'Przyjde jutro' - 'I'm coming tomorrow', and a noun, as in 'Do jutra', lit. 'Till the-next-day' or 'See you tomorrow'. One could also argue that these two are in fact two different words.
    – robert
    Sep 15 '15 at 18:28
  • 3
    In English, virtually any word can be used as several different parts of speech, due to the loss of English inflections -- like subjunctive and infinitive markers, which have both been lost in English and conflated with the present, causing no end of difficulty for learners. As to right or wrong -- there are two different ways to analyze the structure, and both are reasonable, and they mean the same thing. Some people will interpret it one way, some the other; who are we to say who's correct? And why bother in the first place?
    – jlawler
    Sep 15 '15 at 18:32
  • Yeah, @jlawler I was hoping for exactly that answer. In that discussion I asked the other user to tell my why my classification should be wrong but never got that one answered.
    – Jan
    Sep 15 '15 at 20:03

Tons of research has been written on the problem of distinguishing between verbal passives and adjectival passives, e.g. "The vase was broken."

The following is a summary of Ward, Birner and Huddleston 2002. They mention a number of tests for English - try to see if they work in German.

It can be considered an adjective if it passes more than one of any of the tests below:

  • It can be modified by very or too;
  • "be" can be substituted with another verb (e.g. seem, look, remain);
  • The form in question can be prefixed with un-;
  • It has a stative interpretation:

She is injured and will have to miss the next two matches. [adjectival]

They were injured when the platform they were standing on collapsed. [verbal]

They admit there are cases when this construction can be analyzed both as a verbal passive and an adjectival passive, with a slight but significant difference in meaning, e.g. It was magnetised.

For more details (ambiguous cases, exceptions etc.), see Ward, Birner and Huddleston 2002, esp. pp. 1438-1440.

My opinion: Since you said "can also be classified," your position is more balanced and more accurate.


It lies in the nature of the participle in German that it combines verbal and adjectival aspects. There is a German name for the participle, Mittelwort, which is coined for this double nature.

Having said that, it is conventional to regard the German participle as a form of the verb. The reason is, that it can be regularly derived from the verb and the the verbal lemma behind it is transparent and obvious.

A few participles crossed the border to adjectives diachronically (this happened when the participle survived, but the main verb fell out of use; an example is the German adjective eigen).

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