In German, the agent of a passive construction can be re-introduced using the preposition 'von' (well, 'durch' can be used too, but that's not really relevant).

But what if there's another noun phrase in the sentence that uses 'von' to mean 'from'? In English, the preposition we use ('by') is rarely used for anything else. Pretty much the only two things that only it can express is the agent of a passive construction, and the author of a book. It's rarely used for its locative meaning. And even then, it can be replaced with 'next to'. But German, to my knowledge, doesn't have an alternative for 'from'.

How do Germans deal with this when it comes up? Granted, I know it may not come up much since Germans seem to use the passive less than English speakers (they can omit the subject with 'man', and besides that they do technically have free word order).

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    In what way do you intend this question to be different from your similar one at linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/26685/…? Dec 18, 2017 at 17:18
  • I admit, i was originally thinking of this question when I was writing that. But I decided that perhaps, I should get a larger sampler size. If it matters, I'm asking this question for my conlang. I figured I should look more into German's system, since its really the only natural language I know of that bears any resemblence at all to my conlang.
    – user19661
    Dec 18, 2017 at 17:48
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    I don't think 'by' is used as rarely as you suggest, but real world understandings can help disambiguate, eg "I was driven by the house by the bridge by my friend". Also of course prosody plays an important role in assisting understanding in such cases. Ambiguity might be more of a problem when reading as prosodic cues are not available. Dec 18, 2017 at 20:13

1 Answer 1


Like with any overloaded preposition it is possible to construct examples which are ambiguous, especially out of context.

And it is trivially easy to construct examples which are grammatically ambiguous but semantically or logically are less ambiguous. In fact it is more difficult to avoid constructing these.

The thing is, natural human language is fundamentally ambiguous, and we humans continually solve endless Winograd Schema challenges without even being conscious of it.

Nothing specific to German or von.

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