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Looking them up in dictionaries gave me this:

häufig – frequent, common
gewöhnlich – ordinary, common, habitual, normal, usual
üblich – common, usual, ordinary, normal.

I looked online for the difference but could not find anything, only examples in dictionaries.

  1. I was told you cannot say “Es war häufig.”, but “Es war üblich” is possible. Is that right? Any particular reason why?

  2. I know that gewöhnlich can be slightly negative, when it means nothing special, nothing worth mentioning (“Sie sieht recht gewöhnlich aus.”). Are they interchangeable in all other cases? For example:

    a) Sie haben es häufig/üblich/gewöhnlich vergessen.
    b) Das ist ein häufiger/üblicher/gewöhnlicher Fehler.
    c) Sie sind wie üblich/gewöhnlich/häufig gekommen.

  3. Are there any rules when to use each or should I simply memorize as much as I can, play by ear when I try to use them and hope for the best?

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I don't understand where exactly your problem with the usage is, seeing how you know the quite different translations in English. Could you give us some examples where they would overlap in your opinion? – Emanuel Jul 30 '14 at 11:30
I edited it, I hope it makes the question clearer. – fluffy Jul 30 '14 at 11:41
@fluffy nope, not in the slightest... how would you replace frequent with ordinary? Or usual with frequent for that matter. Yes there is some corner-cases where the meanings overlap, but it's cornercases... As a sidenote, I'd translate "üblich" as "conventionally" – Vogel612 Jul 30 '14 at 12:03
Example a: They often forgot it, They usually forgot it, They normally forgot it. This is how I would translate them and for me all 3 are possible in that sentence. But I have no idea if I am right. (The translations I gave are for adjectives but in German adverbs more often than not have the same form.) – fluffy Jul 30 '14 at 12:12
I edited the question to show where my confusion comes from, the problem is mainly that the translations are pretty similar. I tried to interpret them differently, that is why I gave different translations for the three at first but I fail to see any differences. – fluffy Jul 30 '14 at 12:56

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted
  • The use of "häufig" should indicate that there is a high quantity of events.
  • The use of "üblich" indicates that in a specific culture or context something is considered normal or to describe traditions.
  • "gewöhnlich" is a synoynm for "üblich"; both also may stress something neutral "Ein gewöhnlicher Tag - a day like any other", üblich would work too, but I would use gewöhnlich in such a sentence.

"Gewöhnlich" is not necessarily meant negative. If you do then rather in a sarcastic way: "This guy was unfriendly. A normal German then." -> "Der Kerl war unfreundlich. Ein gewöhnlicher Deutscher also."

Note the usage of "gewöhnlich" and "üblich" in the translation for "We usually eat at 12 o'clock". Besides:

  • "Üblich essen wir um 12 Uhr"
  • "Gewöhnlich essen wir um 12 Uhr"

you may hear

  • "Üblicherweise essen wir um 12 Uhr"
  • "Für gewöhnlich essen wir um 12 Uhr"

sometimes. Also "gewöhnlicherweise" and "für üblich" would be correct as well, but are not quite common afaik.

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You managed to use the right words that made it all click into place. I think I can use them much better now. – fluffy Jul 31 '14 at 8:06

"häufig" relates to a specific and frequent happening. "üblich" refers to a habit, usage, etc. The frequency is not important here.

You can say:

a) Sie haben es häufig vergessen. (meaning: often)

b) Das ist ein häufiger/üblicher/gewöhnlicher Fehler. (meaning: frequent / common / common)

c) Sie sind wie üblich/gewöhnlich gekommen or Sie ist häufig gekommen. (meaning: common / common / often)

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First off, there are more words: typisch(typical) and normal, to name a few.
They all are very equal to the English counterparts.

Let's take a look at the "forget"-example:

Ich vergesse häufig. Ich vergesse gewöhnlicherweise/für gewöhnlich. Ich vergesse normalerweise. Ich vergesse typischerweise. Ich vergesse üblicherweise.

They're all possible but you must apply the adverbs (or adverbial phrases) not the adjectives.
You can use all these words for your other examples, too. Still, pay attention on how you use them:

  • Sie sind wie häufig gekommen.

is wrong. Translate it to English:

  • They came like/as often.

As a phrase it's OK ("They came as often as they could") but it's a bit strange as a (full) sentence.

So, you can make changes to the German sentence, and you're fine:

Sie sind wie so häufig zu spät gekommen. (Literally: They came, as so often, late.)

While talking about phrases "Es war häufig" is not necessarily wrong. You can make up a context where it is appropriate; though, it's still actually an ellipse.
It is quite equal to "It was often". In both languages a common phrase, but again not necessarily a (full) sentence.

Strictly speaking, this would apply to "Es war üblich", too. I can't give you any good argument, but it's fine/more common to leave it like that. Perhaps just because 'it's common'. But not 'it's often'. (See, English and German aren't too different.)

I agree that in your example "Sie sieht recht gewöhnlich aus", there's a different connotation. I guess it's obvious that you cannot interchange it with all the other words. Gewöhnlich has more than one sense, and in that example it's not synonymous to häufig or üblich. But just for the reason having a different meaning: ~being within the normal range, not exceptional

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With "Sie sind wie üblich/gewöhnlich/häufig gekommen." I tried to say "They came, as usual." (meaning they always come, and this time they did, too.) If I used the wrong word order that probably changed the meaning. – fluffy Jul 30 '14 at 13:49
@fluffy Yes and saying "Sie sind wie üblich gekommen" is fine. But that does not work for any word, as it wouldn't work in English either. In respect to that example, in German you cannot use "häufig" and in English you cannot use "often" without modifying the sentence a bit. That's what I'm saying. – Em1 Jul 30 '14 at 14:54

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