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I'd like to know if there is a rule of sorts regarding the use praeteritum in everyday spoken German, particularly in the use of 'sah' and 'schaute' in place of 'habe gesehen/geschaut', or if it is simply a matter of convenience and economy.

For instance,"Er sah wie etwas aus" vs "er hat wie etwas ausgesehen".

How does one decide which of the two constructions to use? I'm guessing the complexity and length of the sentence following and preceding the said phrases have something to do with it.

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    As you are asking for spoken language: note that there are regional differences. In most southern dialects there is no Imperfekt/Präteritum, speakers from those regions tend to avoid it even when speaking (informal) Standard German. Here in Austria anyone using Präteritum in every speach will certainly stand out as trying hard to appear more educated than others (unless it is obvious from accent etc that the person is not from the region). – Hulk Nov 24 '14 at 6:31
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No, the complexity of the other sentences doesn't have a direct connection. Rules:

  • Perfekt (and Plusquamperfekt) describe a finished action ("vollendete Handlung"), and must be used whenever the action described happens before the main action. This is typically the cases in subclauses using "nachdem" etc.
  • Imperfekt/Präteritum describes an unfinished/ongoing action ("unvollendete Handlung"). A narrative uses the Imperfekt/Präteritum for the action as it is told. (Präsens is also possible).
  • Spoken and colloquial German tends to use the Perfekt, written and formal German tends to use the Imperfekt/Präteritum. (The latter will also typically use more complex sentences, maybe that is where your impression comes from).
  • There are many cases when the difference is not important, and either Perfekt or Imperfekt/Präteritum can be used.

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