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Take a question like:

War jetzt morgen eigentlich Probe?

The grammatical temporal cues are grossly incoherent: War is past tense, jetzt points to the present, morgen points to the future. No German speaker will have a problem understanding the question, however, because while the sentence is constructed from incoherent temporal cues, they are associated with different semantic layers of perception.

Is there a proper way to reflect this when analyzing the question?

  • the google translate for this fails terribly: "Was now actually test tomorrow?" – the0ther Feb 23 '15 at 21:39
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Personally, I'd analyze it in the following way (as a native speaker):

  • jetzt, jetzt eigentlich: not a temporal marker, but an interjection that expresses doubt.
  • war: refers to the point in time when the decision was made or announced. If ist is used instead, it refers to general knowledge.
  • morgen: the temporal marker for the action that is in question.

So the different semantic layers are not that difficult to separate.

  • I mostly agree, but would deduce, that the schedule was already changed in the past (or only provisionally fixed), and the asking person wants to know the latest state of affairs. – guidot Feb 16 '15 at 9:56
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This is a very good question. I can't give an ultimate answer on the main point, but here are a couple of thoughts:

In that example, I consider jetzt as a filler as in "Wie jetzt?". It doesn't add any value to the sentence. I don't think that jetzt has any reference to the present time here. If you ask "War morgen eigentlich Probe?", the meaning is the same.

If you ask "War jetzt (gestern) eigentlich Probe?", it also doesn't refer to now. It's just pointless. Technically, you could replace it with denn, for example.

Eigentlich, by the way, has the same function here. So in fact, there are two fillers.

Morgen is clearly the adverb that points to the exact time you're referring to. It's essential; it makes clear that you're talking about tomorrow, and not the week after or perhaps a rehearsal in the past.

That leaves the question, why you would use war. (More) Correct would be

Ist (jetzt) morgen (eigentlich) Probe?

As in English, present tense is used to refer to something in the future.

I am not really sure about why war is acceptable, though. On a side note: if it were me, I would say:

Wie war das jetzt noch mal? Ist morgen Probe?

I would move the past tense into the introducing sentence, but actually it should be present tense there, too. The implicit meaning is: what is the decision we made.

My best guess why war is OK, is that you refer to that decision made in the past and war technically replaces:

Die Entscheidung, die wir getroffen haben, war, dass wir morgen Probe haben.

Once again, ist would be better. While the decision was made in the past, it is still true. But Germans are not that accurate with tenses anyway. We often use Past Perfect instead of Present Perfect. And probably the same happens here.

  • 4
    About the use of "war": I'd say that it serves a particular purpose in German - often unconsciously, but still very idiomatic. It implies that the speaker isn't asking for new information but a reminder. The speaker is stating that he knew the info at some point, but isn't sure anymore (or has forgotten altogether). Whether being perceived as forgetful is in fact preferable to appearing uninformed in the first place is open to debate, of course. :) – Mac Feb 13 '15 at 12:54
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What seems incoherent and unnecessary in "War jetzt morgen eigentlich Probe?" really isn't part of the question itself, but of a different communication level.

It has long since been stated by communication psychologists that human messages usually convey more that just one face value statement. Sender, recipient, and current circumstances are always part of a message. The German psychologist and communication expert Friedemann Schulz von Thun visualized this in his communication square model (Kommunikationsquadrat, later known as Vier-Ohren-Modell = Four-Ears model) *), where each message (questions are messages, too) consists of four components:

  1. Sachinhalt (speaking of the matter itself)

  2. Selbstkundgabe (speaking of the state and the sensitivities of the sender)

  3. Beziehung des Senders zum Empfänger (how the senders rates his/her position in relation to the recipient's)

  4. Appell (the sender appealing to the recipient, what the sender wants to get done by the recipient)

Not all messages put an equally strong strain on all levels, and sometimes, one or the other level may be "empty", but this is a generalising model providing a neat classification tool in the first place, and on the other hand, one cannot not communicate, as Paul Watzlawick put it.

It is obvious that we can't judge a message by means of this model without knowing anything about the speakers involved, their relationship, and the overall situation. But regarding the inconsistencies, we can at least try to analyse what additional meanings are hiding behind this question:

  1. The basic objective of the question is clear: the speaker wants to know if a rehearsal is scheduled for tomorrow. But why not simply ask: Ist morgen Probe?

To answer this, we have to know the context. As we don't, we can't even decide upon this simple statement, as it could tell us different things about the situation and the persons involved. For example, the three hidden levels could be (to make things easier, let us assume the speaker = "S" is a man, the recipients = "R" are members of a brass band rehearsing for a local concert):

A2. S has just arrived from a business trip. It wasn't yet decided upon scheduling the rehearsal for tomorrow when he left.

A3. There was a consensus that S would be notified of the rehearsal date when he returned from his trip, contacting a member of R.

A4. S wants R to tell him when the rehearsal is.

B2. S has been told when the rehearsal will take place, but doesn't remember because he is busy with other things or his memory is no longer the way it used to be, but basically, he doesn't care,

B3. ..because he is well integrated in the group and R won't blame him for asking twice for the information.

B4. S wants R to tell him when the rehearsal is.

C2. S hasn't been yet told about the upcoming rehearsal, he really doesn't know.

C3. The relationsship between S and R has become tense lately, there have been differences, perhaps S is being mobbed by some members of R.

C4. S appeals to R to reconcile differences with R.

But let's go back to the original phrasing, "War jetzt morgen eigentlich Probe?". In your answers above, the words "jetzt" and "eigentlich" and the use of the preterite have been indicated as unnecessary or inappropriate.

The adverb jetzt used in a question often indicates impatience:

Kommst du jetzt endlich?

Was ist jetzt, entscheide dich!

Therefore, on the appeal level (4) of our question, jetzt could signify a demand of S towards R to make up their mind if there should be a rehearsal tomorrow. Accordingly, on level 2 and 3, it could mean that S wasn't involved in the decision making and wasn't happy about this.

But the effect of jetzt is very much mitigated by eigentlich which usually has an obliging connotation: basically it should be like this, but I am ready to make concessions for the sake of our good understanding. This would relate to level (3), making the intention of level (4) more optional, more like an invitation.

The use of the preterite instead of the present tense may be a statement of the second level. Without knowing the context and the persons involved, there are too many variables as to reasonably judge this component.

*) Friedemann Schulz von Thun: Miteinander reden 1, Störungen und Klärungen, Allgemeine Psychologie der Kommunikation. (rororo Sachbuch 17489) Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag (46) 2008 [1981]

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Sometimes we tend to ignore verbs. If someone would ask you "War jetzt morgen eigentlich Prove geplant/angesetzt.. ?" you would understand.

I once asked someone "Wo musst Du hin?" and he didn't understand me. I ignored the verb "gehen" and for native speaker it's easy to add to the context. You still have to get used to it.

Sorry, no grammar rules here. Just speak with people.

  • Strictly speaking, even then it should be "Ist ... geplant" and not "war ... geplant". – Em1 Feb 14 '15 at 16:29
  • You're right. That's proper german. Maybe it's a bit slang as well. – Bjoern Feb 15 '15 at 16:34
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In my opinion, each of the temporal markers has its function in this sentence:

War jetzt morgen eigentlich Probe?

War - this refers to the time at which the activity was planned or announced. It implies that the speaker thinks the information has already been passed on, but as they cannot remember, they want a reminder of what was actually announced.

jetzt - this emphasizes (and I admit the meaning of this word is quite weak, it could easily be skipped) that, as opposed to past minutes, hours, days, etc., the speaker is looking for a clear statement that is valid now. As such, this "jetzt" is often used at points when a final statement is expected.

morgen - this refers to the time at which the activity will take place.

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