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German supposedly has no equivalent of the progressive/continuous tense in English (e.g. “we are going”). However, I sometimes hear sentences such as:

Wir waren essen.

Er ist telefonieren.

Are such sentences grammatically correct, and what is the difference in meaning to the “normal” versions (“wir aßen”, “er telefoniert”)?

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  • "wir waren essen" oder "er ist telefonieren" sind nicht korrekt, aber umgangssprachlich (auch schriftlich) bedingt durch ihre weite Verbreitung zulässig.
    • "wir waren essen" or "er ist telefonieren" are incorrect, but acceptable in colloquial (even in written) language due to their prevalence.
  • "wir aßen" und "er telefoniert" sind korrekt.
    • "wir aßen" and "er telefoniert" are correct
  • Keine Unterschiede in der Bedeutung.
    • There is no difference in meaning.
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    Not sure I agree there: IMO the construction Tim asks about implies that the person denoted by the subject is away doing whatever they're doing. "Wir waren essen" means "we were out eating". "Er ist telefonieren" means "He is out of the room, speaking on the phone". – elena Nov 1 '11 at 10:17
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    Should this answer be translated? Usually answers are written in the same language as the question. – musiKk Nov 3 '11 at 10:51
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    Definitely not the same meaning. "Wir waren essen" does not mean "we were eating"; it means "we were someplace to eat". "Er ist telefonieren" does not mean "he is doing a phone call"; it means "he has gone somewhere to do a phone call and still hasn't returned". See Veredomon's answer. – user2183 Mar 18 '15 at 16:20
  • @Barnie I really don't understand the meaning of "incorrect, but acceptable in colloquial (even in written) language due to their prevalence." When a linguistic phenomenon is widely accepted, every grammar rulebook stating it to be incorrect is somewhat ridicuolous, isn't it? So, what is the source of correctness for you? – jonathan.scholbach Feb 3 '17 at 11:31
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I have to agree with elena's comment on Barnie's answer. "Wir waren essen" has a different meaning than you are asking for.

If you want to use a progressive/continuous tense, then you can use (colloquially) the combination with "am":

Wir sind am Essen. Er ist am Telefonieren.

See also: http://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/am#Bedeutung3

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    Interestingly, this is quite regular (and should thus be easy to remember): "Wir sind essen. Ich bin telefonieren." work as present tense forms of "Wir waren essen. Er war telefonieren." (to express that we're currently/as of now away for eating etc.). – O. R. Mapper Mar 15 '15 at 11:00
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    Sentences like Wir sind am Essen are standard in the Ruhr dialect used in colloquial German, but I would not recommend to use them in writing. – Martin Peters Feb 3 '17 at 10:33
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This construction is the so called "Absentive", which is still disputed, but can be found in many European languages. Basically "Wir waren essen" means "We were off eating". The trick is the location referred to - "wir waren essen" always means that you were off from that place.

Let's assume that a friend comes to your place and sees some tools, then asks you what you did. "Ich war meinen Wasserhahn reparieren" would be totally wrong, because you haven't left the place your friend is referring to. "Ich war den Wasserhahn einer Freundin reparieren" would be correct.

It is grammatically correct, native speakers will understand the intricacies of this rather complex construction. But it will be frowned upon in higher level contexts and is still very rare in written German.

  • "would be totally wrong" - that depends on the granularity of places considered. If you are referring to your "home", it is indeed wrong; if the tools are specifically in the living room, you can indeed say "Ich war meinen Wasserhahn [drüben im Badezimmer] reparieren." – O. R. Mapper Jul 14 '15 at 14:03
  • also see de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absentiv – jonathan.scholbach Feb 3 '17 at 11:34
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I am not a native speaker, but the context Wir sind beim Essen/Er ist beim Telefonieren sound correcter than . . .am . . . .

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    In response to David Helseth: "Wir sind gerade am Essen" is something quite commonly said when e.g. the phone rings while the family is having lunch, etc. It can then connote the inability or unwillingness to talk to the caller for longer than absolutely necessery. – sixtyfive Mar 14 '15 at 22:25
  • Thank you, Rainer.I noticed, however, that you put the adverb "gerade." To my American(English) ear, that now sounds better than without. Would "schon" also work in this context? – David Helseth Mar 15 '15 at 14:19
  • sorry for being so late. Anyways, "schon" would not necessarily work in the context of the family dinner described above. "Wir sind schon am Essen" can be translated as "we're already having lunch/dinner", i.e. "earlier than you are used to, which is why today I can't take your call now even though it usually works at that time on other days". – sixtyfive Jul 14 '15 at 9:06

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