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What are the differences between the verbs vorkommen, passieren, sich ereignen, geschehen, stattfinden, vorfallen?

Could someone explain the difference(s) to me, please.

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    What are the results of your dictionary research? – Stephie Jul 28 '16 at 17:14
  • to happen and to occur ! :/ – Anas Jul 28 '16 at 17:17
  • @Stephie, Let's not be so tough. It can be confusing to have so many alternatives. – Tsundoku Jul 28 '16 at 17:25
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    @ChristopheStrobbe not tough, just trying to understand what OP already knows/understood. (What you can't see is that there are no close votes yet.) And there are a few rules on the site after all. – Stephie Jul 28 '16 at 17:27
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Passieren is informal (it's also what children would be using), vorkommen still a bit informal. Geschehen and vorfallen feels neutral to me, sich ereignen and stattfinden more formal. Sich ereignen might sound old-fashioned.

Vorfallen is almost always used for serious negative events, passieren for less serious but still negative events, and vorkommen will sometimes refer to negative events as well. Sich ereignen and geschehen feel neutral, stattfinden a bit positive.

Stattfinden is for something which is planned and which will take some time, e.g. describing some festival. Passieren and geschehen imply a rather short timeframe, almost a point in time, and a random element.

Vorkommen describes something rather rare, passieren perhaps a bit more frequent but still exceptional. Geschehen and sich ereignen do not imply any frequence one way or another. Stattfinden suggests that it might be something recurring. Vorfallen is probably referring to something that is occurring more often than it should, no matter how often that is.

Some examples:

  • Es kann vorkommen, dass die Hose beim Waschen ausfärbt.
    Das kann doch mal vorkommen, ist nicht so schlimm.
  • Und dabei ist es passiert. Einfach so, ich kann nichts dafür.
    Was ist denn hier passiert?
    Das kann jedem mal passieren.
  • Und es ereignete sich in der Weihnachtsnacht, dass im Stall zu Bethlehem…
  • Das geschieht ihm ganz recht! (Schadenfreude)
  • Bei Regen findet die Feier im Haus statt.
  • Da ist bestimmt mal was vorgefallen, dass das Kind jetzt so Angst vor lauten Stimmen hat.

Note that this answer concentrates on the almost common meaning between these words. Some of them have different meanings as well, for which none of the others would be synonymous, like “eine Grenze passieren”, “das Öl-Vorkommen begutachten”, “das Geschehen aus der Luft betrachten”, …

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    Nice explanation. It's really difficult to distinguish them. But I think passieren very well has a negative connotation. To add some confusion: "Es muss etwas geschehen, aber es darf nichts passieren!". I'd translate that with "Something must happen (or change) but nothing bad must happen!" because passieren implies that sth. bad happens or has happened. – PerlDuck Jul 28 '16 at 19:23
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    @PerlDog: I tend to agree, although there are counterexamples. “Was passiert denn in dem Film?” and “in diesem Kaff passiert ja eh nie etwas” seem to imply a positive connotation for passieren, but perhaps that's a matter of perspective: to the bored observer even (slightly) bad events seem preferable to no events at all, in both cases. I'll edit to shift the word a bit more towards negative. – MvG Jul 28 '16 at 19:36
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    Well, I also tried to answer the OP's question but found examples and counterexamples for every single verb. So I abandoned and appreciated your answer. As said, the difference is so tiny and hard to explain. To me the only undoubted translation is "stattfinden" and "take place". – PerlDuck Jul 28 '16 at 19:43
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    Nice explanation, I would probably refer to the nouns, too. – Giraffe Jul 28 '16 at 21:04
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    Diese Fragen laden immer zu ad-hoc Verallgemeinerungen ein, die einem kritischen Blick dann nicht stich halten. Wie @MvG schon schrieb - such mal nach Gegenbeispielen und streich mutig weg; dann bleibt nicht viel. – user unknown Jul 28 '16 at 22:03

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