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These sentences appear in an episode of the podcast Slow German:

21 Teams sind es zur Zeit. Hier in München ermitteln zwei ältere Herren, Batic und Leitmayr heißen sie im Film. Über 60 Fälle haben sie schon miteinander gelöst. Andere Teams kommen nicht so gut an und werden nach wenigen Folgen wieder abgesetzt. Am längsten dabei ist Kriminalhauptkommissarin Lena Odenthal, die in Ludwigshafen am Rhein ermittelt – und zwar seit 1989.

The sentence:

Am längsten dabei ist Kriminalhauptkommissarin Lena Odenthal, die in Ludwigshafen am Rhein ermittelt

I would translate to English as, "Chief Criminal Commissioner Lena Odenthal, who investigates in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, has been there the longest."

Now my question is, why is the German sentence in the present tense, ist, and not in the past tense, war, like the English translation? It would seem to be a German equivalent of an English progressive tense, which Hammer's German Grammar says can be accomplished with "dabei sein" followed by a zu infinitive (12.5b, page 325). But there is no infinitive here, though "zu teilnehmen" might work. Otherwise, the "dabei sein" appears to stand alone, which I understand as "to take part", which would seem to require a past tense, "having taken part the longest."

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German tenses are different from English tenses.

If something lasts since decades and still is going on now, then you have to use the German tense Gegenwart (or »Präsens«). This tense is similar to English present tense, but far away from being equal.

When you replace »ist« by »war«, then you transfer the sentence into »Vergangenheit« (»Präteritum«), and this would mean that it is now no longer the case.

Hans ist am längsten von allen im Verein.

This means: Hans still is in the club, and no one else has been in the club for a longer time.

Hans war am längsten von allen im Verein.

This means: Hans is no longer in the club, but nobody else has been in the club longer than Hans.


You use Präsens ...

  1. when something is always the case:

Jeder Kreis ist rund.

  1. when something happens right now:

Du liest diesen Satz.

  1. when something happens again again in the past, now and in the future:

Georg fährt jeden Samstag zu seiner Tante.

  1. when something began in the past and still is going on:

Lena ist seit 1973 Mitglied des Vereins.

  1. for historic events (optional; you can also use Vergangenheit):

Als die Vandalen das Kapitol stürmen, ahnen sie noch nicht, dass nur wenige Jahre später das Weströmische Reich untergehen wird.

  1. for events in the future:

Ich melde mich morgen krank und gehe nicht arbeiten.

  1. when you tell a story and want to make it more exciting:

Wir schreiben das Jahr 1984, es ist Oktober. Bleierne Dunkelheit liegt über dem Dorf. Eine große schwarze Limousine rollt leise heran und hält vor der alten Villa. Eine vermummte Gestalt steigt aus, sieht sich kurz um und geht anschließend zum Gartenhäuschen.

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  • On #6, there is, of course, a future tense in German, but yes it's use is more restricted than in English, although English sometimes uses present tense for something that will happen in the future as well. My understanding is that if a time is specified, such as morgen in your example, then German expects the present while in English it's optional. Events that are imminent often get the present tense in German as well, and this is possible but less common in English. E.g. Die Tür ist verschlossen, also ich hole meine Schlüssel. -- "The door is locked so I'm getting (I'll get) my keys."
    – RDBury
    May 9, 2021 at 21:30
  • Also note that the English "has been there" isn't really the same as "was there", so it's not actually the "past tense". According to Wikipedia it's the "Present perfect progressive". (I had to look it up, apparently I know German Grammar better than English at this point.) German doesn't really have this tense, and uses present instead.
    – RDBury
    May 9, 2021 at 22:06
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    @RDBury: "My understanding is that if a time is specified, such as morgen in your example, then German expects the present" - that's not quite true; "Ich werde mich morgen krankmelden und nicht arbeiten gehen." is perfectly fine. It just sounds a little bit more formal; in spoken language it might even sound stilted. May 9, 2021 at 22:54
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    When you replace »ist« by »war«, th[e]n you transfer the sentence into »Vergangenheit« (»Perfekt«): That must be a slip since war is Präteritum. Perfekt would be ist gewesen. I hope my correction is ok. May 10, 2021 at 1:01
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    @O. R. Mapper: Good to know. The line between when to use present vs. future seems very fuzzy in both German and English, more a matter of custom and register than grammar and meaning. But I think it's still true that German tends more to the present tense than English.
    – RDBury
    May 10, 2021 at 1:03

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