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I came across the following sentence:

87 Prozent der unter 25-Jährigen waren nicht wählen - ein historischer Negativrekord.

What does waren nicht wählen mean? Does wählen sein exist as a phrasal verb? Shouldn't it have been gingen nicht wählen instead?

Here's the source: https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/frankreich-regionalwahlen-korri-101.html

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2 Answers 2

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Both are fine

Ich ging wählen.

as well as

Ich war wählen.

With both constructions, the location were the action takes place comes into play - in this example, the polling station. With "gehen", the movement to the location is emphasized a little more, with "sein", the stay at the location is emphasized a little more. But that doesn't give a big difference in meaning.

Especially the construction of "sein" plus infinitive verb is typically used for actions that are bound to a specific location, or typically take place at a specific location. You might consider

Ich war wählen.

as a bit of a shortened

Ich war im Wahllokal und habe dort gewählt.

or

Ich war an dem Ort, wo man wählt (und habe dort das getan, was man dort eben tut).

The same principle can be used with a lot of verbs, for example

Ich war einkaufen. (typically done at a grocery store or the like)

Ich war reiten. (typically done at a riding hall or similar)

Ich war schwimmen. (not typically done in your living room ;) )

When used in past tense, this construction has the connotation of a finished action: "Ich war einkaufen" implies that I left home, went to the store, did my shopping and went back again.

It can also be used in present tense. Then, it has a subtext of business or occupation. "Ich bin (gerade) einkaufen" often implies something like "... deshalb kann ich leider gerade nicht um Dein Anliegen kümmern."

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Your are right, that gehen + infinitive is the standardized pattern, for which numerous other examples exist:

  • einkaufen gehen
  • Zimmer aufräumen gehen
  • Zähneputzen gehen

This works for active mood only.

The interesting part is, that this pattern is used for indicating a future activitity only. As soon as a you refer to a currently ongoing event, there is no way to form it with gehen, it needs to be replaced by sein as in

Ich bin gerade einkaufen. (or less colloquially: "Ich bin gerade beim Einkaufen.")

When the event slides to the past, sein keeps stuck, even if gingen does not seem to be wrong, but its not used frequently.

Ich war einkaufen, wählen, mein Zimmer aufräumen, die Steuererklärung abgeben.

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  • On passive constructs: "Ich war haareschneiden" is a nice one to wrap your head around.
    – tofro
    Jun 22, 2021 at 6:58

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