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A click-bait ad on my newsfeed is captioned,

Die 27 peinlichsten Fotos, die man gesehen haben muss.

What, exactly, does this sentence mean, in English?

Is it equivalent to, "The 27 most embarrassing photos you must [already] have seen." ? I suspected not.

I thought it more like,

The 27...that you ought to have seen.

If so, how, then, exactly does the perfective construction contribute? How would the following sentence differ in meaning?

Die 27 peinlichsten Fotos, die man [einfach] sehen muss.

[ My guess: the first sentence in question is simply German idiom; perhaps the second sentence means something more like:

The 27...that one must now - [is obligated, for any one of several possible reasons besides the intrinsic excellence of the photos] - see. ]
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3 Answers 3

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Die 27 peinlichsten Fotos, die man gesehen haben muss.

So you stumble about the Perfekt tense in that clause, yes?

It's Perfekt because in German, tenses move the viewpoint.

So those photos are a must-see. That's the same in German and in English. But the German phrasing puts the viewpoint into the future by saying that this must-see moment was in the past.

You can also phrase it without Perfekt but that sounds less urgent. It's not something you can check on your list of things to do then.

Moving the viewpoint by tense is another level of freedom you have in German and we use it in plenty.

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    You're saying that Germans would literally-speaking take this to mean something more like "the 27 photos that you will need to have seen"?
    – Muzer
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 14:19
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    It means exactly that. And in particular the Futur II expression …, die man wird gesehen haben müssen. that resembles your English phrasing is not about the future because of the wird but again because of the movement of the viewpoint introduced by the perfect of Futur II. The wird in stark contrast to English makes it an assumption.
    – Janka
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 15:16
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    I disagree that the viewpoint is in the future. The "muss" is present tense - "photos that you must (ought to) have seen by now". If you still haven't seen them yet, you should look at them right now!
    – Bergi
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 21:28
  • It's not present tense. It's a perfect tense. You can see this from haben. With modal verbs you have two chances to make this perfect though. The other way is … die man hat sehen müssen which coincidentally does not move the viewpoint into the future as that müssen is marked with the Ersatzinfinitiv as already completed, too.
    – Janka
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 4:39
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The sentence just means

The 27 most embarrassing photos you have to see.

In German, it is common to use past perfect for this, implying you must have seen this in order to fulfill whatever implied goal or standard.

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  • Thank you, Jonathan! Would a native speaker ever, for any reason, use the present form, "... die man [einfach] sehen muss" ?
    – Ben Weaver
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 3:48
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    @BenWeaver yes, that is fine too, the nuance is slightly different: "gesehen haben muss" = you missed out on it if you have not ALREADY seen them; "sehen muss" = you really should see them in the future
    – wonderbear
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 6:23
  • As I noted in my answer, it's not simply "you have to see" but "you have to already have seen it", which is much more urgent in meaning than "you have to see". I don't think your answer is good. Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 19:49
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To me it seems there is a stronger appeal (Appell, Aufruf) in the sentence.

"You SHOULD already have seen it. You're late! Now, quickly, click the link!".

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  • Interesting. That's a cool answer.
    – Ben Weaver
    Commented Sep 26, 2023 at 21:31
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    Wouldn't Germans use die Sie gesehen haben sollten?
    – sehe
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 10:02
  • @sehe That's also correct, but sounds way more descriptive and less ... neccesary!
    – Simon
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 16:36

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