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I understand that in narrative/non-spoken speech the Perfekt is much more common than the Präteritum.

But I'm not sure to what extent this applies with dealing with modal verbs. For example:

Leider konnten wir uns nur kurz darüber unterhalten.

vs

Leider haben wir uns nur kurz darüber unterhalten können.

When writing a message or talking to someone directly, which is more natural?

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I understand that in narrative/non-spoken speech the Perfekt is much more common than the Präteritum.

No. You understood wrong. In narratives — e.g. fictional literature — Präteritum is the main tense. While Plusquamperfekt marks the past in that. In real life Präsens is the main tense while Perfekt marks the past in that.

But Northerners use Präteritum in place of Perfekt for real life events for the auxiliaries, the modals and some very common verbs as geben or kommen. The latter only in certain contexts. It's consistent both in speaking and their writing.

The more north a German speaker is from, the more verbs go on their personal list. In southern Germany and Austria it's only sein, and in Switzerland not even that one.

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  • Would you say southern germans would have a preference of using the Ersatzinfinitiv in speech just like question describes? Also the question specifically states for writing, so would southerners be more prone to writing as they speak as opposed to writing how most german books are with a heavy use of präterium? Commented May 12 at 16:28
  • The question is not about the Ersatzinfinitiv. But no, the Ersatzinfinitiv is not preferred by Southerners. They use it but they sometimes also use the Partizip II with modals. Northerners never do that.
    – Janka
    Commented May 12 at 16:31
  • Oops my mistake! I forgot about the implied "zu" in Ersatzinfinitiv so I realize my question doesn't make a lot of sense here. But I'm guessing then southern germans are more likely to say "haben...gehabt" or "ist...ge/worden" when a northerner would prefer "hatten" or "wurden", correct? Commented May 12 at 16:38
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    Yes. Doppeltes Perfekt instead of Plusquamperfekt is also common in the south.
    – Janka
    Commented May 12 at 16:39

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