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In Italian I am told by a professor of Italian grammar that it is correct Italian to say,

"La persona chi hai visto è Maria,"

which translates in English to,

"The person you saw is Maria."

But I believe this is bad English, and proper usage would match the verb tenses with,

"The person you saw was Maria."

After all, the sentence by itself does not tell you whether Maria still exists or not. I am wondering which way German goes? Is,

"Die Person, die du gesehen hast, ist Maria,"

correct German or not?

If both versions are correct, what sentence is better style?

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  • As so often, this depends on the intended meaning. Normally, both will be equally correct. If Maria has since transitioned to be Josef, then the present tense would be wrong. Commented Jun 20 at 10:28

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In your example, both versions (past and present tense in the main clause) are possible, and despite the grammatical difference, they do not differ in meaning.

If you actually wanted to express that Maria is deceased, you cannot rely on using the past tense. Based on my personal experience, I would say that most people will use the past tense here in most situations. There seems to be some driver to harmonize the temporal aspects of the relative clause and the main clause.

If one wants to pay very much attention to detail, one could argue that the past tense in the main clause introduces a slight ambiguity. You cannot expect to find this level of attention to grammatical detail in actual communication. Ultimately, the question of whether the sentence with past tense is ambiguous touches the difference between a purely grammatic and a pragmatic point of view on language. Concerning style, I would say that mixing the tenses is widely accepted. If some mathematical sense of clarity is considered a stylistic ideal, it would be advisable to use the present tense. Nonetheless, I would say that this ideal is shared amongst a small subset of speakers only, and mixing tenses is considered perfectly fine style-wise.

Everything said above applies only if the relative clause is past tense. If the relative clause is present tense, (Die Person, die du siehst), the tense difference will make a semantic difference. The sentence Die Person, die du siehst, war Maria would implicate that the person is not Maria any longer.

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What you have to understand is that in stark contrast to English, Präteritum is not a past tense in High German.

And that's important because High German became the base for Standard German.

In Standard German, Präteritum is only used to mark narratives. That's why it's used a lot in fictional works. This is the same in English, by the way.

Low German is different however. It tells apart the perfect and imperfect aspects just as English does. So Imperfekt is used the same way as simple past tense in English, as the main tense for describing past events.

But that's Low German. It's not the standard. And even Northerners nowadays hardly speak Low German but instead High German with their dialect's accent, and enriched with Low German vocabulary. You can find Low German speakers in the rural parts of Lower Saxony mostly, Northwest of Nienburg, and in Vorpommern.

That use of imperfect for marking the past however survived in common situations in the speech of Northerners. Nowadays Northerners use it as a replacement for Perfekt with the auxiliaries, the modals and some very common verbs as geben, or kommen. The latter only in some situations.

And this shortcut for Perfekt has also spread southwards. The more North the speaker is from the more verbs belong to this group. In Munich you may still find a sprinkled war sometimes but in Upper Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland its completely uncommon.


Let's evaluate your example:

Die Person, die du gesehen hast, ist Maria.

This is Perfekt tense and Präsens tense. They mark the past respective the non-past of reality. That non-past of reality is used because Maria is still Maria.

Die Person, die du gesehen hattest, war Maria.

This is Plusquamperfekt tense and Präteritum tense. They mark the past respective the non-past of a narrative. Otherwise the same logic as above.

Die Person, die du gesehen hast, war Maria.

This is a mix. That war cannot mark a narrative in this context as it would make no sense. So it's the replacement for Perfekt. It means the same as:

Die Person, die du gesehen hast, ist Maria gewesen.

Both events are marked as past events. Maria is no more. Has she deceased? Or does she go by the name Karl nowadays? No clue. Most people would assume you meant ist Maria. As she indeed still is Maria. But you hypercorrected it for some unknown reason.

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