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Is there a difference between "Он не был там." and "Его там не было."?

Are both phrases correct?

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  • 2
    I may be wrong, but I think a better syntax for the second option would be его там не было.
    – CocoPop
    Jan 12 at 15:28
  • 1
    @CocoPop "его там не было" is a common, more fluent word order for this phrase the way it's written, which puts no particular emphasis on any part. Changing word order to "eго не было там" adds a stress on "не было" as in "I'm telling you, he/it WAS NOT there.
    – DK.
    Jan 12 at 17:50
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    @DK. Very interesting. Thank you for the explanation!
    – CocoPop
    Jan 12 at 18:14
  • 1
    No difference really. A some difference may appear in a case of using stress in the phrase, but in this example there is no difference. Jan 13 at 8:32

3 Answers 3

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Его там не было corresponds to the Past Simple phrase “he wasn't there [at that time]” meaning either “he was absent” or “he was somewhere else”:

• Ушли, а когда через несколько минут вернулись, его там не было.
• Я готов был поручиться, что пять минут назад его там не было.
• Открыл дверь в комнату, где спал Виктор, но его там не было.

Он там не был corresponds the the Present (or Past) Perfect phrase “he has/had not [ever] been there” meaning “he has/had been to different places, but not to that one” or “he has/had not been there for/since {time}”:

• Еще помню, заметил, что Равенна мне сильно помогла (он там не был и очень жалел об этом).
• Давно он там не был, больше пяти лет.
• Сам он там не был, конечно, туда фиг доберешься.

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    This is defintely the most concise and elegant answer. And the English is impeccable.
    – CocoPop
    Jan 14 at 14:27
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"Не был":

  • is the preferred form in reference to people (or animate objects that can move on their own)
  • may be used for inanimate objects, to stress they they were in a different location ("Нож не был в его руках, он лежал на столе" "The knife was never in his hands — it was on the table.").

"Не было" is preferred:

  • in reference to inanimate objects
  • when the absence is witnessed by someone (compare "Он не был в Париже" "He's never been to Paris" and "Его не было в Париже" "He wasn't in Paris [at the time]").
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Looks like it depends on the context, the story. You can orient yourself by defining, an object or a subject is he. For example:

_Мы_ искали повсюду - **его не было** в том районе
We were searching everywhere - he was not in that district

vs

_Он_ любит говорить про итальянское искусство, но **он не был** в Италии
He likes talking about Italian art, but he has never been in Italy

Note, there is no opposit form, like ~~меня было~~ (hah, sounds ridiculous)


While writing this answer, I might discover (can't find counterexample) another one hint: меня там не было ['at that moment, not somewhen'] is suitable to Past Simple, while я не был там ['whenever or recently'] looks good for Present/Past Perfect. But you can still stress the context and say

UPD: The following example was wrong, I'm sorry

Я никогда там **не был**
I've never been there
[Without stress turns into Present Perfect]
Я там не был
I've not been there
[With stress turns into Past Simple]
Я не был там **вчера**
I was not there yesterday
(and still legal to say 'Вчера **его там не было**')

Similarly to 'меня там не было'
[Without stress]
Меня там не было
I was not there
[With stress]
Меня там **никогда** не было
I have never been there
(and still legal to say '**Я там не был**')

So it may be more universal, but less convenient to use the first part of the answer, with <active subject (the hero of the story)> vs <passive object (relative to the story heroes)>

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  • I don't understand this... Could you please write this part in Russian: While writing this answer, I might discover (can't find counterexample) another one hint: меня там не было ['at that moment, not somewhen'] is suitable to Past Simple, while я не был там ['whenever or recently'] looks good for Present/Past Perfect. But you can still stress the context and say...
    – CocoPop
    Jan 12 at 23:17
  • @CocoPop, При подборе примеров я заметил, что предложения с 'меня там не было' в английском варианте у меня чаще_всего выходят в Past Simple, примеры же с 'я там не был' при переводе на английский получаются в Perfect (будь то Present или Past). Но я не готов назвать это строгим правилом, потому что Можно подобрать предложения в обход такого 'правила'
    – makaleks
    Jan 13 at 8:44
  • @Malakeks: I think you would've been better off writing this answer in Russian. I'm trying to edit it so that it makes sense, but I myself don't understand it. For instance, where you write: You can orient yourself by defining, an object or a subject is he. Do you mean: You can start by establishing whether "he" is the subject or the object of the sentence. (?)
    – CocoPop
    Jan 13 at 12:05
  • @CocoPop I'd like to put up a little amendment to the aforecited. When the stress needs to be put on the subject and not on locating its position in space one can also make use of "не был" (in this case it can be equated to Past Indefinite/Simple): "Золотым не был нож в его сердце, золотым было его сердце"-"The knife poked in his heart wasn't made of gold, this very heart was golden". Also Past Simple: "В Вегасе не был он, в Вегасе был его брат"-"It was not he who was in Las Vegas, it was his brother who was in Las Vegas" (I attest to my having seen his brother there/I avouch it).
    – Eugene
    Jan 13 at 15:17
  • The English in this answer is just incomprehensible. It should be written in Russian. I can't make any sense of it even to edit it.
    – CocoPop
    Jan 13 at 18:10

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