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Here are a couple of sentences:

  1. 雨が降るそうです
  2. 雨が降りそうです

Does 1 mean I hear it will rain, while 2 means It seems it will rain??

And then, what about tenses?:

  1. 雨が降ったそうです
  2. ?

1 meaning I heard it will rain? There is no past masu stem so how would you create 2? Would 2 then just mean It looked like it would rain?

To add to my confusion, there is みたい. What is the difference between verb masu stem + そう and plain verb + みたい?

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when following what could be called 'sentence form', そうだ means I heard/people say that.

雨が降るそうだ - I heard it will rain

when following a verb's masu-stem or an adjective's stem (remove い or な as appropriate), そうだ means it looks like/seems

雨が降りそうだ - It looks like it will rain

Next you have みたい

みたい(だ) is a more casual version of よう(だ) and both work basically the same way:

It expresses

a) a likelihood of something (looks like/appears to be the case) e.g. 木村さんは昨日お酒はを飲んだようだ・木村さんは昨日お酒を飲んだみたいだ It seems that Mr Kimura dran sake yesterday

b) I likeness/similarity between one thing and another e.g. この酒は水のようだ・この酒は水みたいだ this sake i like water

The difference between みたい・よう and そう (meaning looks like) is that:

そう is based on what the speaker sees or feels and there i less certainty than with よう which is also based on what the speaker sees/saw, but involves further reasoning on the part of the speaker to interpret the situation. There may be more reliable information involved here.

Basically, そう is a simple 'it looks like', where as よう is 'it seems to me, that...'

You may also find the expressions だろう/でしょう or らしい which can express similar ideas to the above.

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