Past tense use in German speech/writing

Discussion in 'Deutsch (German)' started by popotla, Dec 7, 2012.

  1. popotla Senior Member

    British English
    My German-language reading and listening level is mid-B1, mywriting probably the same, and speaking some way behind that.

    I’ve just written a short story (about 300 words) but am unsure and insecure about use of the past tenses. There’s the “broad rule”, Ibelieve, that in speech one uses “bin gegangen” (etc.) and in writing, “ging” (etc.).Is that to say that when recounting events in a conversation (“ I flew to.....and on the flight met .... and then I checked into the XYZ Hotel”, etc. etc.)and then telling that same story in written form, the German tense changes? (I’maware of the need to use, normally, “war” and “hatte” and “wollte” and thecorresponding forms of other modal verbs in speech; that’s not part of theproblem.)

    Another point is that in English, it’s not just importantbut essential to make appropriate contrasts and distinctions between “had gone”/”went”/”was going” forms (e.g. “I'd just had a shower and while I was drinking tea, the phone rang”) but am not atall sure how German does this. I’ve heard that in German the use of past tensesis “looser” than in English.

    I’m sorry if my question is too long, but any pointers wouldbe appreciated. Thanks.
  2. Frank78

    Frank78 Senior Member

    The only strict distincition in German tenses is between past and present + future. So you only have to think when there's present perfect in English. That can be Präteritum/Perfekt in German, e.g. when it was just finished or Präsens, e.g. when something started in the past and is ongoing in the present.

    In written stories you often encounter the Präteritum (but Perfekt wouldn't be wrong). It the typical "storytelling tense" used in fictional stories like fairy tales but as well as in writings about history. But there is no strict rule. A lot of people just perceive Präteritum as a higher register than Perfekt.
    So: "Ich flog nach...auf dem Flug traf ich...dann checkte ich im Hotel XYZ ein" is as correct as "Ich bin nach...geflogen, habe ...getroffen und habe im Hotel XYZ eingecheckt."

    "I'd just had a shower and while I was drinking tea, the phone rang”" - Here you need for the first part Plusquamperfekt (past perfect) because it happened before something else in the past. That's the same as in English.
    "Ich hatte gerade geduscht und war beim Teetrinken als das Telefon geklingelt hat/klingelte.

    Progressive tenses can be redered into German by various means, e.g. adverbs of time (gerade, im Moment, etc.).
    Just compare:
    Ich arbeite für IBM - I work for IBM.
    Im Moment/Zur Zeit arbeite ich an der Entwicklung neuer Prozessoren. - At the moment, I'm working on the development of new processors.

  3. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    As a broad rule, in a written story with a narrative style I would follow your intuition from English concerning when to use Präteritum and when to Perfekt. The sentence (to take Fank's example)
    Ich hatte gerade geduscht und war beim Teetrinken als das Telefon geklingelt hat/klingelte.
    sounds absolutely horrible with geklingelt hat. You should use Präteritum here. In a narrative text, Präteritum is used to describe an event and Perfect to describe a state. Replacement of Präteritum with Perfect, as it is customary colloquial language or in non-narrative texts, would, in my mind, be unacceptable in a written story.

    What I just said does not apply to the Plusquamperfekt. Contrary to English, it expresses only temporal antecedence and does not express aspect. Hence, you use Plusquamperfekt even though you describe a finished event and not a state.

    To repeat what I just said, I disagree with the statement in bold:
  4. Arukami Senior Member

    I also don't think that's right.
    "Perfekt" should only be used for direct speech in written stories.
    Though, for talking, "Perfekt" is probably the most common tense in German language, except for modal verbs (Präteritum instead). Some parts of Germany also have their own style for handling tenses.
  5. Hutschi

    Hutschi Senior Member

    If you apply this rule it usually results in a reasonable story.
    But it depends also on the style of the story whether you can use present perfect.
    If you consider the writer as story teller or if there is a story teller or if you want to use informal style, you can use perfect and even switch between the tenses. But this requires experience.
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2012
  6. Frank78

    Frank78 Senior Member

    I also still think it's not a question of right or wrong but of style. Either intended (as Hutschi said) or unintended, the latter when the author has limited abilities. You may read it in light-entertaining fictional stories.
  7. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Then it wouldn't be a story any more. For a piece of literature to qualify as a story (Geschichte/Erzählung) you have to adhere to some minimum standard.
  8. Sowka

    Sowka Senior Member

    German, Northern Germany
    Good morning :)

    I also think that it depends on the type of the story.

    If the story as a whole is, for example, set as an inner monolog, a mental record of events of a person, then the frequent use of present perfect will make it sound more natural. But in general, of course, of these two tenses, past tense will be the appropriate tense for literature.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2012
  9. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Of course. This is then a form of direct speech in the context of Arukami's explanation.

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