Perfekt vs. Präteritum

Darunia

Senior Member
English-United States
In which cases would you use the Perfekt past and when would you use the Präteritum? For example, when would I say "Ich bin gewesen" and when would I say "Ich war" ?

Can you also please give me some examples.
 
  • Darunia

    Senior Member
    English-United States
    I have to figure that there is some reason why no one is answering this but I can't imagine why it is. I must have done something wrong. If someone will fill me in, I'll rectify it.
     

    Suilan

    Senior Member
    Germany (NRW)
    Questions about the tenses have been asked quite often before. You could use the search function -- unless you have a question about a specific sentence where you are unsure which is the correct tense.

    A general question like yours -- without any context -- would take a reply of several pages.
     

    schabernack

    Member
    Austria, German
    I can give you an answer beside the grammar rules...
    In Austria we use more the Ich bin gewesen. (We learn in school how to use it correctly, I don't remember..)
    I think you use it the same way that you use it in English. But I'm not 100% sure. So don't flame me if it is not right.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    Suilan is right; the question is a bit broad. Let me try to give you the big picture (maybe ignoring a few subtleties):

    Usage depends on style and region.

    In the colloquial speech in the south, the Perfekt has practically completely replaced the Präteritum. The situation is roughly as in French.

    In literary style and in colloquial speech in the north the Päteritum is still widely used and corresponds to the English past tense. The Perfekt expresses a recent past which often but not always coincides with the English present perfect. Where it differs from the English present perfect is that you would e.g. translate "I have been living in Germany for 10 years" as "Ich wohne seit 10 Jahren in Deutschland", i.e. Präsens rather than Perfekt because use of Perfekt would imply you don't live there any more.

    Perfekt and Präteritum are often but not always used interchangeably. An example where Perfekt and Präteritum are not interchangeable is the following:
    (1) "Es hat aufgehört zu regnen."
    (2) "Es hörte auf zu regnen."
    If it stopped raining and has restarted since you cannot use (1) but you can use (2) (which is again the same situation as in French). Southerners, who generally don't use the Präteritum at all, would in this case use the Plusquamperfekt to replace the Präteritum:
    (2') "Es hatte aufgehört zu regnen."
     

    Natabka

    Senior Member
    Ukraine (Ukrainian)
    Right, Suilan, questions about tenses are often answered and often asked, but it seems an inexhaustible topic ;). And I'd like to add that it is not unusual that in different countries the problem is explained differently. With us, it is usually said that German Perfekt is used mostly in speech and Präteritum in writing, that is they are quite synonimical forms, one dying out. Is it right?
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    With us, it is usually said that German Perfekt is used mostly in speech and Präteritum in writing, that is they are quite synonimical forms, one dying out. Is it right?
    Broadly speaking, yes. With this exceptions I noted earlier.
     

    Suilan

    Senior Member
    Germany (NRW)
    Why would you say the Präteritum is dying out? It is still the main form to indicate the past in anything written, including daily newspapers.

    In this regard, Präteritum is similar to the French passé simple, BUT unlike the passé simple, it is used both for the action (in written French: passé simple, in spoken French passé composé) AND the background information/ongoing activities (in written or spoken French: imparfait).

    Example: "I was in the garden mowing the lawn when Marc showed up."

    Written French: "J'étais dans le jardin et je tondais la pelouse (imparfait), quand Marc vint (passé simple)."

    Spoken French: "J'étais dans le jardin et je tondais la pelouse (imparfait), quand Marc est venu (passé composé)."

    Written German: "Ich war im Garten und mähte den Rasen, als Mark kam. (alles Präteritum)"

    Spoken German: "Ich war im Garten (Präteritum) und habe den Rasen gemäht (Perfekt), als Mark gekommen ist. (Perfekt)"


    P.S. This speaker would prefer "war" (or warst, waren, wart) to "bin/ist gewesen" (or bist/waren/seid/sind gewesen) in most spoken contexts, even though with other verbs, she prefers Perfekt. Bsp: "Ich war gestern im Kino und habe eine alte Schulfreundin getroffen."
     
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    Suilan

    Senior Member
    Germany (NRW)
    BTW, it should say: "Perfekt oder Präteritum?"

    You use gegen to name the opponents in a fight or match: "Max Schmeling gegen Joe Louis" or "Schalke 04 gegen FC Porto"
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    Spoken German: "Ich war im Garten (ImperfektPräteritum) und habe den Rasen gemäht (PräteritumPerfekt), als Mark gekommen ist. (PräteritumPerfekt)"
    Do we have an issue with terminology here which he have to sort out before proceeding or was this simply a mistake on your side?

    This speaker would prefer "war" (or warst, waren, wart) to "bin/ist gewesen"
    As a northerner, I feel like you but for my wife who is Austrian Präteritum is a historic verb form which is not part of her active (spoken) language at all.
     

    Suilan

    Senior Member
    Germany (NRW)
    Not an issue. I wrote Präteritum when I meant Perfekt. :( I corrected it in the previous post.

    Back in school, I learned about Imperfekt and Perfekt. We never used to call it Präteritum at all.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I remember that as well. It is my understanding that Präteritum is preferred today to avoid confusions with the Latin/Romance imperfect.
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Perfekt and Präteritum are often but not always used interchangeably. An example where Perfekt and Präteritum are not interchangeable is the following:
    (1) "Es hat aufgehört zu regnen."
    (2) "Es hörte auf zu regnen."
    If it stopped raining and has restarted since you cannot use (1) but you can use (2) (which is again the same situation as in French). Southerners, who generally don't use the Präteritum at all, would in this case use the Plusquamperfekt to replace the Präteritum:
    (2') "Es hatte aufgehört zu regnen."
    Southerners (Germans) might, but Austrians certainly don't.
    In Austria the situation is rather simple:
    - Perfekt is used in everyday speech, almost exclusively*) (only in some towns, especially in Vienna and surroundings, some people sometimes use 'bookish style' Präteritum in colloquial speech for stylistic reasons - but even for them Perfekt is the unmarked, everyday colloquial form)
    - Plusquamperfekt is hardly used in everyday speech; well, it is used but if then in an Austrian variety: it isn't "es hatte aufgehört zu regnen" but rather "es hat zu regnen aufgehört gehabt": sounds clumsy in standard language but better in colloquial speech which would be something like "es hat zum regnen aufghört ghabt, als wir aus der Schule gangen sind"; this kind of plu'perfect you even can find in Austrian literature, occasionally; but plu'perfect of course in general is a tense not used very often
    - Präteritum is used in written texts (and especially in school teachers are very strict that the pupils and students learn and use Präteritum when writing), only rarely in speech

    In the example above most Austrians most likely would use simple Perfekt except if it were important by context to underline that the rain had already stopped, in which case Austrian plu'perfect would be used.

    Of course this only describes Austrian use and certainly has no relevance to most parts of Germany.

    *) There's one exception to that rule: "ich war" and "ich bin gewesen" are used both, also colloquial, and "ich war" is not rare in use at all. But there is no difference in meaning, not even in style really: both "ich war" and "ich bin gewesen mean exactly the same here in Austria. (Only difference one might see here is that probably (!) the youth might have a preference for "ich war" even though they also use "ich bin gewesen".)
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    *) There's one exception to that rule: "ich war" and "ich bin gewesen" are used both, also colloquial, and "ich war" is not rare in use at all.
    Yes, I agree. Sein and possibly haben are exceptions where Präteritum is also widely used in southern colloquial speech.

    Swiss German is different again. I don't actively speek Swiss German but I am used to hearing it. I only know "Er isch gsi" (="Er ist gewesen"). I am not even sure whether there is a Swiss German form for "Er war".
     

    vermillionxtears

    Senior Member
    American English (general American dialect)
    I typically take notes when I study things. I was studying the past tense not too long ago and I basically copied some of the things the site said onto a document. The site said it was "according to Duden" but also that "Germans often don't follow their own rules" so the truthfulness of this usage in everyday speech is disputable.

    The notes said something generally like this:

    "According to Duden, you use imperfect [Imperfekt] when:

    1) an action that happened in a time before the one the event is talked about,
    and
    2) has no influence on the present time.
    Gestern regnete es und heute scheint die Sonne.
    (Yesterday it rained and today the sun is shining.)

    You use the perfect [Perfekt] when:

    1) an action that started in a time before the one the event is talked about
    and
    2a) the action is finished and the result is still important in the present time
    2b) the end of the action is in the present or even in the future
    Heute hat es geregnet, aber jetzt scheint die Sonne."

    Though I think this is much more true in English than it seems to be in German. :/
     

    Hutschi

    Senior Member
    In colloquial language, many people use or prefer the perfect when using a narrative style - especially in regions with special dialects. In some dialects there is (almost) no past tense because the verbs lost there endings, and so you cannot decide whether it is past tense or present tense. In this case it is replaced by the perfect. When speaking standard German, often the words and the sentence structure are adapted, but not the rules for times.

    In such regions, you can find also overcompensation like in "ich war in Paris gewesen" for "ich war in Paris".
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Though I think this is much more true in English than it seems to be in German. :/
    Unfortunately (as far as learners of German are considered, of course) the rules put by Duden do not have much relevance in practice - not even, many times, for educated speakers on TV and radio (not even in northern Germany, where there too are a great many violations of Duden rules by educated speakers).

    The use of Perfekt and Präteritum in Germany, Switzerland and Austria is extremely complicated and different according to regions (with great differencies inside Germany while Austria and most likely Switzerland too are relatively homogenuous in use inside the country).



    You may of course follow the Duden rules, and if you do native speakers certainly will understand what you say, but they probably will ignore any special meanings intended by you (like wether the event still has connection to the present, or hasn't).
    This should cause no major problems in everyday life.

    The way we speak is just the way we speak - there's nothing one can do about that. ;)
     

    Suilan

    Senior Member
    Germany (NRW)
    Unfortunately (as far as learners of German are considered, of course) the rules put by Duden do not have much relevance in practice - not even, many times, for educated speakers on TV and radio (not even in northern Germany, where there too are a great many violations of Duden rules by educated speakers).
    Actually, I think §§ 257-262 of the Grammatik Duden explain well enough why Perfekt is preferred in spoken contexts, and some of the uses of Präteritum they suggest would be used by this northern speaker in everyday speech.

    Eg: "Meine Mutter hat gestern den Schlüssel vergessen. Als ich nach Hause kam, stand sie vor der Tür."

    You could also look up Präteritum and Perfekt in Duden #9, Richtiges und Gutes Deutsch, to find more information on Präteritum and spoken German.

    The Duden isn't nearly as prescriptive as some people think.

    On the other hand, students of a foreign language need definite rules to be able to master grammar -- the fewer, the better. The Grammar Duden isn't much help to them (unless to very very advanced students) precisely because it tries to describe as much of the German language-as-it's-really-written-and-spoken as possible.

    The use of Perfekt and Präteritum in Germany, Switzerland and Austria is extremely complicated
    Compared to English tenses or French tenses, German tenses are rather uncomplicated. And there are a lot less of them.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I find this a very good observation. I would add that because there is such a variety of uses the rules about German tenses are quite relaxed. I think as a learner you can very well treat the two tenses as identical in meaning, maybe with the slight complication outlined in the last paragraph of my post #5. And even if you get that wrong it is, by far, not as serious a mistake as confusing past tense and present perfect in English.
     
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    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Compared to English tenses or French tenses, German tenses are rather uncomplicated. And there are a lot less of them.
    Not to mention Spanish.
    Of course you're right concerning the tenses themselves; what is complicated (and that was what my post was about) is the use of tenses in German which, in 'real life', isn't even near that what grammars state.

    Also in the north of Germany, of course, even though Präteritum is used there in everyday speech - but there is a trend in Germany to overuse Plusquamperfekt when really Perfekt or Präteritum would be appropriate.
    And this use definitely is not restricted to the 'people on the street', you can also hear it on German news reports, and regularly so.
     

    mickey89

    Member
    Vietnamese
    Would you please help me to distinguish the differences between PRÄTERITUM(narrative past) and PERFEKT( conversational past)? Präteritum is said to be mostly used in written german. but sometimes i find it used in spoken german. another point confusing me is that modal verbs,e.g sein, haben, wollen, etc. are advised to be conjugated in Perfekt, whereas there are sentences as follows: "Wir haben lange warten müssen". why don't we write: "Wir mußten lange warten" with a view to be simplier:p
     

    Henryk

    Senior Member
    Germany, German
    This topic was discussed not too long ago. Look here.

    To give you a rather superficial answer: The two render the same thing and can be used interchangeably most of the time, with the Perfekt being preferred in everyday speech and the Präteritum formally and in written language.

    In my book, there's no point in learning the exact difference in usage between them. I doubt any native speaker does because you hear everything in everyday speech. The Präteritum forms of "sein", "haben", "müssen", dürfen" and "können" are highly common and I'd warmly recommend to use them since they sound much better than their Perfekt counterparts. As for the other verbs, it depends on whether you're writing a letter or talking to a friend informally.
     

    Robocop

    Senior Member
    (Swiss) German
    Swiss German dialect for one does neither have simple past nor past perfect but only present perfect to express what happened in the past. I think that is why there is a preference for the present perfect not only in spoken but also in written standard (Swiss) German.
     

    chifladoporlosidiomas

    Senior Member
    English (US)
    Hello everyone. I am in my third year of German this year and I would like to go on to German Five next (granted I learn enough this year). However, this is one big problem; I don't know the exact dynamics of the uses between the two past tenses. My German teacher doesn't give me an explanation as to why I can't use it. It's a lot simpler than the 'conversational' past and easier to use; it's actually the first tense to come to my mind when I'm speaking/writing(more often). And I've looked online and it just tells me that the simple past should only be used in writing (formal writings to be exact). How would I be percieved if I only used the simple past in conversation? What are the pragmatic regulations on its use? Is there truly a difference? And if possible, could you be detailed in your answer and use examples so that I better understand what you are trying to convey. Thanks in advance.

    Merged. Please use search function. :)
     
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    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    To repeat in a very few words, simplifying hugely:

    - If you only use compound past you will be understood perfectly.

    - If you manage to speak German without a trace of a foreign accent and you use compound past only native speakers probably will mistake you for a Southerner (Germany), or alternatively for Austrian because Austrians almost exclusively use compound past in spoken standard language. Swiss Germans however try to consistently use Präteritum when speaking standard language (even though they only use compound past in dialect).

    - There are rules for when to use Perfekt = compound past and when to use Präteritum = simple past - but they are not at all consistently applied by native speakers, so you will be confronted with many "wrong" uses of these tenses by native speakers concerning the norm prescribed by grammars.

    For more details please try to read and understand the merged posts above and then ask further questions. :)
     
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    Suilan

    Senior Member
    Germany (NRW)
    How would I be percieved if I only used the simple past in conversation?

    First, there is no difference in meaning between simple past and compound past. You'd be understood, no problem, but it does sound strange. Like you're reading out a novel.

    (1) simple past -- is OK if you ARE telling a story, like an anecdote, something that happened long ago, complete with beginning, story arc, and grand finale. Something where you would expect a moral at the end. Also, a report (for the police or your health insurance about an accident) can be told or written in simple past.

    "Ich hatte mal einen Freund, der war bei der Polizei. Eines Abends ging er in eine Kneipe... etc (all in past tense, until conclusion.)"

    "Ich hatte mal einen Freund, der fand es ganz doof, dass... whatever."

    "Am Montag, den x.y.2008 verließ ich meine Wohnung, ging die so-und-so Straße hinunter, als plötzlich ein Auto um die Ecke schoss."

    (2) Compound past

    But other than that, we prefer the compound past in speech or email or private letters.

    "Gestern habe ich eine Schulfreundin in der Stadt getroffen. Wir haben uns eine ganze Stunde unterhalten."

    "Letztes Jahr ist meine Tante gestorben."

    "Shakespeare hat xy Dramen geschrieben."

    In some regions (e.g. where I'm from), we prefer to use the simple past in case of sein and haben, but compound past for everything else. So it's:

    "Gestern habe ich eine Schulfreundin in der Stadt getroffen. Leider waren wir beide in Eile / hatten wir es beide eilig."

    (RATHER THAN: leider sind wir beide in Eile gewesen / haben wir es beide eilig gehabt)

    In some regions (mainly the south) people claim they don't ever use simple past in speech. I always forget to pay attention to that when I listen to them, so I don't know if that's true ;o)
     
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    Suilan

    Senior Member
    Germany (NRW)
    @ Mickey89

    Actually, with müssen, I would tend toward using the simple past.

    "Musstest du deinen Ausweis zeigen?"

    (RATHER THAN: Hast du deinen Ausweis zeigen müssen?")

    "Musstest du gestern nicht beim Renovieren helfen?"

    (RATHER THAN: Hast du gestern nicht beim Renovieren helfen müssen?)

    "Ich musste gestern erstmal meine Bude aufräumen."

    (RATHER THAN: "Ich hab gestern erstmal meine Bude aufräumen müssen.")

    It's to avoid three verb forms in a row.

    But it's not as consistent as with war and hatte. I might also use the sentences in brackets, while I would never say: "Ich bin gestern im Kino gewesen" or: "Ich habe gestern einen Unfall gehabt."
     

    chifladoporlosidiomas

    Senior Member
    English (US)
    To Suilan:


    To repeat in a very few words, simplifying hugely:

    - If you only use simple past you will be understood perfectly.

    - If you manage to speak German without a trace of a foreign accent and you use simple past only native speakers probably will mistake you for a Southerner (Germany), or alternatively for Austrian because Austrians almost exclusively use simple past in spoken standard language. Swiss Germans however try to consistently use Präteritum when speaking standard language (even though they only use simple past in dialect).

    - There are rules for when to use Perfekt and when to use Präteritum - but they are not at all consistently applied by native speakers, so you will be confronted with many "wrong" uses of these tenses by native speakers concerning the norm prescribed by grammars.

    For more details please try to read and understand the merged posts above and then ask further questions. :)

    Is there some confusion between the two of you? One of you say that it is used rather much in the south and then the other says that it isn't used at all. I was gonna suggest that I just learn a southern dialect (of course, along side Stanard German), but now I'm not so sure about to think.

    I've read the other replies and now I think I'm even more perplexed than before. :( IF there is no real difference in the meaning that the two tenses convey, why am I making a big deal over this in the first place? And if so, how will I be viewed by German-speakers if I only use the simple past?????? That's kinda (but not really) the real question. Will they think I'm too 'posh' (stuck-up)?
     
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    ABBA Stanza

    Senior Member
    English (UK)
    Is there some confusion between the two of you? One of you say that it is used rather much in the south and then the other says that it isn't used at all. I was gonna suggest that I just learn a southern dialect (of course, along side Stanard German), but now I'm not so sure about to think.
    I think sokol made a small mistake. ;)

    As Suilan says, Southerners have a marked tendency to use the perfect tense. In other words, they'll say (for example):

    "Ich bin zur Schule gegangen" instead of "Ich ging zur Schule", and
    "Es ist nicht gut gelaufen" instead of "Es lief nicht gut".

    Abba

    P.S. I wouldn't recommend using the simple past all the time, as it would sound really strange and would probably only impress a relatively small minority. Occasional use of some of the less weird-sounding forms would be no problem (e.g., "Es ließ sich nicht mehr ändern"), but I'd steer clear of saying things like "Sie aß einen Apfel", "Er wusch sich die Hände" or "Sie flogen nach Italien" in everyday conversation if I were you!
     
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    Suilan

    Senior Member
    Germany (NRW)
    IF there is no real difference in the meaning that the two tenses convey, why am I making a big deal over this in the first place? And if so, how will I be viewed by German-speakers if I only use the simple past?
    OK, there is a small difference. (Discussed e.g. here, comment 7+8:
    http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1244345)

    With the simple past (Imperfekt/Präteritum), the point of view lies within the past situation/event you describe. You think yourself back into that situation and tell it as if it were happening just now. (That's why it's also used in novels, eh.)

    However, if you tell someone about what you did yesterday (got up, went to work, did some shopping, watched telly, went to bed) -- all of which is past and not interesting enough to relive again in story form -- you want to use compound past (Perfekt). Because usually you look at past events from the present moment, right? Not from within the past.

    I think the effect of using simple past in speech is that you come across as very dramatic. You tell everyday events as if they were part of a suspense novel.
     
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    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    I think sokol made a small mistake. ;)
    Yes I did - I'm very sorry for the confusion, obviously I've mixed up the terms. I'll correct the post above. :)

    My special excuses go to chifladoporlosidiomas. :eek:

    OK, there is a small difference. (Discussed e.g. here, comment 7+8:
    http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1244345)

    With the simple past (Imperfekt/Präteritum), the point of view lies within the past situation/event you describe. (...)

    However, if you tell someone about what you did yesterday (...) you want to use compound past (Perfekt).
    Yes, that's approximately the difference between both in those regions where simple past and compound past still are clearly differentiated.

    But as already said in Southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria (and I would guess as well in the south-east - Saxonia and Thuringia) this distinction is not made consistently - and at least in Austria no such distinction is made, not at all.

    Further I've also heard on occasion Northerners use simple past when I would have expected compound past (as described by Suilan), and also there's an increase of use of plu'perfect instead of simple past in some northern regions (see for example this thread here).

    So unfortunately, from the point of view of a learner of German, the actual use of tenses is not straightforward.
    But as Abba said you should not limit yourself to simple past; it is okay for beginner level, but if you want to make progress in German you have no choice but to learn all the tenses, and try to use it correctly.
     
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    Philo2009

    Senior Member
    English
    It seems to me that, on any grammar topic, learners require - at least initially - a fairly simple set of rules, exceptions to which, whether of the colloquial or literary kind, can be assimilated gradually over time and with experience.

    Regarding German tense-usage (vis-a-vis English) in the spoken language, I would suggest the following:

    1. Use German simple past tense (a.k.a. "imperfect/preterite") where
    A) English would use a past progressive (was/were -ing)
    or
    B) English would use a simple past (was/had, etc.) in reference to a past state/condition rather than to an action or event (put another way, where it would not answer the question 'what did you do/ what happened?')

    2. Use German perfect tense (a.k.a. present perfect) where
    A) English would use a present perfect (have/has -ed), except where combined with an adverbial of duration (since .../for...years, etc.)
    B) English would use a simple past (did/walked, etc.) in reference to a past action/event (in other words, something that would answer the question 'what did you do/what happened?')

    *Regarding written/literary German, simply substitute simple past for perfect in case 2B.

    Examples:

    1A. Ich stand vor dem Bahnhof, als ich ihn gesehen habe.
    (I was standing in front of the station, when I saw him.)

    1B. Ich war einmals sehr reich.
    (I was once very rich.)

    2A. Ich habe in meinem Leben viele verschiedene Leute gekannt.
    (I have known many different people in my life.)

    2B. Gestern habe ich einen neuen Mantel gekauft.
    (Yesterday I bought a new coat.)
     
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    chifladoporlosidiomas

    Senior Member
    English (US)
    It seems to me that, on any grammar topic, learners require - at least initially - a fairly simple set of rules, exceptions to which, whether of the colloquial or literary kind, can be assimilated gradually over time and with experience.

    Regarding German tense-usage (vis-¨¤-vis English) in the spoken language, I would suggest the following:

    1. Use German simple past tense (a.k.a. "imperfect/preterite") where
    A) English would use a past progressive (was/were¡¡-ing)
    or
    B) English would use a simple past (was/had, etc.) in relation to a past state/condition rather than to an action or event (put another way, where it would not answer the question 'what did you do/ what happened?')

    2. Use German perfect tense (a.k.a. present perfect) where
    A) English would use a present perfect (have/has -ed), except where combined with an adverbial of duration (since .../for...years, etc.)
    B) English would use a simple past (did/walked, etc.) in reference to a past action/event (in other words, something that would answer the question 'what did you do/what happened?')

    *Regarding written/literary German, simply substitute simple past for perfect in case 2B.

    Examples:

    1A. Ich stand vor dem Bahnhof, als ich ihn gesehen habe.
    (I was standing in front of the station, when I saw him.)

    1B. Ich war einmals sehr reich.
    (I was once very rich.)

    2A. Ich habe in meinem Leben viele verschiedene Leute gekannt.
    (I have known many different people in my life.)

    2B. Gestern habe ich einen neuen Mantel gekauft.
    (Yesterday I bought a new coat.)
    This works the best for me; thanks. So there is a SMALL difference in grammatical aspect between the two. However, will the Germans not the subtle difference? And I'll CONCIOUSLY switch between the two when trying to convey an exact meaning. Thanks everyone.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    2A. Ich habe in meinem Leben viele verschiedene Leute gekannt.
    (I have known many different people in my life.)
    I would be careful with this one. The German Perfekt has sometimes and only in some regional varieties of German a present perfect-like meaning in the sense that it refers to a state created by a past action but it is definitely a past and not a present tense form. A typical example is the sentence
    I have been living in London.
    This sentence means that you have been living there for some time and still do. But the corresponding German sentence
    Ich habe in London gelebt
    means that you lived for some time in London in the past but do not live there any more. If you are still living in London you have to use present tense:
    Ich lebe in London.
     

    Philo2009

    Senior Member
    English
    I would be careful with this one. The German Perfekt has sometimes and only in some regional varieties of German a present perfect-like meaning in the sense that it refers to a state created by a past action but it is definitely a past and not a present tense form. A typical example is the sentence
    I have been living in London.
    This sentence means that you have been living there for some time and still do. But the corresponding German sentence
    Ich habe in London gelebt
    means that you lived for some time in London in the past but do not live there any more. If you are still living in London you have to use present tense:
    Ich lebe in London.
    I couldn't agree more. It is indeed the most fundamental of linguistic principles that an item in language A not be assumed to equate at all times to one in language B simply because it is capable of doing so under certain circumstances! However, should we wish to convey the meaning of the English present perfect (whether in terms of its experiential sense, as in my previous example, or of its resultative sense, as in 'I have lost my wallet' [and it remains lost]), I think you will agree that there really is no German tense other than the perfect that could possibly do the job. (The preterite most certainly will not convey this meaning!)

    I was also, you will note, careful to include a caveat regarding modification by duration adverbials, although, for clarity's sake, it could perhaps be added that the modification (as in the case of 'have been -ing') need only be implicit for the present simple to be substituted for the perfect.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I think you will agree that there really is no German tense other than the perfect that could possibly do the job. (The preterite most certainly will not convey this meaning!)
    I agree with you that the English present perfect will normally not be expressed by the preterite because Northerners maintain at least traces of the distinction between the English past tense and present perfect and Southerners simply don't use the preterite at all.


    On the other hand, in regionally unbiased Standard German you have to assume that perfect and preterite mean exactly the same and that you simply have no grammatic tense at your disposition to express the difference between the English past tense and present perfect. Standard German only knows past (expressed by two different forms) and present. The English present perfect is sometimes represented by the past and sometimes by the present tense, depending on the precise context.

    When children learn to name the tenses in primary school they get taught to call them "lange Vergangenheit" and "kurze Vergangenheit", i.e. they get taught that peterite and perfect are simply two different styles to express the same tense.
     

    Philo2009

    Senior Member
    English
    As you say, the appropriateness of reading the experiential-resultative sense of an English present perfect into its German counterpart does seem to vary considerably according to region/dialect.

    A major linguistic census of the German-speaking world would seem to be the only way to verify the nature and extent of the divide between those speakers who do, and those who do not, sense some aspectual, as opposed to merely temporal, distinction - probably a somewhat formidable task!
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I think a census won’t be necessary.:)

    Even Northerners won’t use the perfect in such a way that the understanding of the message depended on the choice of perfect or preterite. Even where the distinction still exists it has become more a matter of nuance or emphasis than of basic meaning. Otherwise the danger of being misunderstood would simply be too big.

    As to the representation of the English present perfect in German, imagine you had to transform the sentence into a peculiar dialect of English which lacked both, the present perfect and the continuous form and you had to choose between present and past tenses. Than there are cases where you would rather opt the past and cases where you would rather opt for the present tense. In German you would choose between perfect and present in the same way.

    Examples:
    Normal English: I have finished my work.
    English without present perfect and continuous form: I finished my work.
    German: Ich habe meine Arbeit beendet.

    Normal English: I have been living in London for 10 years.
    English without present perfect and continuous form: I live on London since/for 10 years.
    German: Ich lebe seit 10 Jahren in London.
     

    Philo2009

    Senior Member
    English
    Not wishing to disagree with anything you have said, I believe that we have come round in a rather large circle back to the very rule that I gave earlier ('2A'), to wit that (rephrasing slightly for the sake of clarity) with the exception of cases of (at least implicit) modification by a duration adverbial, English present perfect verb phrases will always be rendered by German present perfect verb phrases (or, to say the same thing another way, they cannot be rendered by any German tense other than the present perfect).

    Naturally - at the risk of stating the obvious - the above seeks to assert neither that all German present perfects must necessarily correspond to an English present perfect nor that they are therefore automatically to be construed as conveying the experiential-resultative sense of their English (structural) counterpart.

    In case it was not so before now, I trust that makes my position clear!
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    No disagreement at all. I just regarded your qualification "except where combined with an adverbial of duration (since .../for...years, etc.)" as a bit too incidental because this exception is an important one and I wanted to elaborate on this. This particular use of the present perfect in English is very bewildering for a German and is responsible for much of the difficulties Germans have learning to use the English present perfect. And an English speaker who used the German perfect in such a case would be misunderstood.
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    I'd like to emphasise the point berndf is making:
    A typical example is the sentence
    I have been living in London.
    This sentence means that you have been living there for some time and still do. But the corresponding German sentence
    Ich habe in London gelebt
    means that you lived for some time in London in the past but do not live there any more. If you are still living in London you have to use present tense:
    Ich lebe in London.
    If you would use "habe ... gelebt" in German here you would be misunderstood indeed: people would think that you've lived in London but that you aren't living there anymore.

    So this principle even works for those never using the simple past in spoken language (which is the case for Austrian German too of course, as already stated): here you have to translate English present perfect as German present tense.

    Thus, even if this rule of thumb works in many cases you should be careful, using it may lead to misunderstandings. :)
     

    Philo2009

    Senior Member
    English
    berndf and sokol

    Thank you. Your concern is noted and understood. The point regarding present perfect verb phrases with current reference does indeed represent a significant exception to the normal set of tense-correspondences.

    The key question would then seem to be this: what exactly do we mean by 'implicit modification by a duration adverbial'?

    Taking each of the structures concerned in turn:

    1. Regarding present perfect SIMPLE VPs

    These can be discounted immediately as posing no real problem, since their ability to refer to current states/conditions is directly dependent on explicit modification.

    Thus, for instance,

    I have lived in London.

    as written means only

    I have lived in London before.

    (but do not necessarily do so now).

    [= Ger.Ich habe (vorher/frueher) in London gewohnt.]

    For the sentence to have current reference, we would have to add an appropriate duration adverbial, e.g.

    I have lived in London for ten years.

    . Only then could it be equivalent to

    I have been living in London for ten years.

    [= Ger. Ich wohne seit zehn Jahren in London.]

    Thus, with regard to present perfect simple VPs, implicit modification is not an issue.


    (2) Regarding present perfect PROGRESSIVE VPs

    In contrast to the simple forms, these naturally have current reference unless sense or context dictate otherwise.

    Thus,

    I have been living in London.

    will be assumed to convey information about my present whereabouts regardless of the absence of adverbial modification.

    (Exceptions to this will be so rare, and contextually so clearly defined, that they scarcely merit discussion.)

    The sentence above would therefore correspond to German

    Ich wohne in London.

    I would suggest, then, that a case of 'implicit modification by a duration adverbial' can effectively be defined as 'any case in which it would be both grammatically and semantically possible to insert a since-phrase of temporal reference'. Thus, to return to a previous example, in the case of

    I have been living in London.

    , because the insertion of e.g. 'since last year', giving

    I have been living in London since last year.

    [= Ger. Ich wohne seit letztem Jahr in London.]

    neither renders the sentence ungrammatical nor entails any semantic distortion, we may conclude that the German VP would be present tense, and not present perfect. This option to include a temporal since-phrase would then constitute 'implicit modification' as mentioned above and be grounds for invoking the special English perfect - German present tense correspondence.

    It goes, of course, without saying that the same correspondence will automatically apply in any case of explicit modification by a duration adverbial which, even if not itself a since-phrase, could nonetheless be replaced by one.
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    Philo, again I do not disagree with what you wrote but when discussing things at the level of detail we did one is sometimes in danger overlooking the obvious.

    The obvious in this case is that for a substantial part of the German speaking community (I recon close to 50%, maybe even more) there is no difference in meaning what so ever between perfect and preterite. The difference is just in style.

    Again, no contradiction to what you wrote. I would just recommend keeping this in mind, in particular when explaining German tenses to students.
     
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    Todessprache

    Senior Member
    Some Kind of English
    Meinem Empfinden nach ist es sogar teilweise durch das Verbum selbst bedingt. Es gibt manche Verben, die gar nicht in Frage in der gesprochenen Sprache als Praeteritum kaemen und andere, die relativ haeufig vorkommen, und dann gibt es welche, die irgendwo in der Mitte stehen, was dies angeht.
     

    Philo2009

    Senior Member
    English
    Philo, again I do not disagree with what you wrote but when discussing things at the level of detail we did one is sometimes in danger overlooking the obvious.

    The obvious in this case is that for a substantial part of the German speaking community (I recon close to 50%, maybe even more) there is no difference in meaning what so ever between perfect and preterite. The difference is just in style.

    Again, no contradiction to what you wrote. I would just recommend keeping this in mind, it particular when explaining German tenses to students.
    Thank you again.
    Comment duly noted!
     

    LandInSicht

    New Member
    English (US)
    I think the effect of using simple past in speech is that you come across as very dramatic. You tell everyday events as if they were part of a suspense novel.
    Hallo Leute! I'm new here. :) I apologize in advance if I do something wrong.

    Now to the matter at hand: I've encountered a native German speaker who says he only uses simple past/Präteritum, even in conversation. He recognizes that it's unusual, and says he doesn't know why he does it. I'm wondering if anyone can elaborate on this quote a little? Is this "very dramatic" to the point of being ridiculous, or pretentious? ie, would people make fun of you for talking like this? Does it sound old-fashioned at all? I'm trying to grasp the nuances of this intriguing two-past-tenses thing (and gain some insight into this guy's personality :D) Danke!
     

    Hutschi

    Senior Member
    Hi LandInSicht,
    welcome to the forum.

    LandInSicht wrote: I've encountered a native German speaker who says he only uses simple past/Präteritum, even in conversation.
    I suppose he came from the northern part. I think he does this because it is shorter and he does not see a difference.

    But I'm in doubt whether this is absolutely true or just his opinion and he uses it in the majority of the cases.

    In case he uses it also for future and present time, I would consider it strange. Did he really mean "only"? Or just in case of selection of the past tense?

    Best regards
    Hutschi
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I've encountered a native German speaker who says he only uses simple past/Präteritum, even in conversation.
    This is hard to believe. There are speakers who NEVER use simple past. But the other way round? No!

    Not only in Northern High German, even in Low German there are case where you have to use the perfect, like:
    "Dat hev ick allns/ümmer sächt" - "I have always said that".
     
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