Like English, German has two tenses which express that an event happened in the past. Sometimes, the English and German tenses look pretty much the same. For example, compare the English; to sing – sang – sung, to the German; singen – sang – gesungen. This is the problem, they look similar, but they are not used in the same way. So, how do you use perfekt and präteritum, and what is the difference between them?
In English the present perfect simple and the past simple have different meanings, it is all about finished and unfinished actions, about results influencing the present and so on. German does not recognise these distinctions, or at least not anymore. This is why both tenses express the same thing, however they are not used in the same way. Let’s see some examples. A friend might ask you:
Was hast du gestern gemacht? (perfekt) - What did you do yesterday?
Not: Was machtest du gestern? (präteritum)
A possible answer could be:
Ich bin mit Freunden ins Kino gegangen (perfekt) - I went to the movies with friends
Not: Ich ging mit Freunden ins Kino (präteritum)
The präteritum sounds odd, as if it is talking about something that happened a long time ago. When talking about our past, we usually use perfekt.
Another example could be:
Was hast du heute zu Mittag gegessen? (perfekt) - What did you eat for lunch today?
Never: Was aßest du heute zu Mittag? (präteritum)
A distinction often made between perfekt and präteritum is that perfekt is used for spoken language and präteritum for written language, but, this is too simplistic. In order to be more precise we should say that präteritum is usually used in novels, history books and newspapers. From this list you can see, you need to recognize and understand it, but you don’t need to use it actively.
When you write an email to a friend describing your last holiday or what you have done last weekend, you should use perfekt. If you write an application letter for a job and you want to tell them something about your previous experience, you should use perfekt. And of course, when speaking you must use perfekt.
However, it would be too easy (and it wouldn’t be German) if the whole story ended here! We must talk about some important exceptions. When using perfekt for all other verbs, for three groups we usually use präteritum:
The auxiliary verbs ‘haben’ (to have) and ‘sein’ (to be)
Letztes Jahr war ich in Berlin - I have been in Berlin last year/ I went to Berlin last year
Gestern hatte ich viel zu tun - Yesterday I was very busy
For both verbs, it is not wrong to use Perfekt:
Letztes Jahr bin ich in Berlin gewesen - I have been in Berlin last year/ I went to Berlin last year
Gestern habe ich viel zu tun gehabt - Yesterday I was very busy.
However, habe … gehabe does not sound very elegant, and the sentences with präteritum are simply shorter and easier, so why not use them?
Modal verbs: können (can, to be able to), müssen (must, have to), wollen (want), sollen (shall), dürfen (may, to be allowed to)
For all modal verbs, präteritum is usually used:
Gestern konnte Peter nicht kommen - Yesterday, Peter could not come
Möchten can be used as a modal verb, but only in the present tense. If we want to use it in the past, we have to switch to wollte (which is also the präteritum of ‚er will):
Peter wollte gestern einkaufen, aber dann musste er arbeiten - Yesterday, Peter wanted to do the shopping, but then he had to work
Du solltest doch deine Hausaufgaben machen, wo sind sie denn? - You were supposed to write your homework, so where is it?
Als Kind durfte ich nicht lange aufbleiben - As a child, I was not allowed to stay up late
Again, the perfekt does exist, but is a bit unusual.
Gestern hat Peter nicht kommen können - Yesterday, Peter couldn’t come
With a modal verb, the perfekt does not have the normal partizip perfekt (past participle), but two infinitives. This form is mostly used when there is no other way to build the tense, for example with hypothetical sentences in the past, or in the indirect speech:
Er hätte kommen können, aber… - He would have been able to come, but…
Er sagte, er habe nicht kommen können - He said, he could not come
Some common verbs
Some common full verbs prefer präteritum instead of perfekt. Here are the most important ones:
Es gibt … (there is/are, have) – past tense: es gab … (there was/were)
Es hat … gegeben’ is used, but it is not so common, for example:
Früher gab es keine computer - Once, there were no computers
Ich weiß nicht - I don’t know – past tense: ich wusste nicht (I didn’t know), instead of ich habe das nicht gewusst
Denken (to think) – past tense: ich dachte (I thought), sometimes also used: ich habe gedacht.
Mögen (to like s.th.) – past tense: mochte (liked), instead of hat … gemocht
Als Kind mochte ich keinen Spinat - As a child, I didn’t like spinach
Pay attention to the fact that möchte has a different meaning, ie: want!
Gehen (only in the meaning of ‘working’) – past tense: ging (went/did go), instead of ist gegangen
Gestern ging mein Computer nicht - Yesterday, my computer didn’t work
Stehen (for written text) – past tense: stand, instead of hat .. gestanden
In dem Artikel stand, dass … - The article said that…
Some verbs describing the state of something:
Früher stand in der Ecke eine Pflanze - Before, there was a plant in the corner
Correct, but not much used: Früher hat/ist in der Ecke eine Pflanze gestanden.
The same for liegen (to lie) – past tense: lag, instead of hat/ist … gelegen and (to hang) – past tense: hing, instead of hat/ist gehangen.
Gestern lag hier noch mein Buch - Yesterday, my book was still here
Früher hing hier ein Bild an der Wand - Before, there was a picture on the wall
A common misunderstanding
Now, let’s take a look at a typical mistake, which might come from a misunderstanding:
Gestern hatte ich einen Film gesehen - Yesterday, I had watched a movie
This sentence is correct, but only in certain circumstances. When telling a friend what you have done yesterday you should say:
Gestern habe ich einen Film gesehen - Yesterday, I watched a movie
The first sentence is obviously chosen for one reason (I hear quite often): bin is present tense, so how can I build a sentence in the past using present tense?
The perfekt of all full verbs (except the three groups mentioned above) is made up of the present tense of the verb to have (haben) or to be (sein) and the partizip perfekt (e.g. gesehen). On the other hand, the past tense of the verb haben is ich hatte. However, we don’t want to build the past tense of the verb ‘to have’, but of the verb ‘to watch’.
When is the sentence ‘gestern hatte ich einen film gesehen’ correct? This tense is called ‘plusquamperfekt’, it is used for emphasising that one event had happened before another one:
Gestern bin ich ins Kino gegangen, aber den Film hatte ich schon vorher gesehen - Yesterday, I went to the movies, but I had watched the movie before
That is why the plusquamperfekt is not used very often. So, use it with care!
However, the conjunction nachdem requires that the tense in the subordinated sentence must be prior to the tense of the main sentence. Therefore, we must use plusquamperfekt:
Nachdem sie eingekauft hatte, ist sie nach Hause gegangen - After she had done her grocery shopping, she went home
1) In your everyday life, use perfekt for all ‘normal’ full verbs.
2) Use präteritum only for:
The auxiliary verbs haben - hatte, sein - war
The modal verbs müssen- musste, wollen -wollte, können - konnte, dürfen - durfte, sollen - sollte
Some special verbs like, es gibt - es gab, denken - dachte, wissen - wusste, kennen - kannte, mögen - mochte, stehen - stand, liegen – lag, hängen – hing
3) In written, more formal texts as newspapers, books etc, präteritum is used
for all verbs. Unless you are a professional in these areas, you will need to
understand it, but not to use it actively.