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  5. Perfekt vs Präteritum

Perfekt vs Präteritum

[deactivated user]

    Hallo Leute

    This is a simple one. Of course I've read the tips and notes on the skills lessons but I always like to hear real German natives on the matter.

    When is it more appropriate to use one of these two past tenses? Are there any real differences depending if we're speaking or writing?

    For instance, do I sound more natural saying...

    Ich habe das Auto gesehen or Ich sah das Auto?

    I'm not talking modal verbs here, I'm only referring to those instances where you can use any of the two tenses.

    Thank you.

    P.S. - Other non-Germans can join in too of course.

    February 17, 2018



    Personally, I very rarely use Präteritum in spoken language. Except for some verbs, like "ich war" or "ich hatte" (not "ich bin gewesen", "ich habe gehabt"), and, I guess, a few odd exceptions where it feels "easier" than Perfekt, on the spur of the moment. To me it would sound unnatural if somebody talked a lot in Präteritum tense, like "Ich spielte gestern Fußball und trank vier Liter Wasser." But I think it depends a bit on the region, and probably on social status as well.

    Where it's possible, I tend to use this construction: "ich war einkaufen / schwimmen / essen / spazieren / Fußball spielen" and, even more informally, "ich war mit dem Hund spazieren", "ich war meine Tante besuchen", "ich war die neuen Skulpturen besichtigen" etc., but I wouldn't recommend using this, and it only works when you could say "I went [doing / to do this]" (e.g. "Ich war ein Bier trinken" works if you went into a pub, but not if you drank it at home).

    In writing, I use Präteritum when I retell something "historically" like you would in a novel, e.g. if I wrote a report for my insurance after a car accident ("Ich sah das Auto, aber ich konnte nicht mehr bremsen."), or a scrapbook about my travels ("Am Nachmittag gingen wir ins Picasso-Museum."), but personally I normally (but not always) use Perfekt when I write e.g. about my travels to my friends ("Gestern waren wir im Picasso-Museum und haben dort gegessen, dann sind wir an den Strand gegangen und haben Lieder gesungen.").

    [deactivated user]

      Thank you stepintime, very comprehensive explanation.


      I agree in all points...


      Two other very common words people use when speaking that are in Präteritum are denken and wissen (Ich dachte, ... Ich wusste ...).

      When I watch movies, I've noticed the use of Präteritum when someone is narrating or recalling out loud something that happened in the past. A couple examples:

      "Ich lebte in einer kleinen Stadt in Oregon. Die hieß Castle Rock."

      "Vor 24 Stunden saßen wir in der Pogo Lounge vom Beverly Heights Hotel."

      So I'm wondering, if you are telling someone a story about something you experienced in the past, is it not common to use Präteritum?


      Partly this may be because of dubbing the movie. If this is about Castle Rock in Oregon it probably was an US movie dubbed in German. So they had to make the translation fit to the person speaking and being visible in the movie: 'I lived in a small town in Oregon' --> 'Ich habe in einer kleinen Stadt in Oregon gelebt'. The translation has too many syllables. On the other hand 'Ich lebte in einer kleinen Stadt in Oregon'. Still too many, but far better. Even the lip movement for 'lebte' is similar to 'lived'. And for the second sentence: 'Die hieß Castle Rock'. I am a native German speaker and even if I would prefer perfect for the first sentence, I'd prefer preterite for the second sentence. Using "hat geheißen" might mean, that they changed the name of the town meanwhile. But as this is very unlikely I'd think that maybe for a moment and then conclude that the speaker just always uses perfect and never preterite, because preterite is too educated.

      [deactivated user]

        I believe that's more or less what stepintime is describing on his last paragraph... even though he's referring to writing only.


        Well, for one thing, I was just speaking for myself and, frankly, I thought someone else would add that they do use Präteritum more frequently than I. :)

        Another thing to be considered is that movies/series might sometimes use a more formal language than at least I do, sometimes maybe to invoke a more "novel-like" atmosphere, like at the start of a flashback: "Wissen Sie, ich bekam diesen Ring von einem jungen Mann, als ich sechzehn war. Ich lebte damals in einer kleinen Stadt in Oregon [flashback starts with a view of Castle Rock; voice-over:], die hieß Castle Rock. Der Bürgermeister hieß Mr Neverdowell, und... etc etc." In addition to that, dubbed movies/series sometimes use English-style phrasings that aren't exactly what a German native speaker would use - or would have used before watching a lot of dubbed movies/series...

        Actually, after I read your, @drvdw, comment last night, I didn't only agree with you on "ich dachte/wusste" (as well as some other verbs, like "ich wollte/konnte/saß/stand"), but I also thought maybe "very rarely" (referring to my use of Präteritum in spoken informal language) was a bit too strong after all, because I did find some more examples on third ;) thought, but, as I said, there doesn't seem to by any rule to it. Like this, for example:

        "Ich war gestern in der Stadt einkaufen, weil ich eine neue Hose brauchte; ich wollte eine kurze für den Sommer. Ich stand um acht vor der Tür und habe versucht, sie aufzumachen; aber der Laden hatte noch zu, also bin ich in den Park gegangen. Da saß ein Mann auf einer Bank und hat Gitarre gespielt. Ich habe mir nichts dabei gedacht und bin weitergegangen, aber als ich zurückgekommen bin, standen da hundert Leute und haben ihm zugehört. Es hat sich herausgestellt, dass das der Gitarrist von den Happy Little Accidents ist, die am Abend in der Arena ein Konzert gegeben haben; es gab gar keine Tickets mehr. Ich wusste nicht, dass die überhaupt einen Gitarristen haben, ich dachte, das ist nur Playback - ich habe das wirklich nicht gewusst - aber der Mann konnte richtig gut spielen, und ich habe mich gefreut, dass er so nett war und mir erlaubt hat, ein Foto mit ihm zu machen."

        [deactivated user]

          Funny you should mention English because in English I also tend to us the Past Tense and the Past Principle quite interchangeably:

          "I wrote" vs "I've written".

          Am I the only one?

          But of course, that's another language... sorry for the detour.

          Thanks for the explanation stepintime. Always great to read you.


          Although I try to watch German movies when I can, I do watch more Hollywood movies dubbed in German. I assummed that the dubbing was more or less completely natural German. You mention that the dubbing might use English-style phrasings. I thought you might me interested in seeing those two sentences as they were originally:

          "I was living in a small town in Oregon called Castle Rock"

          "You see, about 24 hours ago we were sitting in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel"

          In both cases, English past continuous was translated into Präteritum. But the called Castle Rock part was also, even though that part should have been Castle Rock heißend. Would anyone ever say that?


          I think a lot of people don't realise that some phrasings in dubbed movies sound "English", but I'm quite sure you didn't get those phrasings, say, twenty years ago. Sometimes you get very obvious mistakes in translation ("mist" does not mean "Mist") and totally wrong connotations (sorry, can't think of an example right now), sometimes - and that's what I was referring to - things like, to quote a Duolingo sentence, "He does not have any brother"; or idioms translated too literally instead of adapting them. It's more subtle, and people who aren't much into the finer details of their native language wouldn't notice, but it's not good English. (Of course, languages always keep changing; German, for example, has recently adapted "realisieren" for "to realise/recognise", when before it was only "to realise/implement", and I'm not complaining.)

          If you want to keep the exact construction of "called Castle Rock", it's either "namens Castle Rock" (literally "of the name C.R.", so: "by the name of") - it's a bit on the formal side, but unless the speaker in that movie is a bit on the informal side, they could easily have used this phrase. It works for people, too: "Der Eigentümer des Stadions ist ein arabischer Milliardär namens XY". (The word "namens" looks like a genitive to me, turned into an adverb, probably similar to "morgens" ("in the morning") and "montags" ("on Mondays").)

          ...or: "genannt Castle Rock" (literally: "called C.R."), but it normally sounds very formal bordering on pseudo-medieval, and you wouldn't use it for actual fixed official names (like a town's). It's good for e.g. "König Richard I., genannt Löwenherz". Or to translate "...wilt thou bring me one cup of the browned juices of that naughty bean we call coffee, ere I die?".


          Oh, you‘re right. What I said is more like „being called C.R.“. Thanks. Luckily I watch a lot of movies that are at least 20 years old. Too bad they are getting sloppy with the translations. I‘m trying to avoid English influence. For example “eigentlich nicht” rather than “nicht wirklich”.


          Ihr wohntet neben uns.
          Y'all lived next to us.

          Ihr wusstet das schon.
          Y'all knew that already.

          "Y'all" is South dialect. In standard American English, you would just say "you" or if you have to be specific "all of you"

          • 1347

          Nice Link. I saw this sentence: Wir kauften immer montags ein. How do I know when not to capitalize Monday(s) or similar proper nouns in German?


          In that sentence it's an adverb, so it's not capitalised.

          • 1347

          Okay, I do not know when something becomes an adverb.


          Think of it as “on Mondays”, which is an adverb phrase.


          This really got me thinking..

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