German Hacks

German Hacks Episode 1 – Hacking the Past Tense in German

German HacksHi, I am Kirsten Winkler and this is German Hacks.

As promised in last week’s episode, today we are going to hack the past tense in German. Like all future episodes of German Hacks, this should be seen as a quick hack and not an extensive linguistic analysis.

Let’s start with a quick recap: The German language has three past tenses: Präteritum, Perfekt and Plusquamperfekt which equal Simple Past and the two compound past tenses, the Present Perfect and the Past Perfect.

Plusquamperfekt is rarely used in German so: let’s forget about it. This leaves us with two past tenses and learners seem to struggle more with the difference between Präteritum (sprach, ging etc.) and Perfekt (habe gesprochen, bin gegangen etc.), anyway.

As you all have different mother tongues I’m going to try and not compare the use too much with Simple Past and Present Perfect in English, but rather try to explain the German mindset.
This leads us to our second hack of the day: forget about the Präteritum when you speak German and just concentrate on the Perfekt tense!

Exceptions to this rule of thumb are the three auxiliaries sein, haben and werden and their respective past tenses ich war, ich hatte and ich wurde. You absolutely need to know their Präteritum for two reasons (a) to form the Perfekt and b) we frequently use them in conversations.

Although we have rules when to use Präteritum and when Perfekt, when Germans speak they seem to “forget” or shut I say “ignore” these rules in favor of the Perfekt, so why not you as well? You will perfectly blend in as the correct use might even be received as awkward.

The Präteritum is reserved for newspaper articles, books, formal emails and these kind of situations as it is perceived as being very formal.

Perfekt being a compound tense which means it consists of a conjugated form of an auxiliary and the past participle of the main verb, might be a little trickier to master at the beginning but is in everyday use and therefore absolutely worth spending some time on mastering it. So learn your a) PPP, the past participles of the verbs or 3rd form and usually the third column in the verb tables you have to learn such as gearbeitet, gemacht, getrunken etc and b) the exceptions when to use sein and not haben as your auxiliary which will be the hack you are going to learn in next week’s episode.

Again, this hack is not meant to replace “proper” German learning and if you really want to develop a deeper understanding of German, it is very interesting to learn about the nuances and little difference between Präteritum and Perfekt. But to get started or even when living in Germany, for your everyday conversations you’re absolutely fine when you master Perfekt.

Here are two extra recommendations:

English native speakers must liberate themselves from thinking in the same mindset “here I use simple past / here present perfect, therefore in German I have to use Präteritum in this sentence and Perfekt in that one”. This does not work, it only gets you frustrated.

If you speak French as native language, it’s a bit easier as the German use of Perfekt relates to how the French use their Passé Composé in spoken French.

To sum this up: a) forget about the Plusquamperfekt b) forget about the Präteritum in spoken German with the exceptions earlier mentioned.

And that is how you hack the past tense in German. Next week, we’ll speak about the Perfekt tense more in detail, and hack whether to use of sein or haben with a main verb.

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Title Music by: Dan-O at | Undiscovered Oceans