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What's the guideline as to when to use Perfekt and Präteritum?

I was always taught that the simplest rule is Präteritum (mostly) for written forms, and Perfekt is most common in spoken language.

But I've also come across explanations paying more attention to the context - comparing Präteritum to French Imparfait (narrative past, little to no influence on current events). That way Perfekt would be mostly used for completed events with present results.

How do you combine those two approaches? Which tense to choose so as not to sound weird in a native context?

For example, would Ich kaufte einen Computer really be the preferred form in writing over Ich habe einen Computer gekauft?

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very good question! I think this is one of the most difficult parts when you're learning a new language, because it seems natural for native speakers but very hard to distinguish for people who are still learning. –  splattne May 25 '11 at 11:30
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Although there are dialects that use Perfekt a lot where Hochdeutsch uses Präteritum, it's definitely not true that Präteritum is for written and Perfekt is for spoken. –  Tim N May 25 '11 at 11:31
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4 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

You use Präteritum for events which are not yet completed or for which the time doesn’t matter. In novels for example Präteritum is used more often.

There is a really good article in German on this topic: Präteritum oder Perfekt?

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+1 for the article. Although it says "Präteritum (Im­per­fekt)" in the title and later "Das deutsche Prä­te­ri­tum ist jedoch kein Imperfekt." –  splattne May 25 '11 at 11:47
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What you're writing is true for the written language. When speaking German, you'll hardly ever use Präteritum. (That's mostly reserved for auxiliary and modal verbs.) –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 6 '11 at 11:33
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As a general note because people tend to confuse this:
Obviously, many written texts use the Präteritum, even though one gets the impression that it is scarcely used in everyday life. Now, this does not imply that Präteritum is the past tense used in written form whereas Perfekt is the kind of informal spoken form of it. Nor does it mean that one needs to convert a spoken Perfekt to Präteritum when writing it or use Perfect when re-telling a scary novel at a campfire.

Obviously, there is a point to it or people wouldn’t notice. However, it is of course not that Präteritum was so complicated that it could only be used at a desk with one hand in the conjugation table.

The reason is that the form and intention of texts which are written down and texts which are spoken differs:
Präteritum is the way of telling a story. Therefore, it is also used when writing a story. A story in that sense is anything which is remote. It may be in the past, it may be in the future, it may just not be of primary concern for the person who tells it.

Perfekt is the way of discussing something which happened in the past and is of primary and immediate relevance for the person who tells it. So, when a friend asks, why you look so happy and whether any of the events the other day are related to that, you may very well use Perfekt tense because it is not remote to you or him/her.


As an interesting read, I may suggest the book ‘Tempus: Besprochene und erzählte Welt’ written by Harald Weinrich which explains this difference for various European languages. (I think the belleslettres article makes similar arguments but I haven’t had the time to fully read it.)

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For the spoken language, a good guideline is indeed to use the Perfekt, except for auxiliary and modal verbs and a few other very common verbs (can't say which ones, unfortunately). To expand on the example in splattne's answer (I wouldn't say "Ich lag den ganzen Tag in der Sonne", and sorry, I'm a bad narrator):

Das Wetter war schön am Dienstag. Ich habe den ganzen Tag in der Sonne gelegen. Obwohl ich eigentlich nichts essen wollte, habe ich mir drei Kugeln Eis geholt – leider gab nur Erdbeer und Vanille. Ich wusste gar nicht mehr, wie gut das schmeckt. Am Nachmittag haben mich noch ein paar Freunde besucht.

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+1 Your answer is very close to what I am looking for. Could you please check my quesion Usage of Perfekt and Präteritum in the spoken language ? –  Ali Aug 18 '12 at 9:27
    
@Ali: You asked a really good question there. I think I can't give a better answer than Emanuel. –  Hendrik Vogt Aug 19 '12 at 6:50
    
Well, thanks anyway! –  Ali Aug 19 '12 at 8:37
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Ich kaufte einen Computer

sounds wrong to me even in written form. Perhaps it would be okay if you're writing a novel and were describing the circumstances of buying a computer. But in a normal sentence I'd prefer

Ich habe einen Computer gekauft.

While:

Das Wetter war schön am Dienstag. Ich lag den ganzen Tag in der Sonne.

is perfectly right. In German the "Präteritum" is also called the "Erzählzeit" ("narrative tense").

I think that Perfect has become the dominant form when describing the past. You almost can't be wrong if you're using it.

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But why? I completely agree but I can't explain it. Does it have to do with duration? –  musiKk May 25 '11 at 11:37
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Im einfachen Präteritum wird - umgangssprachlich! - der Verlauf betont. "Ich lag in der Sonne" bezieht sich auch einen Zeitraum. Nur, wenn ein ", als folgendes passierte: …" hinzukommt, reduziert sich die Bedeutung wieder auf einen Zeitpunkt. Deshalb ist "ich kaufte einen Computer" zwar grammatikalisch korrekt, die Semantik aber stimmt nicht. –  Tomalak May 25 '11 at 11:47
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@Tomalak Es könnte aber auch richtig sein. Zum Bleistift: "Ich kaufte gerade einen Computer, als mir Stefan, der Apple-Fanboy, ein iPad andrehen wollte." ;) –  splattne May 25 '11 at 11:50
    
-1, wenn ich könnte, für "zum Bleistift". ;) - Hier käme die rheinische Verlaufsform gelegen: "Ich war gerade am Computer kaufen, als…". –  Tomalak May 25 '11 at 11:52
    
The example was purposely exaggerated to comment on the spoken/written rule, but it is like @musiKk said - at times it's only a gut feeling of something sounding right or not. I would probably find it hard to explain to someone else though, which I assume would mean that deep down I don't really know the difference that well. –  Karol Piczak May 25 '11 at 11:56
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