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I'd sometimes like to indicate a completed action in the past by using the Plusquamperfekt, as indicated in the title. Whenever I do this, I seem to get strange looks. I have a feeling that I am making some kind of conceptual mistake here.

I wish to express that we did walk here, perhaps more than once, but have not done so for a while. A German colleague said the second expression is used much more often than the first for such a sentiment.

My question is: why?

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The point is, there are differences between "sprechen" und "schreiben" in German. –  user128 May 25 '11 at 14:33

7 Answers 7

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Are we talking of spoken language here? If yes, then the 'Plusquamperfekt' is rarely used. And when it is used, people often do it wrong. It is used correctly when expressing a terminated action in the past that has taken place before another action in the past. E.g.:

Ich hatte gerade meinen Sonnenschirm aufgestellt, da zogen dunkle Wolken auf.

Here I talk about my last holidays in a past tense and want to express a temporal order of actions: first I unfolded my sunshade, then dark clouds appeared.

When I use the 'Plusquamperfekt' I don't get strange looks, and I don't feel that you should forget about it. In written language it's perfectly common.

In your case the use of this tense is not appropriate as you don't express a temporal order of actions. Use a signal word like 'früher' instead:

Früher bin ich oft hier spazieren gegangen.

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I could have accepted any of these answers; I was indeed making an error, which I think has been well clarified. (I guess you mean "...bin ich of**t** hier ...".) –  Glen Wheeler May 25 '11 at 13:30
    
Yes, you're right. Thanks for the correction and for accepting the answer. –  Deve May 25 '11 at 13:52

You use the Plusquamperfekt to indicate that an event was completed before another event you express in Präteritum.

Nachdem ich den Plusquamperfekt begriffen hatte, fiel mir das Präteritum ganz leicht.

In most other cases the Plusquamperfekt is wrong or at least not usual.

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1  
but usually never in spoken language! –  ladybug May 25 '11 at 12:45
    
@ladybug: das stimmt so nicht. Viele Berliner „waren eben noch eenkoofen jewesen“. Mir fällt immer wieder (nicht in Berlin) auf, dass der Plusquamperfekt in der gesprochenen Sprache verwendet wird, allerdings meistens falsch... –  cgnieder Oct 25 '12 at 16:54

You should only use Plusquamperfekt (Vorvergangenheit) if you're talking about the time before some reference point in the past.

Example:

Wir waren hier jeden Winter Ski gelaufen, bevor letztes Jahr eine Lawine das Tal zerstört hat."

You don't use it in a single, disconnected sentence as in "Wir waren hier gelaufen".

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There's a very simple rule to follow:

  • Don't use the pluperfect if the perfect will do.

    That is to say, only ever use the pluperfect if you are describing something in the past, and explaining it in terms of something else that happend ever earlier.

    Wir waren hierher gelaufen als es anfing zu regnen.

    (note that it may well have stopped raining now)

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If it helps to consider the English equivalents:

  • Wir waren gegangen = We had gone
  • Wir sind gegangen = We have gone (or we went)

However in English the pluperfect is used more in readily than in German. In English we tend to drop into the pluperfect when recounting events where the imperfect would suffice: e.g.one might say I had gone there last week rather than I went there last week but in German, ich bin letzte Woche dorthin gegangen.

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You would express that you used to walk there, but don't use it anymore rather by using words like früher or oft in your sentence:

Früher sind wir hier oft spazieren gegangen.

The Plusquamperfekt is more used in literature, where the standard tense is simple past/preterit:

Rotkäppchen ging ihre Großmutter besuchen, denn sie hatte schon lange nichts mehr von ihr gehört.

As a native speaker, I have been using unconsciously the Plusquamperfekt from time to time and got strange looks from my friends, too. So just forget it for spoken language, unless you are preparing for a formal speech.

Also see this Wikipedia article. There it states, that Perfekt became the common past expression due to the southern dialects. They would leave out the "e" at the end of many words, so preterit became unclear:

er sagt vs. er sagt'

Instead they started to use Er hat gesagt.

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I honestly think no one is able to answer to the "why" with a really scientific reason. It's just the informal way to talk.

For the sentence you want to express I'd suggest Wir sind hier früher oft entlang gelaufen, which expresses what you mean and sounds more native german than "waren gelaufen".

Most germans don't understand the usage of the Plusquamperfekt themselves, which probably is the reason you get those strange looks. It's almost never used in spoken language and even in written language it's very uncommon, apart may be from very sophisticated journals.

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-1 for saying there wouldn't be a grammatical reason. Plusquamperfekt isn't used appropriately here. –  Deve May 25 '11 at 12:55

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