Which are correct, which are not, and what are the nuances? In particular, what are the allowed tenses for the verbs in the main and the dass clause (agreement)?

  1. Ich wusste nicht, dass man gehen kann.
  2. Ich habe nicht gewusst, dass man gehen kann.
  3. Ich wusste nicht, dass man gehen konnte.
  4. Ich habe nicht gewusst, dass man gehen konnte.

2 Answers 2


In German, there's semantically no differences between preterit and present perfect.

That said, in German it's way more natural to use perfect and there are certain use cases where you'll go with preterit. Modal verbs, for instance.
In your example, it's pretty fine to interchange preterit and present perfect.

It's difficult to explain when preterit is fine. There's a question here on GLU asking for when to use imperfect and you'll notice that wissen is one of the verbs on that list.
To make things worse: that does not mean that all instances of wissen would be said in preterit.

In respect to the dass-clause. There's a significant difference between using kann and konnte. The former is present tense, the latter is past tense. So, while in the former one you still can go, the latter one indicates that you cannot go any more, because it's too late.


Grammatically all four sentences are correct. In 2 nicht statt nich. You should say what you are especially interested in. Is it the use of Past or Perfect? Is it Present or Past in the dass-clause?

  • I am trying to compare with French - where we can't really say 1, 2 or 4. But it sounds like 1 and 2 would come naturally to German people. I am not sure about 4. So, yes it is the usage of the tenses, and their agreement between the main clause and the dass clause.
    – Frank
    Feb 1, 2014 at 5:12
  • So you are French. Then it would be interesting to know what your level in German is. There is a lot to be said about Past or Perfect use depending whether it is written or spoken language or the south or north of Germany. But that may not be interesting for a learner of German at the beginning. And normally it would be Present in the dass-clause, but Past would not be wrong.
    – rogermue
    Feb 1, 2014 at 5:37
  • I grew up in Baden-Württemberg, but went to a French school, with German classes from junior high. My first instinct for the sentence above was: Ich wusste nicht, dass man gehen konnte, which mirrors the French, but if I understand correctly, Ich wusste nicht, dass man gehen kann seems to be more common in German? (no idea about north/south though)
    – Frank
    Feb 1, 2014 at 15:12
  • When people talk you will observe that people in the North of Germany relate: ich kam, sah, hörte, erfuhr. People in the south say: ich bin gekommen, hab gesehen, hab gehört, erfahren. They use Perfect as normal narrative Tense for the Past, wheras in the north they use the Past Tense as in English. "kam, sah, hörte" is shorter than "bin gekommen, hab gesehen, gehört". So why do they use Perfect in the south? My assumption was: They abolish the second basic verb form of irregular verbs. continued
    – rogermue
    Feb 1, 2014 at 15:24
  • As the third basic verb form often is the first + ge- as in sehen, gesehen, people in the south abolish half the irregular verb forms. A very audacious change of the system.
    – rogermue
    Feb 1, 2014 at 15:25

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