Things like:

  • I used to go to that library over there.

  • I was playing my guitar when she entered the room.

I've done a bit of research, and it looks like the German Perfekt is used for one-off events, and Präteritum we shouldn't use, because it sounds stilted and formal. Are there any constructions that express continuous actions? Does it require specifying a duration for the action (e.g. für 2 Stunden)?


5 Answers 5


There is no construction which expresses a continuous action per se. As for a continuous action in the present, you need signal words if it's not obvious from context.

For example:

Ich spiele Fußball. (Without context no translation possible.)
Ich spiele montags immer Fußball. (I play football on Mondays.)
Ich spiele gerade Fußball. (I'm playing football.)

Ich habe Fußball gespielt. (Without context no translation possible.)
Ich habe montags immer Fußball gespielt. (I used to play football on Mondays.)
Ich habe gerade Fußball gespielt. (I was playing football. or I have played football.)

With regard to the last sentence, signal words are not always unambiguous. I'll give two examples below where you can see that context is necessary.

So, in a given context, you don't need these signal words at all. But they might be helpful.

Was hast du gestern um 5 Uhr gemacht? - Ich habe Fußball gespielt. (I played football.) or Ich war (gerade) am Fußball spielen. (I was playing football.)
Was hast du als Kind gespielt? - Ich habe (immer) Fußball gespielt. (I used to play football.)
Ich habe (gerade) Fußball gespielt, als ich mir den Fuß gebrochen habe. (I was playing football when I broke my leg.)

Actually, in the last sentence you can consider "als" as a signal word.

Be careful about specifying the duration. Look out for context or signal words.

Ich habe gestern für 2 Stunden Fußball gespielt. => Yesterday, I played football for two hours.
Ich habe (gerade) für 2 Stunden Fußball gespielt und mir tut jetzt alles weh. => I have played football for two hours and now I have pain all over.


Präteritum vs. Perfekt hasn't much to do with expressing continuousness. Beside this, there is nothing wrong with using Präteritum.

For continuousness, you should use signal words. "Immer" for repeated actions or habits and "gerade" for "just when I was doing this" will work most of the time. Sou your sample sentences could read

Ich bin immer in die Bibliothek dort drüben gegangen.
Ich habe gerade Gitarre gespielt, als sie das Zimmer betrat.


Ich ging immer in die Bibliothek dort drüben.
Ich spielte gerade Gitarre, als sie das Zimmer betrat.

I would even prefer Präteritum for the 2nd phrase - and for the 1st one at least in the case that you have a narrative context that allows for inserting "damals" before "immer".


If you really want to communicate the continuous nature of an event - more exact, the progressive nature - you can use German syntactical aspects:

Ich pflegte in diese Bibliothek dort zu gehen (pflegen zu + INF; actually, this is habitual in both languages)

"pflegen zu" is considered "formal", but it has been as common as "used to" in recent times. Note that it can also be used in Präsens, as opposed to English.

Ich war am Gitarre spielen, als sie den Raum betrat (sein + am + INF)
Ich war beim Gitarre spielen, als sie den Raum betrat (sein + beim + INF)

The am-Progressiv is the most flexible form.

There is also an absentive aspect which you can use if you're absent from the location you're expected to be. It also conveys progressive, sometimes habitual aspect:

Ich war Gitarre spielen, als Du anriefest.

"I was out to play guitar when you called (that was the reason you could not reach me)". Sometimes, it is implied, that I always play the guitar at a certain time.

  • 2
    I think (assuming that the OP might not want to read the whole Wikipedia article) it is worth mentioning that the am-Progressiv is only on the way from dialect to standard German. Depending on your audience, and in particular in written German, it might be considered inappropriate. (To me e.g. it sounds awkward...)
    – Matthias
    Dec 11, 2014 at 14:42
  • There are far more elegant ways to put it. The first option is very oldfashioned even though there might have been a revival limited to specific regions or subcultures.
    – Kristina
    Jan 23, 2017 at 17:59

German is not so exact as to aspect as English. In English the aspect of continuity or progress is clearly expressed whereas in German this is often neglected. Compare:

I was playing guitar when she entered.

Ich spielte Gitarre, als sie hereinkam./ Ich klimperte auf meiner Guitarre herum, als sie hereinkam.

You can use the adverb "gerade" to make clear the aspect of progress, but it is not necessary.


I used to go for a walk.

Ich pflegte um einen Spaziergang zu machen.
  • 3
    It would be right this way: Ich pflegte (es), einen Spaziergang zu machen. However, pflegen, etwas zu tun is a very elevated expression and I would even call it a little arrogant, depending on the context.
    – Œlrim
    Dec 11, 2014 at 19:21

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