When watching German public TV I often wonder why Germans use the Plusquamperfekt/Vorvergangenheit when the actual Referenzzeitpunkt is the present, e.g.

  • Interviewed person: "Mein Mann ist in Rente." (My husband is retired)

  • Interviewer: "Was hat er denn früher gemacht?" (What did he work as before?)

  • Interviewed person: "Früher war er Arbeiter gewesen." (He had been a worker) (instead of "He has been a worker", or "He was a worker")

I would've expected an answer like "Früher war er Arbeiter" (Imperfekt) or (as I know that Imperfekt/Praeteritum/Mitvergangenheit seems to die) "Früher ist er Arbeiter gewesen" instead of "Früher war er Arbeiter gewesen"

Of course one might argue that this merely happens sometimes and to some people, but I notice this far more often in German than in Austria.

I don't want to bash or anything, it's just that I wanted to ask if others observe the same phenomenon and how to explain it.

As a native speaker I remember learning that Plusquamperfekt is only to be used if the Referencepoint (I had to look that one up though ;)) is in the past (so you're already talking in past tense) and you want to go even further back (kind of like inception ;))


3 Answers 3


This use of Plusquamperfekt is wrong in standard German but very common in some regions. I observed it especially in Saarland, but it may not be the only one.

As you said yourself:

Plusquamperfekt is only to be used if the Referencepoint is in the past (so you're already talking in past tense) and you want to go even further back (kind of like inception ;))

You were taught correctly. ;)

  • And I heard it in the Palatine (Kaiserslautern area), if I remember correctly.
    – Stephie
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 21:36

I totally agree with @Kristina's answer, but want to add my guess about why Germans use the Plusquamperfekt so often wrong.

  1. Früher war er Arbeiter gewesen.

    Plusquamperfekt, which is wrong in this case, as the reference point is not in the past.

  2. Früher war er Arbeiter

    Präteritum, which is better and in my opinion the correct tense in this example, as the fact that he formerly was a worker has no relation to the interview (now).
    Keep in mind: Präteritum and Imperfekt aren't the same in German linguistics as German has no unfinished past tense (Source, unfortunately in Germany: article of the news paper Der Spiegel about Imperfekt and Präteritum).

  3. Früher ist er Arbeiter gewesen

    Perfekt, which is also better than the Plusquamperfekt and is used, when the action is related to now as distinct from Präteritum. One could argue that the interview is about what he does now in relation to his former working life, so there could also be a relation to the interview (now)

In common speech, people often confuse these rules and combine them:

Früher war er Arbeiter gewesen

So they believe in using a normal past tense, but don't know, they indeed formed the Plusquamperfekt.
Maybe also, they wanted to strengthen their statement with the word gewesen.

Why people prefer the Perfekt to Präteritum

Many people prefer the perfect in common speech (regardless whether it's related to now or not). This (including an anomality) is already answered in German Language Stack Exchange.

  • In all cases where it would occur to a (probably northern) German to use preterite, perfect tense is always also correct and never includes any shift in nuances. Note that in Austria, preterite is never used outside of written or formal communication.
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 23:00
  • My answer refers to standard German, so yes, in Austrian German, the use of the preterite is different. Thank you for adding this! :) But if you want to be this correct, you should mention the exception that the preterite is used in Austrian German outside of written communication with the verbs sein and wollen.
    – biolauri
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 9:50
  • According to Hubert, it isn’t. I don’t speak to Austrians often enought to collect data myself ^^'
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 20:15

I’m not entirely sure whether the form in question was actually a pluperfect (Plusquamperfekt). Instead, I suspect that it was a double-perfect that, in this case, accidentally falls together with the pluperfect form.

It is a rather common habit of many people to add a second past participle in perfect tense and spoken German. Possibly, this is just to reassure that they are talking about the past. Adding these extra participles is generally not done consciously. Examples would be:

Hast du ihn schon gefragt gehabt?

Ja, und dann hat er wieder drei Stunden über Gott und die Welt rumgeschwafelt gehabt, bis er endlich darauf eingegangen ist.

This seems to be reinforcing the past tense by readding the auxiliary verb to the end of the sentence where the past participle of the full verb is. In my experience, it is not done if the clause in question is a subordinate clause since the auxiliary is already right behind the participle.

In the case of the question, the final form probably results from the interviewee using preterite in that case, but still wanting to add the past pariticiple of the corresponding auxiliary. Had they used perfect tense in the first place, they probably would not have added a gewesen:

Mein Mann ist Arbeiter gewesen. Er ist nach der Arbeit immer in die Kneipe gegangen gewesen.

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