Here are two sentences:

als er fast eingeschlafen war, klingelte das Telefon.

als er fast einschlief, klingelte das Telefon.

Do both clauses of als correctly convey the meaning ‘when he nearly fell asleep’? i.e. are the past perfect and the preterite both appropriate in the als-clause in here?

Besides, do the following two sentences convey the same meaning as ‘when he just fell asleep’:

als er gerade eben eingeschlafen war, klingelte das Telefon.

als er gerade eben einschlief, klingelte das Telefon.

I suppose the infinitive form einschlafen denotes the process of falling asleep: the transition of state from being awake to being asleep.

I am wondering whether the preterite form einschlief expresses more of the transitional process of falling asleep, or more of the result of the transition, which is the state of being asleep.

  • That's not an infinitive you have there, but a past participle. eingeschlafen. The tense is Plusquamperfekt.
    – Janka
    Mar 20 '17 at 10:17
  • In German, tense alone says nothing about the process. That's very different from English. You have to look at both finite verbs (and markers as gerade and eben) to understand how the events are connected.
    – Janka
    Mar 20 '17 at 10:20

"Als er fast eingeschlafen war,..." means, that he's nearly finished the process of falling asleep - "Als er fast einschlief,..." means, that he's​. nearly started the process of falling asleep.

  • 1
    +1, but you should add why it is that way: In that sentence, the main clause in in Präteritum. When the dependent clause is also in Präteritum, it's the same moment in time when he fell asleep. The first example in contary uses Plusquamperfekt, which means falling asleep happened before the phone rang. (Note that I don't mentioned "completed" here. That's a distinction not made in German. It's only about order of events.)
    – Janka
    Mar 20 '17 at 10:15

This example is interesting, because aside from interpreting eingeschlafen war as pluperfect of einschlafen it can also be interpreted as the past form of the same verb’s stative passive. A similar discussion can be made if comparing einschlief to eingeschlafen ist — which could be either stative passive or perfect tense.

Regardless of how you choose to interpret eingeschlafen war, however, it clearly references falling asleep as something that has basically already happened or started happening at the (past) point in time when the phone rang — this is the implication of the order of tenses. Einschlief, however, is more likely to mean that the phone rang at the beginning of his process of falling asleep — or maybe even just before it.

Additional discussion on the possibility of eingeschlafen ist

In general, the German perfect and preterite forms are freely exchangeable. Trying this out on your example sentence doesn’t work as well for me, though. This is because the perfect and stative passive forms are identical. Consider the following example:

Er ist eingeschlafen.

Without any additional details it is not clear whether the speaker is talking about the fact the he has fallen asleep at some point in the past or whether the speaker just intends to state his state of being asleep. It would need further marker words to distinguish between the two. For example:

Er ist gerade eingeschlafen.

This additional word shifts my perception of the sentence from both are possible to perfect tense.

Applying this discussion to the perfect version of your example sentence:

Als er gerade eben eingeschlafen ist, klingelte das Telefon.

Both versions are strong here. Gerade eben signalises a point in time which is more likely to mean perfect, while the conjunction als makes me more inclined to assume stative passive. Contrary to that, einschlief and eingeschlafen war are pretty clear-cut cases.

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