I learned the rules for both as that the perfect is commonly used in conversational language and imperfect in books and writing.

However, some common verbs, I see, are used in their imperfect in conversation e.g. sein, haben, wissen, and the modal verbs

Why are these used in the imperfect and are there others which do?


There is no such thing as a perfect–imperfect distinction in German time forms. They are called Perfekt and Präteritum because of that.

As you noted correctly, for some verbs the Präteritum is also used in speech. It depends on dialect which verbs belong to that group. In general, the more north you get, the more people use Präteritum forms in speech.

  • all auxiliaries and all modals even if used as full verbs

  • gehen, laufen, fahren, kommen, stehen, liegen and their prefixed friends

  • geben, bringen, wissen

  • Does this mean it'd be weird to use gehabt, gewesen etc. – Tom Edwards Jan 27 '18 at 18:47
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    In Southern German you say, Ich bin bei Erwin gewesen, er hat noch mein Fahrrad gehabt. while in Northern German you say Ich war bei Erwin, er hatte noch mein Fahrrad. In the center you can hear both, and mixes. – Janka Jan 27 '18 at 19:15
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    Note, though, that some textbooks, such as Deutsch: na klar (at least as recently as the 2008 fifth edition), do use the terms 'imperfect'/'Imperfekt' and 'perfect'/'Perfekt' for these forms, for some reason. Naturally, this is very confusing for those of us who have a background in languages such as Latin and the Romance languages, because it leads us to expect a difference in 'aspect' between the two. – cnread Jan 27 '18 at 20:09
  • @Janka: What we in the south really say is: »Ich bin beim Erwin gewesen, ...« We use names with an article. (beim = bei dem) – Hubert Schölnast Jan 28 '18 at 8:15
  • It's no different in the north, it's either bei Erwin or beim Erwin. – Janka Jan 28 '18 at 9:38

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