I have read the question When to use Perfekt and Präteritum? but it doesn’t answer my question.

I am looking for a rule for beginner/intermediate level learners which tells when to use perfect (Perfekt) or preterite (Präteritum) in the spoken language with a 95 % accuracy. Here is what I have already:

Use preterite with

  • Grundverben (sein, haben, werden),
  • Modalverben (können, dürfen, müssen, sollen, wollen, mögen),
  • wissen and
  • es gab.

Use perfect in any other cases.

The above rule works reasonably well but fails miserably on the following examples:

  1. Wo bist Du gewesen?

    (Expected: Wo warst Du?)

  2. Du hast gefurzt und ich fand das süß.

    (Expected: … ich habe das süß gefunden)

  3. Das ging aber schnell!

    (Expected: Das ist aber schnell gegangen!)

  4. Ich dachte, … vs. *Ich habe schon gedacht, …

Please help me extend the above rule so that these examples are also covered.

  • 1
    I don't know any rule and I'm also not aware about how I handle the mixed use of perfect and preterit, but in general in all four sentences both are valid. What I just realized while reading your examples: in all those examples the statements contains or refers personal feeling or thinking (1.anger or curiosity; 3. astonishment; 4. thoughts, opinion;2. don't know the apt name for that right now). Regarding the 4 types of preterit uses in your question: I don't agree with that. I use preterit and perfect mixed for those, too. E.g.: I war gestern / Ich bin gewesen.
    – Em1
    Commented Aug 18, 2012 at 9:45
  • 1
    And more confusing: If you ask me "Wo warst du?" I could answer with "Ich bin gewesen" and the other way round.
    – Em1
    Commented Aug 18, 2012 at 9:46
  • @Em1 Thanks for the comment. Could you please make it an answer?
    – Ali
    Commented Aug 18, 2012 at 10:08
  • 3
    The question *Präteritum or Perfekt" is a very difficult one. Even grammar books get it wrong. A very good read (plus tutorial video) here: belleslettres.eu/artikel/prateritum-imperfekt-perfekt.php
    – splattne
    Commented Aug 18, 2012 at 19:59
  • 1
    That's not something a beginner or intermediate should worry about. The simplest would be to always use perfect, I can't think of a case where that would be wrong in spoken language (note I'm from the northern part of Germany). If you use Präteritum too much you will sound a bit old-fashioned, but IMHO that's perfectly acceptable for somebody speaking a second language.
    – starblue
    Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 19:18

5 Answers 5


So here is my try - the following verbs might be used in either way in spoken language, sometimes depending on what you want to say, sometimes it is just random or personal preference or flow of speech:

gehen - ging

Should be used in the sense of "to work" or "to be".

Ich wäre gerne zu deiner Party gekommen, aber es ging nicht.

If you go places, use gegangen.

finden - fand

Should be used to express opinion.

Ich fand den Film gut.

When one actually finds an item most people would use gefunden.

sehen - sah

Usually used when the verb is actually aussehen.

Mein Professor sah sehr müde aus.

If you see something, go for gesehen.

geben - gab

Should be used in the sense of "there were" or "we had" (food talk).

Auf dem Markt gab es superfrisches Gemüse zu einem super Preis.

Am Sonntag gab es Fisch.

If you give something to someone use gegeben.

liegen - lag

Actually this is used more often than gelegen no matter what the context is. Hat gelegen sounds unusual to me.

Mein Schlüssel lag auf dem Tisch.

Es lag am Wetter, dass ich nicht im Park war.

Anyway... if you yourself were lying in a park, that would be habe gelegen. (Also compare stehen)

stehen - stand

Should be used in the sense of "to be written" and actually for most things positioned standing. Only if standing is a "real active action" then gestanden sounds fine.

In der Zeitung stand nur Quatsch.

Das Buch stand im Regal.

as opposed to:

Ich habe 2 Stunden am Bahnhof gestanden.

rufen - rief

No preferences, but rief might be used by people based on personal preference.

denken - dachte

Again I think both are fine. Maybe dachte has a slight edge, but habe gedacht is ok too.

tun - tat

Since Germans don't tun so much, it is mostly seen for "tut mir leid", but the other version "hat mir Leid getan" is good too.

Das tat mir leid.

bleiben - blieb

Should be used when the verb is actually "jdm. übrig blieben" in the sense of "someone had no other choice". The other bleibens sound better with geblieben, especially if you talk about you yourself staying in a place.

Mir blieb nichts übrig als zu warten. ( I couldn't do anyting but wait.)

Ich bin 3 Monate in Schweden geblieben.

Some general notes:

  • In most of the examples above, the abstract meaning uses the real past (preterite) while the "literal" meaning uses the ge-form (perfect).
  • The older the people are the more likely they are to use the "real" past form.
  • When the verb has a regular past stem (-te), it will almost certainly not be used in spoken language.
  • It also might be a regional thing and I would not be surprised if Austria or Switzerland had a different set of verbs like this.

The list may not be complete, so feel free to add stuff as long as it is not super regional. Oh, and as for gewesen... I think it is purely a personal thing. In Berlin people say bin/ war gewesen in excessive amounts for instance.

  • 7
    Yes, this list is a regional thing. I cannot provide a list for Austria or Switzerland, but in Bavaria the list is: sein, wollen. And even those two are often used in perfect tense.
    – Jan
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 1:57
  • The list is the same for Austria; wollen is ver rarely used in the perfect tense there.
    – sgf
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 23:36
  • @Emanuel I can see a simple pattern in your many rules: Use Präteritum when the subject of the sentence is the passive "es". This rule seems to work in most cases, which is exactly what the OP asked for. Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 6:32

The problem here is that the different German dialects use Präteritum and Perfekt differently. E.g. "Ich habe am Bahnhof gestanden" is Upper German (Swiss), while "Ich stand am Bahnhof" is lower German (Berlin). Since almost everyone speaking German today is exposed to a wide variety of German usage through the media and is himself expected to switch between different kinds of usage regularly (when he moves from one social context to an other), there is no unified usage and most speakers don't have a feeling for their own practise anymore. I am an educated speaker, but in a question like this I would trust a linguist and not my own feeling or anyone on the internet (or writing a text book).

  • 11
    Nope. Ich bin am Bahnhof gestanden.
    – Ingo
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 16:50
  • @Ingo Wenn dann bitte: Ich bin nach'm Bahnhof gestanden.
    – DocRattie
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 13:08

You cannot achieve 95 % accuracy for all situations and all communication partners. To me, any occurance of preterite in verbs other than sein or wollen (and outside of formal speeches) is unexpected. (Even after three years of living in the North and with colleagues all from the North.) This is because the South uses perfect almost exclusively while the North has a set of verbs for which they like to use the preterite — cf. Emanuel’s answer.

However, as you already noted, you are less likely to leave a wrong impression if you use the perfect tense for most verbs.


Just as user what said in his answer, the use of Präteritum and Perfekt depends on the regional dialect. As a general rule, you will find the use of Perfect more frequently in the south of Germany, in Austria and Switzerland, while the use of Präteritum is more widespread in the north.

I know some will beat me for that, but honestly, as a native speaker I would recommend you not to worry about Präteritum vs. Perfekt. Pick one and use it consistently in most situations and you'll be fine. More important than the actual choice is consistency here.

Only exception is when you expressly need and want to emphasize a temporal relationship, that is to say one thing happened before the other. Though in those cases I would rather use the pairs Präteritum and Plusquamperfekt or Perfekt and Plusquamperfekt.

  • 1
    I am native, too, and I chiefly use perfect, though I use quite often the preterit, too. Thus I don't agree that consistency is important.
    – Em1
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 6:49
  • well, I admit it's mostly personal observation, but it does seem like pretty much all native speakers I hear use one or the other mostly cosistently. But yes, using both will probably not sound off either. But I can't guarantee it. Commented Sep 9, 2012 at 0:48

To Emanuel's excellent answer I would add:

sitzen - saß
denken - dachte
wissen - wusste
brauchen - brauchte
rufen - rief

And for some people
laufen - lief

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