'Haben' vs 'hatten' when using the past perfect. So I know with the perfect tense you can say, for example:

Ich habe einen Freund besucht.

I was wondering in what situation you would use 'hatten' instead, like:

Ich hatte einen Freund besucht.

Are the German native speakers use Perfekt or Präteritum in everyday life? Could you please clarify?

  • 5
    Other than you claim in the headline, this question is not about Perfekt and Präteritum but about Perfekt and Plusquamperfekt. Admittedly, with haben this is a bit confusing due to congruent forms, but if you take another verb: kochte vs habe gekocht vs hatte gekocht, the difference is more obvious. Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 15:47
  • 3
    Präteritum would be Ich besuchte einen Freund.
    – RHa
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 15:52
  • This question is weird. I tried to edit twice but I don’t know how to improve the language while preserving your content. Seeing that you have a lot backwards and are throwing words around incorrectly.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 7:09

3 Answers 3


German actually has three past tenses:

Präteritum / Imperfekt:

Ich besuchte meinen Freund.


Ich habe meinen Freund besucht.

and Plusquamperfekt:

Ich hatte meinen Freund besucht.

They are used to distinguish between the Order of what happened when:

Plusquamperfekt -> Perfekt -> Präteritum -> NOW (Präsens) (-> Future)

So when telling a story, you might use Perfekt or Präteritum for the main story line, and Plusquamperfekt for what happened before.

In everyday spoken language, Perfekt gets used in most cases. The other forms are more prominent in written language, can however still be used when talking, although you won't hear them much.

  • Your answer contains a mistake, the correct order is Plusquamperfekt -> Präteritum -> Perfekt -> NOW (Präsens) (-> Future) Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 21:19
  • @VolkerLandgraf and Noam: Imho, in German the order of tenses is *pluperfect –> perfect = preterite –> NOW (present). I cannot remember anybody using perfect and preterite to distinguish between semi-past times. It’s either present or past or before past (pluperfect).
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 7:12
  • 1
    @Jan: I've been taught in school that they do have an order, but as Präteritum & Perfekt are rarely used together (Präteritum + Plusquamperfekt or Präsens + Perfekt), their order isn't very important, I agree
    – nleanba
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 14:38

Ich hatte einen Freund besucht, bevor ich mein Auto holte.

It allows you to establish multiple levels of "pastness". In this case:

I visited a friend before picking up my car

  • Thank you. Honestly, I don't even know if this method is correct or not! So I can use both haben and hatten with Partizip II? How do the natives usually say this? "Ich habe besucht." or "Ich hatte besucht."?
    – Amin
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 14:06
  • @Amin natives are usually lazy and say things like "Ich habe Stefan besucht und dann habe ich mein Auto geholt.". It is less elegant, however, more colloquial. Maybe you know about the Genitiv and it's death, this is a somewhat similar situation. Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 14:15
  • @Amin more specifically to your question: You may use "hatte" either if something happened before something else in the past or if you want to emphasize something is finished (as in the activity is completely over). Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 14:17
  • 2
    I like your term "multiple levels of pastness". Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 15:46
  • @Ruben Krupper In the sentence "bevor ich mein Auto holte", why the verb is not in position 2?
    – Amin
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 17:06

German has two tenses: present and preteritum. The construction with haben is better analyzed as a perfect aspect, not a tense. It signifies that an action is completed.

  • Present:
    • Non-perfect: Präsens
    • Perfect: Perfekt
  • Past:
    • Non-perfect: Präteritum
    • Perfect: Plusquamperfekt

Perfect constructions can also be used after modal verbs:

  • Ich will es sehen – ich will es gesehen haben
  • Ich werde es sehen – ich werde es gesehen haben

The distinction is blurred since the Präteritum is not used in the Southern half of the German-speaking area.

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