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Basically I have these two sentences - the first is an example from a German grammar book, the second is something that I said that was corrected by a native (I have quoted the corrected version).

Ich habe ihm auch Bücher gebracht, damit er sich nicht langweilte.

Past tense in the first clause, past tense again in the second

Ich klopfte an die Tür, damit mich jemand hört.

Past tense in the first clause, present tense in the second

So are they both correct? And if so, why does the first sentence use the past tense in the damit clause, whereas the second sentence uses the present? The way I understand them in English they both use the same tenses. And what is the general rule for sentences with the basic structure 'I did something, damit something would happen in the future'.

Danke im Voraus :-)

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Empirically, if the matrix clause is in the preterite indicative, a damit final clause ...

  • in written language is usually in the preterite indicative as well (Fabricius-Hansen et al. 2018: 37; Andersson 2002). However, there is some variation. The present indicative is also in frequent use (Fabricius-Hansen et al. 2018: 38; Duden-Grammatik 2016: 526, 550). Less frequently, subjunctive forms -- both Konjunktiv I and (more rarely) Konjunktiv II -- are used (Duden-Grammatik 2016: 550). Subjunctive use in written language seems to have been far more frequent in the past (Andersson 2002).

  • in informal spoken language present indicative is predominantly used (Duden-Grammatik 2016: 550; Andersson 2002); Konjunktiv II is more frequent than in written language (Andersson 2002).

(1) The justification for the use of subjunctive mood is twofold (Duden-Grammatik 2016: 550): First, the speaker effectively reports the subject actant's state of mind and what they intended with the action in the matrix clause, which gives rise to a context of indirectness. Second, since the final clause describes the motives of the subject actant, it may also be seen as a volitive (optative) Konjunktiv I. Examples of Konjunktiv I use: Dann wurde das Institut für Zeitgeschichte auf den Nazi-Händler aufmerksam und begann ihn zu umwerben, damit er ihm doch etwas von seinen wertvollen Sammelobjekten überlasse. (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 23.04.2015) (...) du wirst in deinem Zimmer eingeschlossen bleiben und um Hilfe schreien, nach der Feuerwehr wirst du schreien, damit man mit Leitern komme und dich vor einer Taube rette (...) (Süskind, Die Taube, 1987)

(2) While the above only discusses preterite matrix clauses, I believe the insights, in principle, are applicable to present perfect matrix clauses as well. (Note that the use of the present perfect tense in the damit clause is logically barred.) However, I assume that some speakers would be disinclined to combine a preterite indicative damit clause with a present perfect matrix clause (as your textbook does), simply because the two tenses do not agree and that disagreement is not rooted in their temporal relation. Therefore, I would guess that present indicative and subjunctive forms are more common with present perfect matrix clauses (educated guess).

(3) An important factor contributing to present indicative vis-à-vis preterite indicative use is that the speaker assumes that the "expectation" in the damit clause in some way (still) relates to the present tense from the perspective of the speaker, eg because it has (not) materialised and is still (not) true: Breite Fenster und ein Glasdach wurden installiert, damit man die Königin bei öffentlichen Anlässen sehen, dichte Schiebefächer, damit sie sich bei privaten Fahrten verbergen kann. (Der Spiegel, 28.02.1962) Sie wurden nicht gegründet, damit Europas Jugend nach Berlin fliegen kann, um hier auszugehen. Aber de facto ist es so. (Berliner Zeitung, 18.02.2009) Wenn eine Frau, deren Eizellen befruchtet wurden, damit sie schwanger wird, diese nicht mehr braucht, kann sie sie an eine andere Frau weitergeben. (Spiegel Online, 22.03.2016) Diese Rekursmöglichkeiten dienen dazu, um gegen verletzte Rechte, Verfahrensrechte vorzugehen. Sie wurden aber nicht eingeführt, damit jemand etwas verhindern kann. Das passiert oft, ist aber ganz klar ein Missbrauch der Rechtsmittel. (Tages-Anzeiger, 08.09.2003) In fact, in those examples the preterite indicative sounds downright off to me. It seems to me that even though the action in the matrix clause and the motive expressed in the final clause actually are present at the same time, we mentally evaluate the matrix clause independently from the final clause and apply ordinary tempus rules as though the final clause were a main clause. This is also illustrated by the examples in (4).

(4) Examples of preterite indicative use: Darko Knezevic (20) zum Beispiel begann auf Auftrag zu sprayen, damit er seine Schulden bezahlen konnte. (Tages-Anzeiger, 13.11.1996) Der Herr gab der Kellnerin eine DM, damit sie Musik machen konnte. (Die Zeit, 08.01.1965) Der beinahe 190-jährigen Chemischen Fabrik in Uetikon wurden über die Jahrzehnte Dutzende von Konzessionen zur Aufschüttung des Seeufers erteilt, damit sie ihre Schwefelsäureproduktion und später die Herstellung von Düngemitteln vorantreiben konnte. (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 04.07.2005) Wie viele andere Bauern wurden sie enteignet, damit die A1 gebaut werden konnte. (Sonntagsblick, 15.07.2012)

(5) As usual, Konjunktiv II will frequently replace Konjunktiv I if the Konjunktiv I form corresponds to the preterite indicative form: Nun war er arbeitslos, während seine Frau eifrig an ihrer Dissertation schrieb, damit sie beide einmal über Wasser halten könnte. (Die Zeit, 08.11.1985) Ich bot an, sie zu begleiten, damit ich mich auch gleich anmelden könnte. (Der Spiegel, 21.06.2004)


C Fabricius-Hansen et al. (2018), Der Konjunktiv, Stauffenberg; S-G Andersson (2002), "Zum Tempus und Modus finaler damit-Sätze in Vergangenheitskontexten: Ein variationslinguistischer Ansatz", in: C Fabricius-Hansen et al., Modus, Modalverben, Modalpartikeln, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 28-41 (as cited in Fabricius-Hansen 2018); Duden-Grammatik (2016), 9th edn, Dudenverlag, ch 4 (by C Fabricius-Hansen).

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  • Excellent detailed answer! So present indicative is commonly used in informal spoken language, what situation would the preterite indicative be used? Formal spoken and written language? – Jacob Lee-Hart Dec 18 '19 at 14:57
  • @JacobLee-Hart Yes. Preterite indicative in general is mostly absent from spoken German (with some exceptions). If it occurs, it mostly occurs in formal, quasi-written contexts (news, formal speeches, etc). In the context of this question, the preterite indicative is by far the most common choice if the action in the damit clause is completed at the speaker's present. If you look at the examples in (4), that's a recurring feature: In the second sentence, for instance, the act of making music is already completed. In the last sentence, the building of the street is already completed. – johnl Dec 18 '19 at 16:13
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The first sentence is wrong in my opinion; it should say "Ich habe ihm auch Bücher gebracht, damit er sich nicht langweilt." In both cases you should use the present (this counts as a general rule for every "Finalsatz").

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Ich habe ihm auch Bücher gebracht, damit er sich nicht langweilte.

That's not past tense, but Konjunktiv II. It shares the forms with Präteritum for weak verbs. The meaning is the same as the following sentence:

Ich habe ihm auch Bücher gebracht, damit er sich nicht langweilen würde.

Now you may ask: couldn't it be Präteritum in the first place? No, because Präteritum isn't about the past in German, but about narration. And it makes no sense to switch to narration in-sentence.

The Konjunktiv II makes little sense here. Use Präsens.


Ich klopfte an die Tür, damit mich jemand hört.

Correct. That's narration, plus a timeless statement.

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  • Warum nicht langweilen würde (statt gelangweilt hätte)? – David Vogt Dec 18 '19 at 9:25
  • In the textbook it does actually state that the verb is in the indicative, not the subjunctive. It says the subjunctive could be used but sounds 'old-fashioned'. And I still don't really understand the difference between the two sentences anyway. Both damit clauses refer to a hoped outcome in the past that may or may not have happened. – Jacob Lee-Hart Dec 18 '19 at 11:56
  • @David Vogt: Du hast recht. Ich ändere das. – Janka Dec 18 '19 at 19:55
  • @Jacob Lee-Hart: You start the first sentence with Perfekt. That marks it as non-narration but past of reality. The second clause therefore cannot be in Präteritum, as this is the present of narration. If you put the main clause into Präteritum, too, the second clause should be in Präteritum (same time), Plusquamperfekt (before the present of narration) or Präsens (timeless). – Janka Dec 18 '19 at 20:00
  • To put it short: Präteritum isn't a past tense in German. It's the tense of narration. – Janka Dec 18 '19 at 20:01

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