In my book they give some German sentences with the respective English translations, this is to explain the use of als and wenn, but that is not what is bothering me. I am not sure why they are using the German Perfekt, in what seems to require the Präteritum.

  1. Als ich am Bahnhof angekommen bin, haben meine Freunde auf mich gewartet = When I arrived to the station, my friends waited for me

  2. Wenn (Jedes Mal) sie sich getroffen haben, waren sie glücklich vs. When they met, they were happy

  3. Wenn (Jedes Mal) er nach Amerika geflogen ist, haben ihn seine Freunde am Flughafen abgeholt = When (Every time) he travelled to America , his friends checked him up at the airport

In order to have those English sentences, I would have expected the German sentences to be:

  1. Als ich am Bahnhof ankam, warteten meine Freunde auf mich = When I arrived to the station, my friends waited for me

  2. Wenn (Jedes Mal) sie sich trafen, waren sie glücklich = When they met, they were happy

  3. Wenn (Jedes Mal) er nach Amerika flog, holten ihn seine Freunde am Flughafen ab = When (Every time) he travelled to America , his friends picked him up at the airport

If I had been given only the German sentences, I would have thought they were incorrect, because they translate to bad English.

  • I adjusted the formatting and removed the third section with the perfect re-translations, since it does not add substantially to the question. Note, that umlauts are not optional, if its too complicated to insert them on your OS, you should at least replace ü by ue etc.
    – guidot
    Dec 20 '20 at 20:35
  • @guidot -- Instead of trying to type out Präteritum with the umlaut, to me it would be better to just translate the term into English if you're writing the question in English. Präteritum is just "preterite". I know the German preterite is not the same as the English preterite (see the answer below), but neither is it the same as the Latin preterite which is what the term is based on.
    – RDBury
    Dec 20 '20 at 20:52

German does not follow the rules of English grammar.

In particular, German does not tell apart imperfect and perfect aspect. All those rules regarding that aspect English has simply do not exist in German. You don't have to think about whether an event happened once, or each time. We usually don't care! If we happen to care, we mark it with an adverbial instead.

German tenses only ever tell apart non-past and past. The non-past is expressed by the simple tense, and the past is expressed by the related Perfekt tense. There are six such pairs, and they are used for different kinds of speech:

  • Präsens / Perfekt — real events
  • Präteritum / Plusquamperfekt — narration
  • Futur I / Futur II — assumptions
  • Konjunktiv I / Konjunktiv I Perfekt — indirect speech
  • Konjunktiv II / Konjunktiv II Perfekt — non-facts
  • Konjunktiv Futur I / Konjunktiv Futur II — assumptions in indirect speech

Forget about that latter pair. It's almost never used. The other five pairs are common. Konjunktiv II is sometimes called Konjunktiv Präteritum and Konjunktiv II Perfekt is sometimes called Konjunktiv Plusquamperfekt. And as you can see, that Futur I / Futur II stuff is also named in a confusing way. That is because the German tense system has been crammed into a scheme developed on the example of scholar Latin. It hardly fits.

  • 1
    "German tenses only ever tell apart non-past and past." - well, they do tell apart past from past-before-past. Plusquamperfekt can be used perfectly fine to further distinguish different levels of past in real events. Dec 20 '20 at 20:57
  • Plusquamperfekt is the past of narration. If your story plays in the past of reality, it is the past of that past, yes. Otherwise, you combine Perfekt+Perfekt and add adverbials for telling the order of events.
    – Janka
    Dec 20 '20 at 20:59
  • I was referring to something like "Ich backe jetzt den Kuchen, für den ich gestern die Backmischung im Supermarkt abgeholt habe, die ich vorgestern extra vorbestellt hatte." Indeed, if I tell about this event tomorrow, everything will be shifted "one level" to the past and the latter two statements will be "compressed" into the same tense, only distinguishable by "gestern" and "vorgestern". Dec 20 '20 at 21:01
  • Could you elaborate how to use adverbials to distinguish ? Are the german sentences I wrote in the second part wrong or since we don't care we can use either the ones from the book written with Perfekt or the ones I wrote with Präteritum ?
    – mathlover
    Dec 20 '20 at 21:49
  • 1
    @mathlover: As I wrote, those considerations about single or repeating events are useless in German, as German tenses do not care about that. You don't indicate it at all. Unless you want to.
    – Janka
    Dec 20 '20 at 21:53

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