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I recently started learning German and got into some of the details of German grammar. I know there are several different ways of expressing events that took place in the past. I learned the following equivalences:

German English
Präteritum Simple Past
Perfekt Past Perfect

As I am learning German, it is easier to me to use the Präteritum for most of the things I want to say that happened in the past:

  1. I don't need to keep track of the sentence order - add the -te for weak verbs and call it a day, the rest follows.
  2. I do not need to know which modal particle I need to use for my past participle.
  3. For strong verbs I need to know the form either way, so the complexity there is equivalent.

I live in Austria, where I read from multiple sources that the Präteritum is going extinct outside of writing. I also like the Genitiv case.

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    Going extinct? I'm grown up in Southern Germany 50 years ago and have never used Präteritum in spoken language except for "sein". Not even for "haben" unless I try to be a bit formal. Maybe some other exception I don't come up with now, but generally I would never use it in spoken language. They are equivalent to English only from a formal grammar view, definitely not as far as usage is concerned.
    – Uwe Geuder
    May 5, 2023 at 21:49
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    @UweGeuder In NRW, everyone I know uses Präteritum hundreds of time per day. "Ich musste früher gehen", "Sie hatte Hunger" ,"Ich wusste nicht mehr weiter", "Ich konnte ihr nicht helfen", "Er sagte, er sei krank", "Es gab kein Brot", "Ich wollte noch länger bleiben", "Er kam zu spät", "Sie durfte nochmal" are all completely bog-standard sentences. May 6, 2023 at 13:56
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    @MarcVaisband NRW isn't very relevant in this context. In the South we simply do not use Präteritum in spoken language. The Bavarian dialects (spoken between Bolzano, Vienna and Regensburg) don't even have a Präteritum but II'm going off on a tangent.
    – Joooeey
    May 7, 2023 at 7:54

3 Answers 3

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I learned the following equivalences

Unlearn those. German tenses do not map to English tenses that way. German has no perfect aspect. (And neither a continous aspect.)

German tenses follow a simple orthogonal scheme. There's all the simple tenses that do not employ the Partizip II. Those are for the non-past. And there's all the perfect tenses that do employ the Partizip II. Those are for the past.

So you cannot talk about the past without using the Partizip II and the Perfekt auxiliary.

If you use Präteritum instead, you don't talk about the past but you tell a story. And that Präteritum is the present inside the story universe. As most stories are about the past, this is sometimes at least understandable. But consider:

  • Das Planet-Express-Raumschiff stürzte auf die Straße, weil Bender die L-Einheit verbogen hatte.

This isn't the past. It's the year 3000! And the present inside this story universe is marked with Präteritum while the past inside it is marked with Plusquamperfekt.

Okay. Here's the full scheme.

  • Präsens / Perfekt — facts
  • Präteritum / Plusquamperfekt — narration
  • Futur I / Futur II — assumptions
  • Konjunktiv I / Konjunktiv I Perfekt — hearsay
  • Konjunktiv II / Konjunktiv II Perfekt — counterfacts
  • Konjunktiv I Futur I / Konjunktiv I Futur II — hearsay assumptions
  • Konjunktiv II Futur I / Konjunktiv II Futur II — replacement for Konjunktiv II / Konjunktiv II Perfekt

Futur II is a perfect tense. Those hearsay assumptions are seldom used and Konjunktiv II Futur I / Konjunktiv II Futur II you have probably learned about as the würden-Konjunktiv II.

As you can see, the simple/perfect pairs differ in the intent of speech. But you always have that simple tense for the present, and that perfect tense for the past.

On top of that scheme, Northerners use Präteritum in place of Perfekt for the auxiliaries, the modals and a few very common verbs. Not more than a handful. The more southern the speaker is from, the less verbs are mangled that way. In Austria they only use sein that way. In Switzerland not even that.

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    So you cannot talk about the past without using the Partizip II and the Perfekt auxiliary. -- Gestern schien die Sonne. Heute Morgen war das Auto noch da. Letzte Woche stand der Baum noch. May 6, 2023 at 19:34
  • That's not the past but narration. As I have explained in my answer.
    – Janka
    May 6, 2023 at 19:38
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    Saying that it rained yesterday is a very short story then... Just saying that IMHO that bold sentence is a bit too general. May 6, 2023 at 19:44
  • You are a Northern German speaker, aren't you?
    – Janka
    May 6, 2023 at 22:46
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    Worse than that. I am from Switzerland. 😊 May 7, 2023 at 5:34
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Yes, you will sound weird, especially in Austria.

You should use it for the verbs "sein" and maybe "haben" and nowhere else. It is just not how we are used to speaking.

It is also not a very good idea to think of these tenses as equivalent to any tenses in English. They are not; the tenses in English have clearly different meanings from each other (which, incidentally, is not trivial for native speakers of German to learn when learning English), those in German do not.

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  • How are the tenses I listed different from each other? May 5, 2023 at 20:46
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    My understanding is that usage of the two past tense forms varies from region to region; in some areas the perfect indicates completion as it does in English, in some areas it depends on context, and in some areas (like Austria) the Präteritum/simple past is barely used at all. But I think it's unlikely that there is any region where you could get away with using it all the time. I agree that it would much simpler to just pick a tense and stick with it; German usually isn't that simple though.
    – RDBury
    May 5, 2023 at 22:49
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    @RDBury: The only region where the German tenses function more similar to the English tenses is where Plattdeutsch is spoken. And only if Plattdeutsch is spoken. When the very same people speak Standard German, which they do with outsiders, they switch to the tense logic of Standard German. With the tiny extra of using Präteritum instead of Perfekt for the auxiliaries, the modals and a few very common verbs. That's not a Plattdeutsch thing either. Plattdeutsch has aspects.
    – Janka
    May 6, 2023 at 0:31
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    @Janka - It seems like every grammar I read on this describes a different rule. Another variation I've heard is that there is a small list of verbs where the Präteritum is commonly used, not just sein, and you need to memorize this list. I thought speakers of Plattdeutsch had a tendency to use Plattdeutsch grammar rules when speaking Standard German, especially in a case like this where the rule in Standard German seems rather flexible.
    – RDBury
    May 6, 2023 at 9:00
  • Yes, it is a small list of verbs. The auxiliaries, the modals, and a few more verbs as kommen, and geben. Sometimes only in certain context. And the further south the speaker is from, the less verbs are on that list. And no, Plattdeutsch speakers do not use the Plattdeutsch tense rules in standard German. That makes no sense as Plattdeutsch tells apart imperfect and perfect.
    – Janka
    May 6, 2023 at 12:46
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Yes, you can use that, and everybody will understand what you are saying.

However, it will sound a bit unnatural to native speakers, and it will definitely reveal that you are speaking German as a foreign language. I doubt that this bothers you at this point, unless your intent is to learn perfect German.

Interestingly enough, the use of Präteritum has begun to sneak into the German language from dubbed English movies and series. It’s often used in dubbing because it easier to lip sync English with it.

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