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I'm having difficulty discerning the appropriate usage of each tense in different contexts.

I'm particularly struggling with the following examples:

Gestern bin ich nach Hause gekommen und habe eine Pizza gegessen.

Gestern kam ich nach Hause und aß eine Pizza.

Ich habe meinen Freund seit Jahren nicht gesehen.

Ich sehe meinen Freund seit Jahren nicht.

Any rule or guideline for when to use each tense you could offer would be immensely helpful.

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  • I would use "kam" perhaps in a letter, or when writing a story/novel. Otherwise I would use "bin gekommen/habe gesehen". The last example just expresses that you still continue to NOT see your friend and don't have any plans of meeting him, while "habe nicht gesehen" would indicate, that you have plans to see him again in the near future. Commented Feb 29 at 13:39
  • All of them are appropriate. The problem is context. So is your question instead catering toward what is the context that would require using them? Commented Feb 29 at 20:19

2 Answers 2

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Note you're asking for "appropriate" not "by the book" - That is important, because what you may find in your grammar book might be different to what you may encounter in real conversation situations (and I'm explicitly not explaining the grammar book situation, because, that is, well, what you should use a book for).

Common Practice

As I have wrote in other answers, German is relatively sloppy (at least in spoken language) with tenses and modes. We use Präsens for Futur, ignore anteriority, avoid Konjunktiv, and make many more shortcuts in day-to-day conversations, all to make conversation simpler to handle. Written language is different, it would commonly be expected you stick to the rules of your grammar book in writing. (Note I'm not saying "you can ignore all rules in spoken conversation", but rather "be prepared to hear anything", and focus more on the context than the actual grammar).

Your Examples

Gestern bin ich nach Hause gekommen und habe eine Pizza gegessen.

This is an example where spoken language may completely ignore anteriority. It is relatively clear from the context that the eating happened after the coming home. Still, both parts use the same tense - Perfekt, and the sentence is completely acceptable and common in spoken German. Perfekt is, in fact, in most regions south of the river Main the preferred past tense, mainly because most dialects spoken there don't even have the Präteritum.

By the book:

Nachdem ich nach Hause gekommen war, aß ich eine Pizza

next

Gestern kam ich nach Hause und aß eine Pizza.

That's just as acceptable as the above. You would, however, more likely read that in a novel than hear it in spoken language. The "by the book" would be as above.

Ich habe meinen Freund seit Jahren nicht gesehen

Modern German doesn't have a progressive. The progression needs to be expressed using other means, like here, for example, with an adverbial of time. Because simple Perfekt is used, I'm still not seeing him.

Ich sehe meinen Freund seit Jahren nicht

Same as above, but because the present tense is used, it's more focused on the present, somewhat emphasising that I'm still not seeing him.

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  • In English you could also say "I had come home and had eaten pizza," or "I came home at ate pizza," though I think you'd only use the first one if you were going to follow it up with another event: "... before I went back to work." The German past participle doesn't convey the same sense of completion as English. The biggest difference is in your last example, since English would require the past tense. "I don't see my friend for ten years," would be ungrammatical.
    – RDBury
    Commented Feb 29 at 18:09
  • I may also be worth noting that there is a North/South regional difference in usage, with the preterite being more common in the north. This was very confusing for me as a learner because I kept hearing explanations that weren't consistent with each other, then I learned that answer depends on who you ask to some extent. German speakers don't all speak German the same way, and the differences seem to be a bit more profound than, say, the regional differences in American English.
    – RDBury
    Commented Feb 29 at 18:10
  • @RDBury It's in there. Go find it!
    – tofro
    Commented Feb 29 at 23:40
  • Yes, I see it now. For what it's worth, I had to look up the location of the Main; it may be more be more useful for some people to say it's the line from from Czech republic to Luxembourg.
    – RDBury
    Commented Mar 1 at 12:17
  • @RDBury "Die Mainlinie" is a German standing expression for the boundary between northern and southern Germany. It's also the agreed approximate boundary between the two language variations "oberdeutsch" and "niederdeutsch". It's also somewhat of a historical political boundary between the Prussian and Austrian zones of influence. I would probably have to consult a map on where the line from Czechia to Luxembourg might be ;) So, YMMV.
    – tofro
    Commented Mar 1 at 14:21
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In German, adverbials do not command a specific tense. This is very different from English. Instead, you have to understand the adverbial in the context of the tense.

Rules of thumb:

  • Use simple tenses for the non-past and perfect tenses for the past.
  • Use the Präsens / Perfekt pair for talking facts.
  • Use the Präteritum / Plusquamperfekt pair for narration.
  • Use the Futur I / Futur II pair for assumptions.
  • Use the Konjunktiv I / Konjunktiv I Perfekt pair for hearsay.
  • Use the Konjunktiv II / Konjunktiv II Perfekt pair for non-facts.

There are two more pairs:

  • The Konjunktiv I Futur I / Konjunktiv I Futur II pair is for hearsay assumptions. You will need this only seldomly.
  • The Konjunktiv II Futur I / Konjunktiv II Futur II pair is a drop-in replacement for Konjunktiv II / Konjunktiv II Perfekt. You will need the Konjunktiv II Futur I forms pretty often.

When talking to Northerners, you will notice that they sometimes use Präteritum in speech, when Southerners would use Perfekt. Northerners do this for the auxiliaries and the modals, and a few very common verbs. The more north someone is from, the more verbs belong to this list. In Southern Germany, they only handle sein this way. In Switzerland not even that one.


In particular:

Gestern bin ich nach Hause gekommen und habe eine Pizza gegessen.

You talk facts about yesterday.

Gestern kam ich nach Hause und aß eine Pizza.

You tell a story. May be true or fictional. Doesn't even have to have happened yesterday. Could be a random yesterday in the story universe.

Ich habe meinen Freund seit Jahren nicht gesehen.

You talk facts about the past. It may still apply now, but you don't say that.

Ich sehe meinen Freund seit Jahren nicht.

You talk facts about the non-past. So it applies now and probably in the future as well. And the adverbial suggests it also applied in the past.

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