Sometimes the internet really is extraordinarily helpful. I was a bit confused about when to use the simple past tense and when you’re supposed to use the perfect tense, but then – as if by magic! – there was something on Twitter with a link to a helpful article from Fair Languages. Thank you for that!
Here’s what I’ve learned…
The simple past tense (also referred to as the imperfect, narrative or preterite tense) is simple in that it consists of one word, e.g. Ich schwamm. The imperfect tense is mostly used in written German, and is often considered to be the more formal of the two basic past tenses.
A couple of handy hints from Fair Languages:
Forget about the Präteritum [preterite] when you speak German and just concentrate on the Perfekt tense!
Exceptions to this rule of thumb are the three auxiliaries, sein, haben and warden, and their respective past tenses ich war, ich hatte and ich wurde. You absolutely need to know their Präteritum for two reasons: a) to form the Perfekt, and b) we frequently use them in conversations.
About.com’s article on the German past tenses gives the following advice:
It is sometimes useful to think of the “narrative past” as being used to describe a series of connected events in the past, i.e., a narrative. This is in contrast to the present perfect, which (technically) is used to describe isolated events in the past.
It’s also worth noting that…
German simple past tense may have several English equivalents. A phrase such as, “er spielte Golf,” can be translated into English as: “he was playing golf,” “he used to play golf,” “he played golf,” or “he did play golf,” depending on the context.
There are two parts to the perfect tense: an auxiliary verb (haben or sein) conjugated in the present tense, and the past participle of the main verb. For example, Ich bin geschwommen. This particular form of the past tense is also known as the “conversational past”, and as you might expect, it is primarily used in conversational, spoken German.
As the About.com article demonstrates, there are major differences in the way the present perfect is used in German and English:
For instance, if you want to express, “I used to live in Munich” in German, you can say, “Ich habe in München gewohnt.” – a completed event (you no longer live in Munich). On the other hand, if you want to say, “I have lived/have been living in Munich for ten years,” you can’t use the perfect tense (or any past tense) because you’re talking about an event in the present (you are still living in Munich). So German uses the present tense (with schon seit) in this situation: “Ich wohne schon seit zehn Jahren in München,” literally “I live since ten years in Munich.”
English-speakers also need to understand that a German present perfect phrase such as, “er hat Geige gespielt,” can be translated into English as: “he has played (the) violin,” “he used to play (the) violin,” “he played (the) violin,” “he was playing (the) violin,” or even “he did play (the) violin,” depending on the context. In fact, for a sentence such as, “Beethoven hat nur eine Oper komponiert,” it would only be correct to translate it into the English simple past, “Beethoven composed only one opera,” rather than the English present perfect, “Beethoven has composed only one opera.” (The latter incorrectly implies that Beethoven is still alive and composing.)
It is important to remember that the simple past and the perfect tense have equivalent meanings in German; the differences are in style and usage. The Fair Languages article gives this warning:
English native speakers must liberate themselves from thinking in the same mindset “here I use simple past / here present perfect, therefore in German I have to use Präteritum in this sentence and Perfekt in that one”. This does not work, it only gets you frustrated.
So weit ganz gut. I’m still unclear about which tense to use if some past event has or has not finished, but that’s something for another day. If anyone can provide a nice, simple explanation, I’d be very grateful!