Present perfect or simple past?

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A grammar question that comes up quite frequently in English classes with German speakers concerns the semantic differences between the perfect and past tense forms in English and German. Especially the perfect forms cause confusion. Structurally, they look very similar, but their semantics or the way they are used differ.

I have been trying to find out more about the history behind this phenomenon. German uses the perfect form to speak about things past, English uses the simple past for this. Learners of English, especially German native speakers, struggle with this distinction.

Learners of German most likely struggle with the fact that German has two forms to refer to ‘things past’. One is prevalently used in writing, the other in spoken language.

I have been trying to find out if the German perfect form was ever used similarly to the way the English present perfect is used. So far without any success. (However I haven’t read an extensive academic book on the history of German (yet).)

Americans and speakers of any variety of British English don’t completely agree on when to use the present perfect, even though they would agree on the basic semantics of the form. Especially when it comes to the so-called resultative present perfect there are differences in usage. The resultative present perfect is favored more by speakers of any standard British variety, speakers of standard American English would prefer the simple past. The ‘British’ thinking here is that when the result of an – admittedly – past activity is somehow relevant in or to the present moment of speaking, we use the present perfect. Example: I’ve (already, just) eaten – I’m not hungry at the moment because of my completed activity of eating. Americans here would more likely use the simple past: I (just) ate.

I did a little browsing around on the internet and found some interesting little snippets I put together below for discussion. The first one is not related to the question posed above, but I still decided to keep it. I find it demonstrates language change and the sometimes unexpected influences languages (through their speakers) had or can have on each other. It also shows us to be careful with what we claim to be the ‘correct’ form of our language.

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As books started being printed in German instead of Latin, numerous borrowed words from Latin also came into play in the growing Humanist movement, such as Dekret (“decree”), zitieren (“to cite”) and Examen (“exam”). Even the German grammar was revamped in the image of the Latin, thus introducing a future tense built with werden (“will”) + infinitive (ich werde reisen, or “I will travel”), where one had beforehand simply used the present (as German-speakers once again do today). 

from: Babbel.com

Perfect vs. Preterite

from: germanforenglishspeakers.com/verbs/perfect-vs-preterite/

In English we use the preterite (simple past) about 90% of the time, and we tend to reserve the perfect for situations where a past action has ongoing implications or relevance in the present. For example, consider “have you seen the Godfather movies?” (perfect – if you haven’t, you still could) versus “did you see the circus while it was in town?” (preterite – it’s too late to see it now).

In German, this distinction no longer really exists. There is a single concept of the past (die Vergangenheit) and the Präteritum and Perfekt tenses are interchangeable in expressing it. In practice, Germans use the Perfekt for about 90% of speech; they only use the Präteritum in speech for the auxiliary and modal verbs and a few very common strong or mixed verbs. Overusing the Präteritum in speech will make you sound like a snob or a robot, depending on the context.

Translate the following sentences into English before continueing with the text exerpts:

  1. Das Wetter auf der Insel war schön.
  2. Warst du zuhause?
  3. Wir waren noch nie in Canada.
  4. Das konnte ich nicht sehen.
  5. Das solltest du schon gestern machen.
  6. Was hast du ihm gesagt?
  7. Es ist schon vor langer Zeit gemacht worden.
  8. Meine Vorfahren haben Deutschland vor 150 Jahren verlassen.

Here are the rules you should follow in spoken German:

1. Always use the preterite for sein:

Ich war glücklich.

I was happy. 

Es war schönes Wetter auf der Insel.

The weather on the island was nice.

Warst du zu Hause?

Were you home?     

Wir waren noch nie in Griechenland.

We’ve never been to Greece.

2. Always use the preterite for modal verbs:

Ich konnte es nicht sehen.

I couldn’t see it.       

Das solltest du schon gestern machen.

You were supposed to do that yesterday.

Durfte er nicht mitkommen?

Wasn’t he allowed to come along?           

Wir wollten aber nicht.

But we didn’t want to.

3. Use the perfect tense for everything else:

Ich bin ihm am Sonntag begegnet.

I met him on Sunday.          

Was hast du ihm gesagt?

What did you say to him?

Es ist vor langer Zeit gemacht worden.

It was done a long time ago.

Meine Vorfahren haben Deutschland vor 150 Jahren verlassen.

My ancestors left Germany 150 years ago.

You’ll hear native speakers using more exceptions than these, of course, but they tend to be verb-by-verb (and often regional) preferences that you have to just pick up by ear.

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Adapted from: www.sprachschule-aktiv-muenchen.de

(For speakers and learners of German)

Written German always uses the Präteritum more than spoken German, but just how much varies according to the context. The Präteritum is most favored in novels, history and other literary/academic writing.

In the following are some verbs speakers of German tend to use in the preterite (simple past) form.

denken:

Konjugation: ich denke, du denkst…

Präteritum: ich dachte, du dachtest…  Oh, ich dachte, du bist verheiratet!

Perfekt: ich habe…gedacht.  Oh, ich habe gedacht, du bist verheiratet!

heißen:

Konjugation: ich heiße, du heißt…

Präteritum: ich hieß, du hießest…  Mein Nachbar hieß auch Paul, genau wie du!

Perfekt: ich habe…geheißen.  Mein Nachbar hat auch Paul geheißen. (Klingt komisch!)

wissen:

Konjugation: Ich weiß, du weißt…

Präteritum: ich wusste, du wusstest…  Wusstest du, dass man in Namibia auch Deutsch spricht?

Perfekt: ich habe…gewusst.  Hast du gewusst, dass man in Namibia auch Deutsch spricht?

finden:

Konjugation: Ich finde, du findest…  Ich finde den Film ziemlich witzig.

Präteritum: ich fand, du fandest…  Ich fand den Film ziemlich witzig.

Perfekt: ich habe…gefunden.  Ich habe den Film ziemlich witzig gefunden.

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