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Perfekt or Präteritum? This is how you decide

Which is correct, or which sounds better? „Peter kaufte das Auto“ or „Peter hat das Auto gekauft“? For many people, it is not always clear whether they should use the perfect or the past tense. In this article, we explain when you should use which tense. The good news: it’s not that difficult.

It’s actually quite simple: in everyday life, we almost always use perfect tense to tell about past things. The past tense, on the other hand, is the formal written language. In spoken language, it is only used for a few verbs.

Here you use the past tense

We use this tense, for example, for written narratives or reports, for things or actions that happened in the past. These can be essays, newspaper articles, reports or literary texts, among other things.

As a rule of thumb, you only use the past tense when writing. But there is no grammar rule without exception: For the verbs „haben, sein and werden“ we prefer to use the past tense rather than the perfect tense. The same applies to modal verbs, by the way.

Here you use the perfect tense

Now you know that we mostly use the past tense for written narratives. We use the perfect tense for oral narratives about things or actions that happened in the past.

But here again there is a small exception: when you describe something from the past in personal texts, you also use the perfect tense. For example, when you write a postcard to your parents from your holiday and tell them what you have seen so far.

And what does that mean now?

We have created a little table for you so that you can see at a glance when you have to use which tense.

Hauptsächlich geschriebene SpracheHauptsächlich gesprochene Sprache
Hilfszeitverben (haben, sein und werden) und Modalverben werden meistens auch in der gesprochenen Sprache im Präteritum verwendetPersönliche Texte wie zum Beispiel Postkarten formulieren wir auch im Perfekt

How big is the difference really?

If you are learning German as a foreign language, you may wonder if the difference is really that big. For native speakers, both tenses are equally easy to understand. There is only one subtle difference: the preterite sounds more literary. That’s why we tend to use it for written texts.

For some words or in some sentences, we also use the past tense in spoken language because the perfect tense sounds a bit strange. For example, it sounds better to say „Ich hatte eine Grippe“ than „“Ich habe eine Grippe gehabt“. But even with modal verbs, the perfect sometimes sounds a bit strange, so we use the past tense. „Ich musste heute länger arbeiten“ sounds better than „Ich habe heute länger arbeiten müssen“.

We can understand both forms, but with auxiliary tenses and modal verbs, the past tense sounds better even in spoken language.

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