The Präteritum versus the Perfekt - the meaning of tense
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The Präteritum versus the Perfekt

Meaning of tense

One should think that German doesn't have aspect like English does. This is definitely the case if we see aspect as a complementary binary tense System. The question when to use the Präteritum keeps returning and it seems quite a relevant issue while learning German. (Also see here.) If we don't regard German as a binary system (for example: he is running - he runs), which the German language is not, and if we take the progressive nature of the Präteritum into account, we should say that the Präteritum shows signs of aspect. It signifies that an action has not been completed and implies a kind of progressive aspect, whereas the Perfekt signifies that an action has been completed. The roles can be swapped, but this is the main usage. An important thing to mention is that some verbs are mostly used in the Präteritum, even, or especially, in spoken language, for example the verb sein. On the other hand, some strong verbs like fahren are never, or very rarely, used in the Präteritum in spoken language.

Examples:
Er ging nach Hause, da traf er Peter. He was going home when he met Peter.

Heute Morgen ist er zur Arbeit gefahren, er wird gleich wieder da sein. This morning he drove to work, he will soon be here again.

?Er ist zur Arbeit gefahren, da geriet er in einen Stau. ?He drove to work when he got into a traffic jam.
Should be:
Er war gerade auf dem Weg zur Arbeit, da geriet er in einen Stau. He was on his way to work when he got into a traffic jam.

?Er ist nach Hause gegangen, da traf er Peter. ?He has gone home when he met Peter
Should be:
Er ging nach Hause, da traf er Peter. He was going home when he met Peter.

It is possible, though, to say: Er ist nach Hause gegangen, da hat er Peter getroffen. This means he went home, where (at home) he met Peter.

Now I'll show you something strange. Whenever we look for similarities between two languages and we think we have found something that seems certain, there are always drawbacks: The Perfekt does signify that an action is completed, but in colloquial language it can serve as a substitute for the Präteritum. The reason is simply that in the Perfekt both action and result are contained. So it can also come to only designate the action. Er ist nach Hause gegangen, da hat er Peter getroffen. Also means: He was going home when he met Peter. "Da" can mean there or at that moment.




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