German Past Perfect (Plusquamperfekt)


The  German past perfect or Plusquamperfekt expresses actions that took place before a certain point in the past. It is the German equivalent of the English past perfect tense. We use this tense in storytelling together with the simple past, to look back at something that happened before a past event.

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“Das Plusquamperfekt” is the German equivalent of the past participle in English. It is used when referring back to a moment in the past, before another moment in the past occurred. For example, we would use the past perfect when sharing about buying popcorn at the movies last night, and then referring to another event before the popcorn, for example, going to the ATM to take out money. To form the past perfect, or “das Plusquamperfekt” in German, we will use “hatten” for verbs that use “haben” to form the present perfect, and “waren” for verbs that use “sein”. 

hatten waren jpg
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There are three common ways to form the past participle. We can:

add “ge” to the beginning of the stem and then a “t” at the end (regular/weak verbs),
add “ge” to the stem, make stem changes, and end with “en” (strong), or
add “ge” to the stem, change the stem, and end with a “t” (mixed)

Verbs that end on “-ieren” (e.g. studieren, informieren) no not use “ge” and end on “-t”. For separable prefix verbs, the “ge” slips in between the separable prefix and the verb stem. 

machen →  ge + mach + t = gemacht (weak verb)
finden →  ge + fund + en = gefunden (strong verb)
bringen →  ge + brach + t = gebracht (mixed verb)
anrufen → an + ge + ruf + en = angerufen (seperable strong)
studieren → studier + t + studiert (-ieren verb)

Ich hatte einen Kaffee getrunken, als das Telefon klingelte. 
I had drunk a coffee when the phone rang. 
Ich war an diesem Tag in die Arbeit gelaufen, weil mein Auto in der Wekstatt war. 
I had run to work that day, because my car was at the shop. 

There are several subordinating conjunctions that are used to indicate sequence in the past perfect. These include als, bevor, bis, & nachdem. Remember that the earliest action or event is in the clause using the past perfect.

Nachdem wir ins Café gegangen waren, redeten wir über Politik. 
After we had gone to the café, we talked about politics.

Sie hatten Karten gespielt, bis die Sonne aufging.
They had played cards until the sun came up.

Also known as the Pluperfect in English or Plusquamperfekt in German, this tense combines the simple past form of the helping verbs “sein” and “haben” with a past participle of the main verb. Typically, this tense is used to indicate something that occurred prior to something in the Imperfect or Present Perfect tenses, but that can also be implied. 

Ich gehe in die Arbeit. I go to work. 
Ich bin in die Arbeit gegangen. I have gone to work. 
Ich war in die Arbeit gegangen. I had gone to work. (Plusquamperfekt)

Ich kaufe ein Auto. I buy a car. 
Ich habe ein Auto gekauft. I have bought a car. 
Ich hatte ein Auto gekauft. Ich hatte ein Auto gekauft. (Plusquamperfekt)When the verb forms its present perfect with “sein” (gehen), then we use “war” to form the Plusquamperfekt. If the verb forms its present perfect with “haben” (kaufen), then we use “hatten” to form the Plusquamperfekt. 

In German, there are a few commonly used subordinating conjunctions that clue the learner into the need for the past perfect, for example: “nachdem” (after) and “bevor” (before)

Nachdem er nach Hause gegangen war, machte Dietrich seine Hausaufgaben.
After he had gone home, Dietrich did his homework.

Bevor sie ins Kino ging, hatte sie Nudeln zu Abend gegessen.
Before she went to the movies, she had eaten noodles for dinner.

In the above examples, the earlier action is couched in the past perfect form (gegangen war, hatte gegessen), and “nachdem” (after) and “bevor” (before) helped sequence the actions. Further, the past perfect is more typically seen in written German, and is used less frequently in conversational German. In spoken German, there is a tendency to just use the present perfect instead of the past perfect in combination with temporal markers such as “bevor,” “vorher,” and “nachdem.”

One caveat to keep in mind, however, is that the past tense passive voice, which uses the simple past form of the verb werden (i.e. wurden) with a past participle of the main verb at the end of the sentence in regular word order, might follow the event or action that occurred earlier in the past. Thus, it is possible to see the passive voice and past perfect in the same sentence, but only the past perfect is understood as having occurred prior to the passive voice sentence. For example:

Die Hausaufgaben wurden gemacht.
The homework was done. (lit. the homeworks, as it is a plural noun in German)

Bevor die Hausaufgaben gemacht wurden, hatten die Kinder fergesehen.
Before the homework was done, the children watched TV.

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