Plusquamperfekt: How to form and use the past perfect in German
Published on November 23, 2023 / Updated on December 12, 2023
If two events happened in the past, how would you know that one of them occurred earlier than the other? The answer — in German, at least — lies in a verb tense known as the Plusquamperfekt (past perfect).
The Plusquamperfekt allows you to talk about past events in chronological order. This makes it useful for telling stories that take place across a timeline (as many stories do). For example, if you want to tell your German-speaking friends that you first attended a German course and then went to the cinema, the Plusquamperfekt helps to clarify the order of these events.
Let’s explore the German past perfect tense together. We’ll review when to use it, and how the past perfect is formed.
The Plusquamperfekt describes events or actions that happened before other events or actions in the past.
The Plusquamperfekt is typically used in combination with a sentence in the Präteritum (simple past) or Perfekt (perfect). Sometimes, it’s necessary to express that an action took place even earlier than another action in the past — usually to demonstrate the influence of the prior action on an outcome.
For example, say you studied a lot for your German language certificate and then succeeded on your test. In order to tell your German-speaking friends the whole story of how your studying led to your success, you would use the Plusquamperfekt in combination with the Perfekt:
Ich hatte viel für das Deutschzertifikat gelernt, deswegen habe ich den Test bestanden. (I had studied a lot for the German certificate, and therefore I passed the test.)
In this example, the past perfect is used to show the correlation between two events (studying and passing), and to demonstrate that one event (studying) was already over by the time the second (passing the test) began.
If you’re already familiar with the German perfect tense, you should have little difficulty with the past perfect tense, as both are formed according to the same principle.
To form the past perfect in German, you need an auxiliary verb and the past participle of the verb you want to conjugate.
In this case, the auxiliary verb will be either haben (to have) or sein (to be).
The principle is similar to forming the perfect, only now the auxiliary verb is formed using the simple past tense (rather than the present tense). This signals that the action happened before another event in the past.
Here’s how to form the past perfect in German:
Simple past of haben + past participle
Simple past of sein + past participle
The past perfect is often used in storytelling. How else would you be able to make clear the sequence in which several actions or events happened in the past?
As you will see in these examples, the past perfect often occurs in combination with other past tenses. If you need to refresh your memory a little, here’s how the different past tenses compare in form and translation:
|Ich habe gesehen.
|Ich hatte gesehen.
|I have seen.
|I had seen.
|Ich bin geschwommen.
|Ich war geschwommen.
|I have swum.
|I had swum.
The past perfect can be used on its own, but this is rare. After all, its chief purpose is to define the timeline between two past events.
When the past perfect is used in longer sentences, there are certain signaling words that can help you spot it. These include zuvor (before) zuerst (at first), nachdem (after) and bevor (before). For example:
Bevor ich ihn gesehen hatte, dachte ich er kommt nicht. (Before I had seen him, I thought he wouldn’t come.)
In the above example, the first part of the sentence uses the past perfect (gesehen hatte), while the verb in the second part is set in simple past (dachte). Here’s another example:
Zuvor war er viel gereist, dann hat er sie getroffen. (Before, he had previously traveled a lot, then he met her.)
Here, the verb in the first part of the sentence is set in the past perfect (war gereist), while the verb in the second part of the sentence is set in the perfect (hat getroffen).
If you already know how to form the Perfekt (perfect tense) in German, the Plusquamperfekt (past perfect) shouldn’t cause you any trouble. As the past perfect is one step “deeper” into the past than the perfect tense, you must use the simple past of sein or haben. After that, you add the past participle — just like you would when using the perfect tense.
The past perfect helps you to state that something happened before a certain point in time and makes it easier for your readers or listeners to understand the stories you tell.