Common German mistakes # 1 – Improper use of the tenses

I’d like to start a little irregular series of blog posts about common mistakes often made by English language speakers learning the German language.

One of the most common though erroneous conceptions is that everything can be translated 1:1 from one language to the other. False Friends are an area in this regard that we have already explored.

What tenses can be used at what times in a way also falls into a similar area as the main tenses are available in both the English and the German language and it is therefore assumed that the usage will be identical, however, there are a number of discrepancies.

So let’s have a look at those.

PRESENT

The good news is that the English Present tense is also translated with the German Present.

The car is fast.
Das Auto ist schnell.

FUTURE

One way of translating the English Future tense is by using the correct form of werden plus the Infinitive.

Tomorrow we will drive to Dublin.
Morgen werden wir nach Dublin fahren.

This is a very easy form to learn and is generally considered to be the only way to handle that tense, however, there is a second way. Have you ever heard German language speakers use the English present tense to describe events in the future (“Tomorrow we drive to Dublin.”)? That is because they make the error of translating the proper German equivalent incorrectly into English as in German it is quite normal to use the German Present tense to translate the English Future!

Morgen fahren wir nach Dublin.

This way of describing the future in German is generally used when it is quite clear from the context (Morgen) that we are talking about future events. The werden form of the future is used primarily if this is not clear from the context or if we really want to emphasise that we *will* definitely be doing something.

SIMPLE PAST

So what’s the score on the English Präteritum?

He went to the cinema last night.

It can be translated as either a German Präteritum (Er ging gestern Abend ins Kino.) or a German Perfekt (Er ist gestern Abend ins Kino gegangen.)

The difference is that the German Präteritum is primarily used in the written language (e.g. journalistic, non-fiction etc) and the German Perfekt mainly in normal everyday spoken language (incl “quoted” text in narratives). The only exceptions are the German modal verbs (dürfen, können, müssen, mögen, sollen, wollen) that are generally always translated with the German Präteritum.

PERFEKT

The English Perfekt tense through the use of since or for generally describes events that started in the past and continue into the present, e.g. I have been living in Ireland for six years indicates that this started six years ago and continues to this day.

In order to express the same in German you will need to use the German Present tense.

Ich lebe (schon) seit sechs Jahren in Irland.

If you were to use the German Perfect tense form instead (Ich habe sechs Jahre lang in Irland gelebt.) you would indicate on the other hand that you lived in Ireland for six years, but now no longer do.

PLUSQUAMPERFEKT

I don’t want to go too much into this tense. Though not too complex, it is one of the last tenses you’d learn when studying German and the good news is that the usage is the same in both languages.

Flow chart for the four German cases

One of the most difficult aspect of learning German grammar – especially for native English speakers who are not really exposed to that concept – is the idea of having four cases for nouns (Nominativ, Genitiv, Dativ, Akkusativ).

There is a good overview available about those at About.com and their list of Dative verbs can also be found here. Do yourself a favour and copy the text of those lessons into a Word document and save it on your computer. My understanding is that the previous About.com writer is no longer involved in it and as soon as they find a replacement the old documents that are really quite helpful will be taken offline and no longer be available, so download anything you need from there to your computer to save you disappointment at a possible later stage.

Despite having a good overview of the four different German cases knowing when to use them can still be a bit intimidating. The truth is that there are really only a handful of major reasons for picking one case over the other. I therefore decided to put a little basic flow chart together to help you identify when what case is used. That chart should cover probably about 80-90% of all scenarios you are going to encounter. Scenarios not included in this one are e.g. the use of the Akkusativ in certain time and distance expressions (Jeden Montag fahre ich zur Arbeit. Das Krankenhaus ist einen Kilometer entfernt.)

Click on the image to get the full sized version. Any comments and suggestions would be greatly appreciated. A PDF file of this document has also been made available on the Training Material section of this site.