For Pete’s sake….

danger

Ah, those nasty prepositions……

Did you ever want to translate “for” but weren’t too sure whether to use the German “für” or “vor”….. just to discover the answer was neither but something completely different?

The trouble with this one is that sometimes “for” does indeed translate as “für” (or indeed “vor”) but often it doesn’t. A whole booklet could be written just about the pitfalls of translating prepositions in general but “for” in particular stands out as one of the chief offenders. With the limited amount of space we have available here, just a few words of advice.

As a general rule of thumb: Anytime you need to translate “for”, make sure you take a quick mental step back to ensure that you really pick the correct translation in this case.

In a lot of instances the term is used in connection with time:

I’ve been waiting here for the last ten minutes.

In this situation we first of all use “seit” in German and instead of the English perfect tense we use the German present tense:

Ich warte hier seit zehn Minuten.

“Seit” is used to mark the beginning of an event and therefore roughly translates as “since”. Some other examples:

Seit Weihnachten rauche ich nicht mehr. (I haven’t smoked since Christmas.)

Seit 1995 lebe ich in Irland. (I’ve been living in Ireland since 1995.)

On top of the choice of words, it is also very easy to confuse the tenses. Remember: the German perfect tense is used predominently in spoken language to express a past that is dead and gone.

Ich habe letztes Jahr mein Abitur gemacht. (I passed my Abitur/Leaving Cert last year.)

The English perfect tense on the other hand refers to something that started in the past but is continuing into the present: In the example above, the speaker started waiting ten minutes ago and continued to wait until now. And for that we use the present tense in German.

Did I just write “ten minutes ago”?

If we were to translate this expression we would use “vor”:

Ich habe Maria vor zehn Minuten gesehen. (I saw Maria ten minutes ago – German perfect tense! – but now she is gone.)

In English we also use “for” to describe the length of time something took, e.g. “I lived in Germany for three years.”

In that instance we would generally translate this as “[length of time] lang”.

Ich habe drei Jahre lang in Deutschland gewohnt.

We also use “vor” when we mean “in front of” with regards to locations.

Das Auto steht vor dem Haus. (The car is in front of the house.)

There are also lots of other expressions where we use either “vor” or “für” in German but do not use “for” in English (e.g.“vor etwas Angst haben” – to be afraid of something) so caution must always prevail whenever any of these prepositions are coming out of the woodworks.

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.