Plusquamperfekt (German Past Perfect) with Story Examples

Wenn ich in ein Zimmer gehe und meinen zweijährigen Sohn mit diesem Gesicht sehe, weiß ich genau, dass, kurz bevor ich ins Zimmer getreten bin, er etwas ganz verschmitzt gemacht hatte.

Zum Beispiel: Er wacht normalerweise ganz früh auf. Zu früh. Ich will noch schlafen. Am Wochenende geht er alleine nach unten in die Küche. Er holt sich etwas zu essen und kommt in mein Bett, um Mickey Mouse auf meinem Handy zu schauen, während ich länger schlafe.

Aber eines Tages ist er nicht zurück zu meinem Bett gekommen, sondern hat sich in meinem Kleiderschrank versteckt und hat angefangen zu lachen. Was macht er? Das kann nicht gut sein.

Er war allein nach unten gegangen, aber er hatte nichts in der Küche gefunden. Er war in die Garage gegangen, wo wir unseren Gefrierschrank haben. Dort hatte er eine Gallone Vanilleeis gefunden. Er hatte die Plastikdose selbst geöffnet, sich einen Löffel aus der Schublade geholt und angefangen, das Eis in meinem Kleiderschrank zu essen.

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What is the Plusquamperfekt?

Besides this story being absolutely adorable just like the little man it’s about, this showcases a perfect use case for the Plusquamperfekt. If you were wondering why I was using both the Präteritum and Perfekt tenses in the same sentence, especially in that last group of sentences, that is the Plusquamperfekt.

It is used to show that one action was already completed at the time another action was occurring. For example: I observed my son in the closet. Before that, he had gone downstairs and gotten himself some ice cream for breakfast. Those events happened before my observation. We need the Plusquamperfekt for the actions he took during that time.

What the Plusquamperfekt is not!

There seems to be a bit of a misconception about the Plusquamperfekt. Some blogs and websites say that it is dying out and isn’t used as often as it once was. While it is true that the use of the Plusquamperfekt is rare, it is not because people find it overly stilted, formal or anything of the sort. It is simply a very specific set of circumstances that call for the Plusquamperfekt and if those criteria are not met, you don’t use this tense. Let’s look at some scenarios to see if we need the Plusquamperfekt or not.

Example Situation #1

Let’s say I am sitting in German class and the teacher asks me, “Warum machst du die Aufgabe nicht?”

I answer, “Ich habe mein Buch zu Hause verlassen.”

This is a simple statement of something that happened in the past. We use the Perfekt tense for this when speaking.

Example Situation #2

Then the teacher asks me, “Warum hast du die Aufgabe von letzter Woche nicht gemacht?”

I answer, “Ich war zu Hause.”

This time I used the Präteritum tense, as I am using a form of “sein” while talking about a state of being in the past. No need for the Plusquamperfekt here either.

Example Situation #3

The teacher follows up with another question. “Warum hast du die Aufgabe nicht zu Hause gemacht. Du warst schon da, oder?”

I answer, “Ich hatte letzte Woche mein Buch in der Schule vergessen.”

This time I used the Plusquamperfekt, because we are already talking about the past, specifically last week when I was at home. The teacher wants to know why I didn’t do my assignment then while I was at home, which is where I just stated my book is today. My answer explains that last week, when I was at home, my book was left at school.

This requires us to use the Plusquamperfekt to show the act of leaving the book at school happened before I stayed home from school last week.

The Plusquamperfekt is a sort of inception into the past. We are already talking about the past, but we want to talk about some preceding event from before that.

How to Form the Plusquamperfekt

The formation of this tense is quite simple, provided that you learned the Präteritum and Perfekt tenses properly. If you haven’t learned those tenses yet, I recommend you watch my videos about those tenses before continuing this lesson.

Basically we combine the Präteritum tense with the Perfekt tense to make a kind of super-past tense. Conjugate your helping verb of either haben or sein like you would in the Präteritum tense. Then use the Partizip 2 of the main verb at the end of the sentence like you would in the Perfekt tense. Let’s follow a simple sentence through several tenses to see how this works.

Example #1

Präsens

Ich gehe nach Hause. – I am going home.
This sentence is currently happening, as it is set in the present tense.

Perfekt

Ich bin nach Hause gegangen. – I went home.
Here we used the helping verb “sein” in the ich-form “bin” and the past participle of the verb “gehen” at the end of the sentence. This is the Perfekt tense. It indicates that the action of going home has already occurred. It is usually phrased like this when speaking in German.

Plusquamperfekt

Ich war nach Hause gegangen. – I had gone home.
This is finally the Plusquamperfekt. Instead of “bin”, which is the same as the Präsens form of “sein”, we used the Präteritum version, “war”. The past participle from the Perfekt tense still shows up at the end of the sentence.

Example #2

Let’s try another.

Präsens

Er backt einen Kuchen. – He is baking a cake.
Here we see the Präsens form of the sentence. It indicates that the baking of the cake is occurring right now.

Perfekt

Er hat einen Kuchen gebacken. – He baked a cake.
This is the Perfekt version of the sentence indicating that the cake has already been baked. It uses a helping verb “haben” conjugated like it is in the Präsens, “hat” and a Partizip 2 at the end of the sentence, “gebacken”.

Plusquamperfekt

Er hatte einen Kuchen gebacken. – He had baked a cake.
The Plusquamperfekt version of this sentence states that the act of baking the cake happened before some other reference point in the past. The helping verb “haben” is conjugated like we do in the Präteritum tense and the Partizip 2 is still at the end of the sentence.

If a verb uses “haben” as the helping verb in the Perfekt tense, it uses “haben” as the helping verb in the Plusquamperfekt. Verbs that use “sein” in the Perfekt tense use “sein” in the Plusquamperfekt.

Plusquamperfekt Story Time

To see these concepts in action, let’s tell another true story about my family, this time about my dog, Jojo.

Die Kinder wollten etwas zu Abend essen. Ich hatte schon Burger auf dem Grill gemacht. Ich hatte sie auf dem Tisch gelassen und den Kindern gesagt, dass sie die Hündin nicht auf den Tisch lassen sollten, da sie unsere Burger fressen würde.

Ich bin zurück nach draußen gegangen und habe das Gemüse vom Grill geholt. Als ich zurück ins Haus kam, leckte Jojo ihr Maul. Ihr könnt wahrscheinlich schon erraten, was passiert ist. Der Hund war auf den Tisch geklettert. Die Kinder hatten entweder nichts gemacht oder erfolglos versucht Jojo zu stoppen. Sie hatte einen Burger geklaut und gefressen… Aber ihr liegt falsch.

Meine Tochter hatte gedacht, anstatt den Hund anzubrüllen, wenn sie auf den Tisch klettert, hatte Sophia Jojo ein Hundeleckerli gebracht. Jojo hatte es aufgefressen, anstatt auf den Tisch zu klettern und unsere Burger zu fressen.

If you want to watch those videos I mentioned earlier about the Perfekt and Präteritum tenses, click the links in this sentence. Das ist alles für heute. Danke fürs Zuschauen. Bis zum nächsten Mal. Tschüss.

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