Use of the German Plusquamperfekt

(The pluperfect in German grammar)

Table of contents – Plusquamperfekt

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Using the Plusquamperfekt
  2. Particularities in dialects
  3. Further explanations and exercises

What is the Plusquamperfekt, and how is it used?

The Plusquamperfekt is a past form of the German verb tenses and corresponds to the English past perfect or pluperfect. It expresses the anterior past, that is, events, processes, and actions located in chronological order before another event in the past. Using this tense is essential when someone needs to clarify such a temporal relationship, for example, when the first event in the past affects another subsequent one (also in the past).

The Plusquamperfekt is two-part, composed of the auxiliary verb ‘haben’ or ‘sein’ and the past participle of the main (lexical) verb. Please find more details in the formation.

The following explications illustrate this combination of tenses. Contrary to other German tenses, the Plusquamperfekt can only express the past. In this respect, it seems easy to learn. Now compare the usage in sentences:

  • As a rule, the Plusquamperfekt is used exclusively in connection with another (subsequent) past tense, such as the Perfekt or Präteritum, which does not lie so far back in time. So, the Plusquamperfekt either complements one of these tenses or expresses that something was completed earlier:
    • „Manuel konnte die Tür nicht öffnen, da er seinen Schlüssel verloren hatte.“ (Manuel was unable to open the door because he had lost his key.)
      • Here, the event in the pluperfect (loss of the key) influences the subsequent action (open the door).
    • „Nachdem ich beim Bäcker gefrühstückt hatte, bin ich sofort zur Arbeit gefahren.“ (After I had had breakfast at the bakery, I went to work straight away.)
      • Here, the Plusquamperfekt shows that breakfast took place in chronological sequence before the journey to work.
  • Since the Plusquamperfekt usually appears only with other verb tenses, we need a complex sentence to represent it. To do so, we create a structure of an independent and a subordinate clause, in which the subordinate one contains the pluperfect:
    • „Wir wollten den Konzertbesuch nicht mehr absagen, da wir die Karten bereits gekauft hatten.“ (We would rather not cancel the visit to the concert, as we had already bought the tickets.)
      • Here, the Plusquamperfekt occurs in the subordinate clause together with the Präteritum in the main clause.
    • „Ich bin durch die Abschlussprüfung gefallen, da ich mich überhaupt nicht darauf vorbereitet hatte.“ (I failed the final exam because I hadn’t prepared for it at all.)
      • The Plusquamperfekt in the subordinate clause is used in conjunction with the Perfekt in the main clause, to which it refers.

Particular use in German dialects

Despite the rules mentioned above of using the Plusquamperfekt only along with other tenses of the past, you also hear it in some German dialects as the standard form for the past. Thus, it can be considered a substitute for the Perfekt or the Präteritum (preterite). This fact is significant to know, especially for learners of German as a foreign language.

Examples of using the pluperfect without combining it with another past event (in the sense of a simple past tense):

  • A sentence that forms the Plusquamperfekt with the auxiliary verb ‘haben’:
    • Note that all three sentences correspond to the translation: “We’ve also had plenty of thefts lately.”
    • „Wir hatten in letzter Zeit auch viele Diebstähle gehabt.“
      • Such a statement is quite possible in some dialects, but the following variants are more widespread:
        • „Wir haben in letzter Zeit auch viele Diebstähle gehabt.“
          • Here, the speaker uses the usual Perfekt tense.
        • „Wir hatten in letzter Zeit auch viele Diebstähle.“
          • In this case, the Präteritum appears, which is frequent.
  • Similarly, sentences with ‘sein’ are possible:
    • The three translations correspond to: “We were at the zoo yesterday.”
    • „Wir waren gestern im Zoo gewesen.“
      • And here, too, the following constructions are preferred:
        • „Wir sind gestern im Zoo gewesen.“
          • The sentence is in the Perfekt tense.
        • „Wir waren gestern im Zoo.“
          • The Präteritum is very common in such an utterance as well.

Further explanations referring to the topic ‘The German Plusquamperfekt’

The following explanations relate to the ‘Use of the Plusquamperfekt (pluperfect) in the German language’ and may be helpful as well: