The Past Perfect in German (Das Plusquamperfekt): Understanding the Past perfect tense in German

The Past Perfect in German (Das Plusquamperfekt): Understanding the Past perfect tense in German

Dive into the depths of the German language and unravel the complexities of the past perfect tense, known as 'das Plusquamperfekt'. This detailed guide promises to enhance your understanding of this essential aspect of German grammar, making it an invaluable read for language enthusiasts and learners. From basic definitions to intricate usage, this article covers everything you need to know about Plusquamperfekt in German.

You use the Pluperfect  to express that an action or event took place before a certain point. You need the simple past (Präteritum) to express that something happened in the past. 

The Plusquamperfekt in German: Overview

The Pluperfect expresses actions that took place earlier in the past, providing a backdrop for a past narrative.

The Importance in German Grammar: The Pluperfect plays a vital role in German grammar, allowing speakers to set the scene in a narrative by referring to events that occurred earlier. It's particularly important in storytelling and providing background information.

Forming the Plusquamperfekt

Conjugating Auxiliary Verbs: Haben and Sein To form the Plusquamperfekt, you need the helping verbs 'haben' and 'sein'.

In terms of structure, the Plusquamperfekt is constructed with the simple past tense of  "haben" or "sein" (dependent on the main verb),and the past participle of the main verb. 
In English equivalents, German Plusquamperfekt is more or less the same as English past perfect. 

Adding the Past Participle After conjugating the helping verb, the past participle is added. 

Conjugation of German Verbs in Past Perfect Tense

The Plusquamperfekt is formed together with the simple past of the verbs “haben” or “sein” and a past participle (Partizip 2) at the end of the sentence. The choice between "haben" or "sein" follows the same rules as for the Perfekt. In general, "haben" is used more, while verbs indicating locomotion (to swim, run etc.) or change of state use "sein". 


  • ich hatte =  I had 
  • du hattest = you had
  • er, sie es hatte = he, she, it had
  • wir hatten = we had
  • ihr hattet = you (plural) had
  • sie, Sie hatten = they, you (formal) had


Ich hatte das Geschenk gekauft. I had bought the gift.
Du hattest das Geschenk gekauft. You had bought the gift.
Er, sie, es hatte das Geschenk gekauft. He, she, it had bought the gift.
Wir hatten das Geschenk gekauft. We had bought the gift.
Ihr hattet das Geschenk gekauft. You (plural) had bought the gift.
Sie, Sie hatten das Geschenk gekauft. They, you (formal) had bought the gift.


  • ich war = I was
  • du warst = you were
  • er, sie, es war = he, she, it was
  • wir waren = we were
  • ihr wart = you (plural) were
  • sie, Sie waren = they, you (formal) were


Ich war nach Hause gegangen. I had gone home.
Du warst nach Hause gegangen.You had gone home.
Er, sie, es war nach Hause gegangen.He, she, it had gone home.
Wir waren nach Hause gegangen.We had gone home.
Ihr wart nach Hause gegangen.You (plural) had gone home.
Sie, Sie waren nach Hause gegangen.They, you (formal) had gone home.

Forming the Past Participle

The past participle of the verb is formed in the same way like for the present perfect

For weak verbs you ad a ge- in front of the verb stem and a "t" at the end of the verb stem. 


lernen - gelernt 

  • Ich hatte für die Prüfung gelernt. I had studied for the exam.

For strong verbs the past perfect is formed like in the present perfect tense which means that the vowel changes. 

  • Der Junge hatte die Antwort nicht gewusst. The boy didn't know the answer.

Mixed verbs are also irregular verbs but the ending is with en. 

  • Die Familie hatte in einem guten Restaurant gegessen. The family had eaten in a good restaurant.

How to Use the Past Perfect tense in German

Describing events before a specific point in time: Primarily it is used to describe actions that took place before a specific point in the past, especially when narrating past events or telling a story.

Contrasting Past Perfect with Simple Past and Perfekt: Understanding the differences between the past perfect, simple past, and present perfect tenses in German is crucial for learners. All tenses have their unique usage and context. The simple past describes a completed action in the past and the present perfect an event or action that recently happened. You can read more about the all German tenses: here

Signal Words for the Plusquamperfekt

Identifying Key Phrases and Words Certain words and phrases, like “nachdem” (after),"als" (when),“bevor” (before),and "bis" (until) often signal often the usage of this tense in German. Recognizing these can help in understanding and forming correct sentences.


  • Nachdem der Junge die Aufgabe gemacht hatte, ging er in den Park. After the boy had completed the task, he went to the park.
  • Bevor der Student das Essen kochte, war er in den Supermarkt gegangen. Before the student cooked the meal, he had gone to the supermarket.

The Role of German past perfect tense in Spoken vs Written German

Differences in Usage The past perfect tense is used mostly in the written language. The Plusquamperfekt is less frequently used in spoken German than in written German, especially in literature. It adds a nuance of an event that was completed in the past before another event happened.

In spoken informal German it is used not as much and mostly to make clear that an event or action is very long ago. Often additional words like “lange Zeit” (long time),“ewig (eternal)” are added to to underline the long time.


  • Wir hatten lange nicht mehr in diesem Restaurant gegessen. We hadn't eaten in this restaurant for a long time.
  • Ihr hattet uns lange nicht mehr besucht. You hadn't visited us for a long time.

German Past Perfect Tense Free Quiz

Would you like to test your knowledge about the Past Perfect in German? Then have a look at out newest quiz: here.

Summary and Key Takeaways

  • The past perfect (Plusquamperfekt) in German is used to describe actions that occurred before a specific point in the past.
  • It is formed using the simple past form of 'haben' or 'sein' and the past participle of the main verb.
  • Understanding the difference between regular and irregular verb conjugations in this tense is crucial.
  • Signal words like 'als', 'bevor', and 'bis' can indicate the use of the past perfect.
  • Common mistakes include incorrect conjugation of auxiliary verbs and misusing the tense in context.

In conclusion, mastering the past perfect tense in German enhances not only your grammar skills but also your ability to express complex ideas and narratives in the language. Whether for academic purposes, professional use, or personal satisfaction, a deep understanding of 'das Plusquamperfekt' is an invaluable asset in your language learning journey.


Article by Niko

Published 22 Jan 2024