Hello and welcome to my latest article. For the last one, please see here.


This month, I am going to take a look at verb agreement and verb tenses – problems with the latter, in particular crop up regularly and I see similar issues repeated, so the subject itself bears repetition. I shall start with a brief mention of verb agreement.


On occasion, the original German text refers to something, for example, in the singular, which correctly needs translating into the plural in English. For example:


German: da jetzt [product name] da nicht so dazu gehört zu den absoluten Favoriten, aber ab und an kaufe ich's halt.


This was translated as:


English: [product name] is not one of my absolute favorites, but I buy it every now and then.


Although at first glance the translation may look correct, the product referred to was something that in English would be referred to in the plural (something that is bought in a packet containing several edible items – like sweets/candies), so the verb should agree with this, rather than with the product name, hence the correct version is:


aren’t among my absolute favorites, but I buy them every now and then.


For a similar product, I saw this sentence:


German: Für mich wäre es dieses ein bisschen weniger scharf


Translated as:


English: For me it could be a little less strong


This translation is also too literal, and needs rephrasing, and once again the product should be referred to in the plural, so I would recommend:


I’d prefer it if they were a little less strong.


The point you need to be aware of is you should always look at the translation from the view of an English speaker, and not follow the German if it doesn’t work in English. Of course, in the majority of cases if the German uses the plural you will translate in the plural and vice versa, but you need to be aware of the cases that are exceptions. You need, too, to be careful with plural nouns such as company, family, team, which can be used with either a singular or plural verb. Sometimes there is a difference between US and GB English here, so if in doubt check.


The perennial subject of verb tenses is one where usually you need to follow the German original, but… Of course, English has tenses that German doesn’t (in particular the progressive tenses) and English is more specific about the use of the past tenses – there are rules on when to use the simple past and when to use the present perfect that do not exist in German. This is where I see the majority of errors. As a rule, though, if the German uses a past tense, then the English should use some form of the past tense. If the German uses the present tense, though, there are, of course some occasions when English does not. Notable exceptions are when the German uses seit:


Sie wohnen seit fünf Jahre in Berlin


which in English uses the present perfect tense:


They have lived in Berlin for five years


And when talking about someone’s date/place of birth:


Sein Vater ist 1965 geboren


While in English, of course, the present perfect is also used:


His father was born in 1965.


These, though, are specific exceptions, and in most cases the present stays the present and the past stays the past.


As far as the past tenses go, Germans often use the present perfect, but are more flexible about whether they use this or the simple past. English has very specific rules. So, when I saw the following translations, they instantly sounded wrong to me:


Das Fahrzeug wurde komplett lackiert in der Originalfarbe.


translated as:


The vehicle was completely painted in the original colour.




Alle Flüssigkeiten wurden erneuert am Motor und gereinigt.


translated as:


All fluids in the engine were replaced and cleaned.


Why are they wrong? Simply put, because there is no time attributed to these actions, therefore the rules say that they should be in the present perfect tense. What do I mean by a time? The answer is quite broad. It does not have to be a specific time (last Wednesday, a year ago, on 17th February etc.). It could also be when something else happened. So, in this case, if the sentence were “when the vehicle was renovated, it was completely painted in the original colour” then, in both clauses here, the simple past is correct – each provides a time for the other.


Without this addition, however, the correct translations of the above examples are:


The vehicle has been completely painted in the original colour.




All fluids in the engine have been replaced and cleaned.


A similar example is:


Das Fahrzeug wurde nur im sonnigen Süden gefahren.


which was translated as:


The vehicle was only driven in the sunny South.


Again, there is no time attributed to this. The other aspect to consider is that using the simple past says that the action is finished, not to be repeated. So by translating correctly as:


The vehicle has only been driven in the sunny South.


the option is thus left open for the vehicle to be driven again. Using the simple past says that it won’t happen. On some occasions, a time can be assumed and the simple past can be used. Consider the following question and the two potential answers I suggest in each case:


  1. Have you been on holiday this year?


  1. No, we haven’t.




  1. Yes, we went to France.




  1. Did you go on holiday last year?


  1. No, we didn’t.




  1. Yes, we went to Italy.


Question A refers to this year, which is not yet over. The question is phrased in the present perfect because the questioner is asking about something that either has or has not happened, but there is no specific date attached to either; answer 1 cannot have a date attached to it because it hasn’t happened, so the present perfect must be used, while answer 2 is given in the simple past because, although no date is given, the person answering knows when it happened; it cannot be repeated so the present perfect cannot be used. Answer 1 could be amended to say “No, we haven’t yet”. If you can add “yet” to what you are saying/writing, then the present perfect is correct.


Question B refers to last year, so both the question and the two answers are in the simple past. There is a time referred to, which is last year, and because last year is over and the answer cannot change, the simple past is used.


You can never say “I didn’t do something yet” (simple past), only “I haven’t done something yet” (present perfect). If you have to consider which tense to use when you are phrasing a question or a negative, think about whether you can add yet and you will know.


I realise this is a very brief overview of a somewhat large subject, but I hope it clarifies the situations when you should use each of these verb tenses. If you are at all confused, please feel free to ask questions and I shall do my best to help further.