When to use Perfekt and Präteritum?
What’s the guideline as to when to use Perfekt and Präteritum?
I was always taught that the simplest rule is Präteritum (mostly) for written forms, and Perfekt is most common in spoken language.
But I’ve also come across explanations paying more attention to the context – comparing Präteritum to the French Imparfait (narrative past, little to no influence on current events). That way Perfekt would be mostly used for completed events with present results.
How do you combine those two approaches? Which tense to choose so as not to sound weird in a native context?
For example, would
Ich kaufte einen Computer.
really be the preferred form in writing over the following?
Ich habe einen Computer gekauft.
very good question! I think this is one of the most difficult parts when you're learning a new language, because it seems natural for native speakers but very hard to distinguish for people who are still learning.
You use Präteritum for events which are not yet completed or for which the time doesn’t matter. In novels for example Präteritum is used more often.
There is a really good article in German on this topic: Präteritum oder Perfekt?
+1 for the article. Although it says "Präteritum (Imperfekt)" in the title and later "Das deutsche Präteritum ist jedoch kein Imperfekt."
What you're writing is true for the _written_ language. When _speaking_ German, you'll hardly ever use Präteritum. (That's mostly reserved for auxiliary and modal verbs.)
The answer is in contradiction to what is said in the linked article. Whether Perfekt or Präteritum is used depends more on whether the sentence is spoken or written than on when the action is completed. This is quite different from other European languages which may confuse non-native speakers.