German: Frequency--Wie oft?

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Dr. Pusto Presents

Expressing frequency in the past and present

From Walter F. W. Lohnes and F. W. Strothmann, German: A Structural Approach (3rd ed.; New York: W. W. Norton, 1980), 152.

We now encounter one of the major differences between the way in which German and English express time.  English differentiates between closed-ended situations and open-ended situations by using different tenses; German differentiates between closed-ended and open-ended situations by using different types of time phrases.

Here's a closed-ended example:

Last year I went to the opera three times
Letztes Jahr bin ich dreimal in die Oper gegangen.

(Last year is finished; I went to the opera exactly three times during the year.)

And an open-ended example:

This year I have gone to the opera three times.
Dieses Jahr bin ich schon dreimal in die Oper gegangen.

(This year is not finished yet, so perhaps I'll be able go to the opera another time.)

Notice that in both cases German uses the same tense, the perfect tense ..., and note also that the time phrase for the closed-ended situation, dreimal, is different from that used in the open-ended situation, schon dreimal.

Listed in the table below are German time phrases used to express frequency (that is, time phrases that answer the question 'how often?' or wie oft?). Whenever you are reporting on a closed-ended situation, you must use one of the phrases from the left-handed column.  Whenever you are reporting on an open-ended situation, you must use a phrase from the right-hand column.  In both cases you will be using a verb in the perfect tense.

Frequency phrases table

Timeline for closed-ended and open-ended German frequency phrases

Frequency phrases for open- and closed-ended situations

Closed-ended phrases

Open-ended phrases

Tense
Phrase
Tense
Phrase

German:
Perfect

 

English:
Past

nicht einmal

German:
Perfect

 

English:
Present

noch gar nichts
nie noch nicht einmal
je? noch nie
mal, einmal schon einmal
nur einmal erst einmal
oft, öfters schon oft, schon öfters
dreimal schon dreimal
nur dreimal erst dreimal
immer schon immer

Adapted from Walter F. W. Lohnes and F. W. Strothmann, German: A Structural Approach (3rd ed.; New York: W. W. Norton, 1980), 152-3.