Time 4.2 – Words for the past

Hallo everyone,

and welcome back to our mini course on Talking about Time in German.
Today, we’ll continue what we started last time – talking all about those vague words that indicate a point in time without being too specific. Or in grammar jargon

German Adverbs of time

Last time, we talk about German time adverbs that refer to the future, so we learned bald, gleich, demnächst, später and more, so if you want to check that out, you can find link the navigation above.
And today, we’ll look in the other direction and learn the most important time words that refer to the past.
So let’s jump right into it…

The immediate past

There are two words that refer to the very very close past in German – gerade and eben. Both these words have like a dozen meanings and we’ve talked about them in painful detail in a separate article (link below), but all that matters today, is that we can use them to refer to the immediate past before “now”…  I’d say the range is from a second to no more than an hour ago.
So suitable translations could be just or just now or maybe also earlier.

  • Marie hat gerade/eben angerufen.
  • Marie just called.
  • Ich war bis eben in der Bücherei und konnte deshalb nicht ans Telefon gehen.
  • I was at the library until just now / some minutes ago, thereforwasn’t able to answer the phone.

Now the big question many of you are wondering about is of course if there is any difference between eben and gerade?
And the answer is:

Maybe a little!

This answer won the Best Answer Award in 2020, btw.
Seriously though, I feel like overall I use gerade more often, but in some sentences, like in the second example, eben sounds better. No deeper logic or reason. It’s just how I feel, and other German speakers might feel different. So basically, you can do as you feel, as well.
And if you can’t make a decision… well, no problem. Just use them both together. Yes, native speakers do that and oh, on a side note, gerade is very often contracted to grade or grad’ and gerade eben to grad’ ehm so you’re likely to hear that in spoken German.

  • Hey John, was für ein Zufall, ich wollte dich gerade eben anrufen.
  • Hey John, what a coincidence, I was just about to call you.
  • Ich hatte eben gerade das Bad gewischt, als die Waschmaschine kaputt ging.
  • I was just done sweeping the bathroom when the washing machine broke down.

Either one of the examples would work with just eben or gerade but I think using both in combination just puts a little emphasis on the fact that it really JUST happened.  But don’t worry about that too much. If you want to refer to the close past you can use gerade or eben or both.

Next up, we have the time frame of about an hour ago up to three or four hours in the past.
And here we get to a REALLY common mistake.
In English, one of the most common words to refer to that time frame is earlier

  • I was very tired earlier, but now it’s ok.

And technically, the direct counterpart of earlier is früher BUT as a vague reference to a point in time, they two ARE NOT THE SAME. To translate the English example, we need the word vorhin.

  • Vorhin war ich sehr müde, aber jetzt ist es ok.

Using früher here is something many learners do, but it’s super weird. We’ll find out why later.
Vorhin is used A LOT but oddly lots of learning materials like textbooks forget about it. You definitely need it, though.

  • “Hast du was gegessen?”
    “Ja vorhin, aber ich habe trotzdem Hunger.”
  • “Have you eaten something?”
    “Yes earlier, I feel hungry though.”

Now, what’s important to realize about vorhin is that it ALWAYS uses the moment you speak as a reference point.
So it can not be used for accounts of past events like…

  • Maria was very happy when she met Thomas because, earlier (that day), she had seen a unicorn.

Here, the speaker talks about stuff that happened in the past, and within that past one thing happened before the other.
Using vorhin here wouldn’t work because vorhin is always relative to the moment of speaking. So people would understand that Maria had seen the unicorn earlier today, instead of earlier that day.   Now you might be like  “Oh, so is THAT where we need früher? For earlier that day.”
But the answer is nope. We’ll get to früher later.
In the unicorn example, you would either use a pointer-word like voher or am Vormittag or people would simply not say anything like earlier and instead just let the context and verb time clarify the order of things. To save you some scrolling here is the English sentence again.

  • Maria was happy when she met Thomas because earlier she had seen a unicorn
  • Maria war  gut gelaunt, als sie sich mit Thomas traf, denn sie hatte (vorher/ am morgen) ein Einhorn gesehen.

So, with the same day, you have eben and gerade for the immediate past and vorhin for an unspecified point earlier in the day.
Now let’s go back a step further.

The recent past

What I mean by recent past is the period from a few days to a couple of weeks ago – the period that you’d refer to with phrases like not so long ago, recently or the other day in English.

And two of the most common options for that period are letztens and neulich. And no, neulich doesn’t mean newly :).

  • Ich war neulich im Theater.
  • I was in the theater a while back.
  • Letztens habe ich im Park eine alte Freundin getroffen.
  • I met an old friend in the park the other day.
    (Make sure that you have the s there at letztens, otherwise it’s not understandable.)

There are actually quite a few alternatives like vor Kurzem or vor einer Weile, but there’s no real difference in meaning, so you can just pick one or two and stick with those.

There is one fairly important difference between German and English here, though. You see, in these examples we’re referring to a singular point in time in the recent past.
However, there’s also the option to refer to a time span in the recent past or to the recent past as a whole.

  • There haven’t been any good movies recently.

And the German words we just learned would NOT work here.

  • Neulich gab es keine guten Filme…. wrong

This example sounds like “There’s haven’t been any good movies the other day” and the reason is that neulich as well as the others refer to ONE instance.
If we want to refer to the recent past in terms of a time span, the best way to do that is in letzter Zeit.

  • Ich war in letzter Zeit oft joggen.
  • I was running often recently.
  • Thomas, äh… hast du dich in letzter Zeit mal geduscht?
  • Thomas.. uhm.. have you taken a shower recently?

Oh man, Thomas… yes, home office and single again isn’t nice but come on, Bro… Bro-mas! Get yourself together. Like… do no fap or watch some Jordan Peterson videos or whatever. But examples like this one are embarrassing. You can do better than that!
Anyway, this concept of making a distinction between a point in time and a span  is actually fairly important in German, and we’ll get back to it later in this series. So you even if you feel like you didn’t really get it now… you will get it. Or better… it will get you. With full bore.
But now let’s hop on the time machine one last time and travel waaaaaay back, to the boomer days and beyond.

The remote past

And here, finally, we meet früher.
Yep,  früher, as a time indication, does NOT mean earlier. It refers to that time when everything was better, the public transportation was cheaper, people were more polite, politicians were still men with ideals (and also just men), the beer tasted better and was more nutritious, the air was cleaner and more nutritious, apples were still picked by hand from trees alongside the road, there were no ads on Youtube and an iPhone cost $12.
This is what  früher refers to… the good ol’ days.

  • Früher war alles besser.
  • Back in the day, everything was better.

Now my dictionary suggests formerly as a translation but I don’t think the two have much in common. In my opinion früher is more like in times past, in the olden days or just several years ago (in another period of my life).
Oh and I guess we should note that früher refers to a period of time and it usually doesn’t sound idiomatic for single events.

  • Früher habe ich einen Bär gesehen… not really
  • In days past I saw a bear.

If you want to use früher for single events, you need to add one of those infamous everywhere-words German has: mal.

  • Früher habe ich mal einen Bär gesehen.
  • In times past I saw a bear once.

This works fine and I think it is how people would phrase something like that in spoken but there is actually another word for the remote past which would do the job: einst.

  • Ich habe einst einen Bär gesehen.

This expresses that the event has been years ago as well as the fact that it happened once.
But einst has collected a little dust because it’s not being used much.
It would sound like you’re stage acting… like this character from that famous British author… that boy who’s dad was murdered… Hamlet Potter I think… not sure though… oh and also, einst can refer to the future as well but it is not used in spoken… so stick with früher or  früher mal respectively.

And I think that’s it!!
This concludes the fourth part of our time mini series. I’ll go have a shower now, while you get sweaty doing our nice little quiz to check how much you remember.
It’s tough, so don’t fret if you don’t get all correct. But make sure, if you make a mistake that you know WHY you made the mistake. That’s when you learn.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestion about the article or the quiz, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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