It’s grammar time ! I got an interesting question about the past tense vs present perfect tense of the verb:
I was wondering if you can address past tense vs. perfect tense in Swedish. It seems that the perfect tense is used much more often than in English.
For example, in Swedish people often say “Vad har hänt?” whereas in English it would typically be said “What happened?”
Another reader earlier posted this question about the –ing form in English, and how to express it in Swedish:
Have you done the difference in Swedish and English when it comes to using the present participle? That was one of the hardest things to wrap my head around when I first started learning Swedish, because I would want to construct sentences with the present participle all the time, but you don’t usually do that in Swedish.
For example: “I am running”, “I am singing”, “I am doing it” would be “jag springer”, “jag sjunger”, “jag gör det.” Which is a different tense and something that is important for English speakers learning Swedish to understand.
First it might seem like these two questions aren’t related at all, but since I started working on the first one, I realized that I was also getting closer to the answer of the second one.
I’m neither a native speaker of English, nor very educated in English grammar so I’m playing it safe and choose stay away from making a comparison between the two languages here. What I will do in this article is to explain when to use perfect tense (presens perfekt) and past tense (preteritum) in Swedish language. All comments on the differences between English (British or American) and Swedish are more than welcome!
Tense and aspect
Most of us know that tense (“tempus” in Swedish) is a grammatical category that defines the time for an action, when something happens. When speaking, Swedish, English, or any other language, we don’t only want to express when something happens, but also if the action is temporary, repeated, completed or continuous. This, is what we call the aspect of the verb. Aspect also represents time but has to do with the flow of the action compared to tense which locates the state in time.
The aspect of the verb is shown in different ways in different languages. In some languages there will be a certain ending on the verb and in other languages there are always two pairs of verb showing two different aspects. In French for example (this is one of few things I remember from French lessons in school) there are two forms of past – “passé simple” and “imparfait”. The first one is used when you talk about a completed action and the other one for a not completed action. If you look in an old Swedish grammar book you will find that “preteritum” is called “imperfekt”. There was a change of terms some years ago since “imperfect” isn’t a correct description – “preteritum” describes a completed action.
Perfect or past tense (perfekt or preteritum)
Speaking Swedish you should always use the perfect form to express a continuous action, continuous time or if we now have a result or continuation of the action that is interesting. Hopefully a few examples will show what I mean:
Göran har rökt i 15 år.
(Göran has been smoking for 15 years.)
This means that Göran has been smoking and still is, the action continues.
Göran har rökt 5 cigaretter idag.
(Göran has smoked 15 cigarettes today.)
In this case the action, smoking the cigarettes, is over but the time – today – continues, it is still today.
Har du tagit rökpaus ännu, Göran, eller vill du följa med ut och röka?
(Have you taken a smoke break yet Göran, or do you want to come along for a smoke?)
In this case you have to use perfect in Swedish since the action (har tagit paus) gives us a continuation or result (vill följa med och röka) that is interesting.
Here’s another example:
Jag har inte ätit så jag är hungrig.
(I haven’t eaten so I’m hungry.)
We have a result (I’m hungry) of the action (haven’t eaten).
The past tense (preteritum) should be used when we’re talking about a completed action in the past, meaning that the action both started and finished in the past. Sometimes the exact time is mentioned and sometimes it’s not. Here are a few examples:
Jag såg en film igår.
(I saw a movie yesterday.)
Olle tvättade bilen förra veckan.
(Olle washed his car last week.)
Anna studerade vid universitetet i Lund.
(Anna studied at the university in Lund.)
Other ways of expressing continuous or completed action in Swedish
Except for using perfect instead of present tense or pluperfect instead of past tense there isn’t any grammatical ways to express the aspect of the verb in Swedish. To do so you have to you use the vocabulary. In some cases the “partikelverb” come in handy to more clearly express a completed action. Take a look at this:
(finsish eating, finish the food)
(finish the drink, empty the glass)
With the particle “upp” and “ur” we can get an aspect of the verb – we know that the action is completed.
When it comes to the English progressive aspect, the be– ing, it’s a little harder. It’s hard to clearly express the progressive aspect as clearly in the Swedish language. That’s probably why it’s a common mistake a Swedish speaking person will make when speaking English. Most of the time we would simply use the present tense in Swedish and don’t show any difference between the continuous and not continuous aspect. You will have to understand the aspect sense from the context. However you could use “håller på att” or some other paraphrase.
Vad gör Janne?
Han jobbar i trädgården.
(“He works in the garden./He is working in the garden.”)
Vad gör Janne?
Han är ute och jobbar i trädgården.
(“He’s out in the garden working.”)
Vad håller Janne på med?
Han håller på och jobbar i trädgården.
(“What is Janne up to? He’s working in the garden.”)
Thank you everyone for reading and have fun learning Swedish!
Sara the Swedish Teacher