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Simple past tense (Präteritum) in German

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Definition and usage of the German simple past (Präteritum)

The simple past tense expresses facts and actions which have taken place in the past. Today, it isn't used that much in the German spoken language, but rather in written stories and reports. The simple past tense is formed by using only the verb, roots or derivative. Find some short examples in the table below.

German simple past tenseEnglish meaning 
Ich spielteI played, I did play, I was playing
Er ginghe went, he did go, he was going
Wir lachtenwe laughed, we did laugh, we were laughing


enlightenedThe simple past differs from the present perfect in the way, that it describes past events that are interrelated within a time frame that is separate from the present.

The simple past (Präteritum) in German is used in the following situations. To describe other situations in the past, typically the present tense is used.

With auxiliary verbs (sein, haben, werden)Wir waren gestern im Zoo.We were in the zoo yesterday.
With modal verbs (können, dürfen, mögen,..)Du durftest keinen Kuchen essen?You weren't allowed to eat cake?
In written language (e.g. in newspapers or books)Der Bundeskanzler hielt eine Rede.The Federal Chancellor delivered a speech.


If you want to learn more about auxiliary and modal verbs, have a look at the special chapters about them.

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Marker words for the use of simple past in German

There are some marker words that indicate the use of the simple past in a sentence. When you recognise one of them, you can be sure that the simple past is the right form to use.

Marker wordTranslation
vor zwei Jahrentwo years ago
Letztes Jahr/letzte Wochelast year/last week
Im Jahr 1994/In 1994In year 1994/In 1994
Vor einer langen ZeitA long time ago
Als ich klein warWhen I was little


Here are some example sentences:

  • Vor drei Jahren begann ich Gitarre zu spielen. (Two years ago, I started playing guitar.)
  • Als ich fünf Jahre alt war, las ich mein erstes Buch. (When I was five years old, I read my first book.)
  • Wir heirateten im Jahr 1996. (We married in year 1996.)

Conjugation of simple past tense with examples

Regular conjugation (for weak verbs)

The 'Präteritum' is formed in the following way for regular verbs:

SubjectVerb and translation
ichlebte (I lived)
dulebtest (you lived)
er/sie/eslebte (he/she/it lived)
wirlebten (we lived)
ihrlebtet (you lived)
sie/Sielebten (they lived)


Irregular conjugation (for strong verbs)

There are also a lot of irregular verbs that don't follow the rule described above. See in the following chapters the irregular conjugation of:

  • normal irregular verbs
  • auxiliary verbs
  • modal verbs
  • verbs that add an '-e' between the stem and the ending

Conjugation of normal irregular verbs

See the example of the irregular verbs 'sehen' in the table below.

Subjectverb sehen (to see)
ichsah (I saw)


Auxiliary verbs in simple past

The German auxiliary verbs sein, haben and werden also got special conjugations. See the declension below.

Subjectsein (to be)haben (to have)werden (to become)


For example:

  • Gestern war ich shoppen. (Yesterday I went shopping.)
  • Hattest du letzte Woche Geburtstag? (Did you have your birthday last week?)
  • Wir wurden nett empfangen. (We were received very well.)

enlightenedThis three verbs, as well as the modal verbs you will see below, are the only verbs that are used quite commonly in the spoken German language. Most of the other verbs are used in 'Perfekt'.

Conjugation of modal verbs

The modal verbs change their word stem when conjugated in the simple past. Some of them get rid of their 'umlaut' (ä,ö,ü).

Subjectdürfen (to be allowed to)können (to can)mögen (to like)müssen (to have to)sollen (to should)wollen (to want)


Verbs that add an '-e' between the stem and the ending

In the special cases of this verbs, an '-e' is added between the verb stem and the ending, if the verb stem either ends on

  • '-t', or '-d' like for instance in the case of 'schaden' or 'reden'
  • '-n' ot '-m' as for instance in the case of 'rechnen' or 'öffnen'.

See the example below, to get a deeper uderstanding of this type of verb:

Subjectreden (to speak)öffnen (to open up)


yesWe hope you enjoyed learning the past tense and that you know when and how to form it now. Why not go and check out the other tenses! See you soon. 


  1. Exercise on simple past endings in German
  2. German simple past form: weak verbs
  3. Exercise of mixed verbs in German
  4. Exercise about strong verbs in German.

Exercise on simple past endings in German

German simple past form: weak verbs

Exercise of mixed verbs in German

Exercise about strong verbs in German.

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