Simple past tense (Präteritum) in German
- 1.Definition and usage of the German simple past (Präteritum)
- 2.Marker words for the use of simple past in German
- 3.Conjugation of simple past tense with examples
- 3.1.Regular conjugation (for weak verbs)
- 3.2.Irregular conjugation (for strong verbs)
- 3.2.1.Conjugation of normal irregular verbs
- 3.2.2.Auxiliary verbs in simple past
- 3.2.3.Conjugation of modal verbs
- 3.2.4.Verbs that add an '-e' between the stem and the ending
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 tense||English meaning|
|Ich spielte||I played, I did play, I was playing|
|Er ging||he went, he did go, he was going|
|Wir lachten||we laughed, we did laugh, we were laughing|
The 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.|
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.
|vor zwei Jahren||two years ago|
|Letztes Jahr/letzte Woche||last year/last week|
|Im Jahr 1994/In 1994||In year 1994/In 1994|
|Vor einer langen Zeit||A long time ago|
|Als ich klein war||When 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:
|Subject||Verb and translation|
|ich||lebte (I lived)|
|du||lebtest (you lived)|
|er/sie/es||lebte (he/she/it lived)|
|wir||lebten (we lived)|
|ihr||lebtet (you lived)|
|sie/Sie||lebten (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.
|Subject||verb sehen (to see)|
|ich||sah (I saw)|
Auxiliary verbs in simple past
The German auxiliary verbs sein, haben and werden also got special conjugations. See the declension below.
|Subject||sein (to be)||haben (to have)||werden (to become)|
- 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.)
This 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).
|Subject||dürfen (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:
|Subject||reden (to speak)||öffnen (to open up)|
We 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.
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