past Tense in German Grammar

How to use German simple past / Imperfect 

Introduction

In German, we use the Präteritum (Imperfekt, past tense) for narratives and reports in the past, particularly in written language. In oral language, we often use the perfect tense instead of the imperfect.

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Usage
When do you use Imperfect in German?
We use the German imperfek
t for:

  • completed actions in the past

Example: Letzten Sommer machte ich Urlaub in Berlin. Ich fuhr mit meinem neuen Fahrrad und genoss die Natur. Last summer I went on vacation to Berlin.  I rode my new bike and enjoyed nature.

  • Facts or states in the past

Example: Der Radweg war fantastisch und ich hatte viel Spaß. The bike trail was fantastic and I had a lot of fun.

In casual German, it is more common to use the present perfect tense to talk about the past.

Example: Letzten Sommer machte ich Urlaub in Berlin. 


However, we still use the simple past of the verbs to be/have to describe facts and states in the past.

Example: Der Radweg war fantastisch und ich hatte viel Spaß.

Conjugation of German verbs in the imperfekt

To conjugate verbs in the Imperfekt, we remove the infinitive ending -en and add the following endings:

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The verbs sein/haben are irregular. They are most important in the past tense:

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Exceptions

  • For many strong/mixed (irregular) verbs, the stem of the verb changes in the past tense. 

    Example:

    gehen – ging, bringen – brachte

  • If the root of a strong verb ends in s/ß/z, either the ending s is omitted or an additional e is added.

    Example:

    lesen – las – du last/du lasest

  • If the root of the word ends in d/t, endings beginning with t/st are preceded by an e.

    Example:

    landen – ich landete, du landetest, er landete, wir landeten, …

    bitten – ich bat, du batest, …, ihr batet

  • When the stem of a strong verb ends in ie, there is no ending e in the 1st and 3rd person plural.

    Example:

    schreien – wir/sie schrien (not: schrieen)