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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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The German Simple Past, also known as the Imperfect or Präteritum, is a verb tense used to describe past events, actions, or conditions that are completed and no longer ongoing. It's often used in written language, narration, literature, and formal communication.

 

To use the Simple Past tense in German, follow these steps:

1. Select the Appropriate Verb: Choose the verb you want to use in the Simple Past tense. Both regular (weak) and irregular (strong) verbs can be used in this tense.

2. Find the Correct Verb Stem: For regular verbs (weak verbs), the verb stem is formed by removing the "-en" ending from the infinitive form. For irregular verbs (strong verbs), you'll need to memorize the specific stem changes.

3. Add the Appropriate Simple Past Ending: The endings for regular (weak) verbs in the Simple Past tense are typically as follows:

  • ich -te

  • du -test

  • er/sie/es -te

  • wir -ten

  • ihr -tet

  • sie/Sie -ten

4. Combine the Verb Stem and Ending: Attach the correct ending to the verb stem to form the complete verb in Simple Past tense.

Here are some examples:

  • Regular (Weak) Verb ("spielen" - to play): "Ich spielte Fußball." (I played soccer.)

  • Irregular (Strong) Verb ("sein" - to be): "Du warst müde." (You were tired.)

Common Uses of Simple Past (Imperfect):

  1. Narrating Past Events: It's used to narrate or describe past events or actions in a storytelling or narrative context.

    Example: "Er ging ins Kino." (He went to the cinema.)

  2. Describing Past Habits or Repeated Actions: The Simple Past can also be used to describe past habits, routines, or repeated actions.

    Example: "Früher las ich jeden Abend ein Buch." (I used to read a book every evening.)

  3. Indicating Politeness: In written or formal communication, the Simple Past is often used for polite requests or expressions.

    Example: "Könnten Sie mir bitte behilflich sein?" (Could you please assist me?)

  4. Expressing Conditional Sentences: In conditional sentences (if-clauses) in the past tense, the Simple Past is often used.

    Example: "Wenn er Zeit hatte, kam er vorbei." (If he had time, he would come by.)

 

 

The German Simple Past is less commonly used in spoken language, where the Perfekt (Present Perfect) tense is preferred for describing past actions. However, it's an important tense to know, especially for reading and writing in German or when you want to convey a more formal tone.

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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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)

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

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