The Past Tense in German

Das Präteritum im Deutschen

The Past Tense in German – Summary


The Past Tense

By using a verb in the past tense, you express an action that took place in the past. The past tense is normally used for reports or tales – so, especially for literature. In spoken language, people prefer using the perfect tense to express actions of the past.

When regular verbs are expressed  in the past tense, there is a “-t-” inserted into the stem. In case the stem ends with “-d” or “-t“, you insert an extra “-e-“. Here are some examples:

  • spielen“: “ich spiel-t-e, du spiel-t-est, er/sie/es spiel-t-e, wir spiel-t-en, ihr spiel-t-et, sie spiel-t-en.”
  • reden“: “ich red-et-e, du red-et-est, er/sie/es red-et-e, wir red-et-en, ihr red-et-et, sie red-et-en.”
  • spotten“: “ich spott-et-e, du spott-et-est, er/sie/es spott-et-e, wir spott-et-en, ihr spott-et-et, sie spott-et-en.”

Irregular verbs in past tense have their stem changed. The first and the third person don’t have an extra ending.

  • fallen“: “ich fiel, du fiel-st, er/sie/es fiel, wir fiel-en, ihr fiel-t, sie fiel-en.”
  • geben“: “ich gab, du gab-st, er/sie/es gab, wir gab-en, ihr gab-t, sie gab-en.”
  • singen“: “ich sang, du sang-st, er/sie/es sang, wir sang-en, ihr sang-t, sie sang-en.”
German Past Tense

Welcome to! Well, as you have clicked on this article about the German past tense, I suppose that you are ready to enter into this essential topic in German grammar. Although this type of expressing the past in German might not be the most common one, you should master it. Especially in written texts and formal information like news reports, this German tense is of very high importance.

Well, and for all the English experts, the German past tense can be compared to the English simple past. But, be careful! As already mentioned, its usage is a lot different from the English simple past.

So, in the following I’d like to talk about the definition and the correct usage of the German past tense. Furthermore, we will have a detailed look at the right conjugation of verbs in this tense and – typical for the German language – look at some exceptions. Now, tighten your seat belts and… – Okay, I should not exaggerate too much… 😛

Now, let’s concentrate and come to this first point of this article, the definition and correct usage of the German past tense.

Definition and Usage of German Past Tense

Definition und Anwendung des Präteritums im Deutschen

Well, first of all we should clear up what the German past tense actually is. So, as I already told you, this tense can be compared to the simple past in the English language. But, be careful! It’s usage in German is quite different from the one in English. Anyway, first the definition of German past tense.

The German past tense or simple past or imperfect (in German you’d say “Präteritum”) is used to express facts and actions that started and ended in the past.

So, actually we can split that up a little bit, just to make it clear in which circumstances the German past tense is used.

  1. First, you can use the German past tense to express a completed action in the past.
    “Ich fuhr mit dem Zug von Berlin nach München.” – I went from Berlin to Munich by train.
  2. Second, you use this German tense to express a fact or condition in the past.
    “Der Zug war sehr sauber.” – The train was very clean.

Of course, the correct usage of German past tense is not too difficult. Nevertheless, there is big difference, especially when you compare its usage to the usage of the English simple past: Whereas in English, the simple past is used in everyday language to express facts and actions in the past, in German, the present perfect is used in spoken language. However, it is quite common to use the German past tense of the verbs “sein” (to be) and “haben” (to have) to express conditions and facts on the past.

The Conjugation of German Past Tense

Die Konjugation des Präteritums im Deutschen

So, let’s come to the central aspect of this article about the German past tense. Well, it’s conjugation is actually not too difficult. Unfortunately, the conjugation of the two most important verbs in German, “haben” (to have) and “sein” (to be), is irregular. So, we will have a detailed look at the conjugation of these two verbs, too. Luckily, there is a rule for conjugation of verbs in the German past tense:

Remove the infinitive ending “-en” and add the following endings for weak and strong/weak verbs.

So, for the endings in the German past tense, let’s have a look at the following table. Please, keep in mind that this rule and the following conjugation is only valid for regular verbs.

German Past Tense Tab 1

Now, without losing too much time, let’s have a look at the irregular conjugations of the important verbs “haben” and “sein”.

German Past Tense Tab 2

Well, as we have now cleared up the conjugation of verbs in the German past tense, let’s come to the most uncomfortable section of this article, the exceptions.

Exceptions from the Conjugation of Verbs in the German Past Tense

  • First, Many strong/mixed verbs change the word stem in the simple past.
    Example: “singen” – “sang”, “laufen” – “lief”

  • Second, if the word stem of a strong verb ends in ‘s/ß/z’, we either leave off the ending ‘s’, or we add an extra ‘e’. Example: “schließen” – “schloß” – “du schließt/du schloßest”
  • Third, if the word stem ends in ‘d/t’, we add an e before the ending for endings that begin with ‘t/st’. Example: “erhalten” –” ich erhielt”, “du erhieltest”, “er erhielt”, “wir erhielten”, …
  • Fourth and last, if the word stem of a strong verb ends in ‘ie’, there is no ending ‘e’ in the 1st/3rd person plural. Example: “speien” – “ich spie”, “wir/sie spien” (not: “spiee”, “spieen”)



Finally, we have reached the last part of this article where you can prove the German skills you have just learned. In the following you will see some phrases that you should complete with the correct terms. Once you have filled all the gaps, just click on the “correct” button and  you can see your errors and the correct results. Good luck and… auf Wiedersehen!

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