Learn the German Past Tense
The Past Tense (or das Präteritum & das Perfekt in German) is the second most important tense after the Present Tense. There are two ways to construct the Past Tense, but they both mean more or less the same thing. The easiest form is the Compound Past Tense (or das Perfekt) which uses a helper verb (haben or sein) and the past participle. The other way to form the past tense is with the Simple Past Tense (or Präteritum) which is another fully conjugated form that requires some extra memorization.
When to use the German Past Tense
- Actions that have occurred in the past and are complete.
- Wir haben einen guten Film gesehen. → We saw a good film.
- Actions that occurred in the past and are still occurring in the present.
- Ich habe heute morgen den Laden geöffnet. → I opened the store this morning. (and it’s still open)
The past participle is one of the most important verb forms to learn in German. It is used to form a number of different tenses and moods, and it is often used as the root of nouns and adjectives.
For regular verbs (also known as weak verbs in German), the past participle is formed by by adding
ge- to the beginning and
-t to the end of the root of the verb. It’s very similar to English forms like open-ed or dropp-ed.
Past Participles of regular Weak Verbs in German
For irregular verbs (also known as strong verbs in German), the past participle has a change of the root vowel and the same ending as the infinitive. This is again pretty similar to English for example you have “run” → “ran” and “drive” → “drove”. Actually, that last one is interesting because “driven” also sounds kind of correct. There’s actually a trend in both languages for strong verbs to become weak over time, which is great because that makes the languages easier to learn.
Past Participles of common Strong Verbs in German
Another group of irregular verbs (known as mixed verbs in German) follow with a vowel change like strong verbs, but have an ending with a
-t like the weak verbs.
Past Participles of common Mixed Verbs in German
In all of these cases, if a verb has a “separable” prefix, then the
ge will be placed in between the root of the verb and the prefix.
Past Participles of common Separable Verbs in German
The final pattern for past participles are the verbs that end in
-ieren , which just replace their endings with a
Past Participles of common Loan Words in German
Compound Past Tense
- Use sein if a verb indicates a change of position or status, like:
- Use sein if a verb doesn’t have a direct object.
Simple Past Tense
The simple past tense is a little more complicated as it is a fully conjugated form. Nowadays, it has basically the same meaning as the compound past tense and it is used more often for the more common verbs.
First, the regular verbs (or weak verbs) are pretty simple. They all follow the same basic pattern.
|ich||machte volume_up volume_up|
|du||machtest volume_up volume_up|
|er||machte volume_up volume_up|
|wir||machten volume_up volume_up|
|ihr||machtet volume_up volume_up|
|sie||machten volume_up volume_up|
|ich||sah volume_up volume_up|
|du||sahst volume_up volume_up|
|er||sah volume_up volume_up|
|wir||sahen volume_up volume_up|
|ihr||saht volume_up volume_up|
|sie||sahen volume_up volume_up|
|ich||teilte volume_up volume_up|
|du||teiltest volume_up volume_up|
|er||teilte volume_up volume_up|
|wir||teilten volume_up volume_up|
|ihr||teiltet volume_up volume_up|
|sie||teilten volume_up volume_up|
Next, the irregular verbs (or strong verbs) are verbs that involve a change of root in the 2nd and 3rd person forms with slightly different endings.
|ich||sprach volume_up volume_up|
|du||sprachst volume_up volume_up|
|er||sprach volume_up volume_up|
|wir||sprachen volume_up volume_up|
|ihr||spracht volume_up volume_up|
|sie||sprachen volume_up volume_up|
|ich||blieb volume_up volume_up|
|du||bliebst volume_up volume_up|
|er||blieb volume_up volume_up|
|wir||blieben volume_up volume_up|
|ihr||bliebt volume_up volume_up|
|sie||blieben volume_up volume_up|
|ich||hielt volume_up volume_up|
|du||hieltst volume_up volume_up|
|er||hielt volume_up volume_up|
|wir||hielten volume_up volume_up|
|ihr||hieltet volume_up volume_up|
|sie||hielten volume_up volume_up|
Finally, the other type of irregular verb (or mixed verbs) have a vowel change with the same endings as the first group.
|ich||hatte volume_up volume_up|
|du||hattest volume_up volume_up|
|er||hatte volume_up volume_up|
|wir||hatten volume_up volume_up|
|ihr||hattet volume_up volume_up|
|sie||hatten volume_up volume_up|
|ich||wusste volume_up volume_up|
|du||wusstest volume_up volume_up|
|er||wusste volume_up volume_up|
|wir||wussten volume_up volume_up|
|ihr||wusstet volume_up volume_up|
|sie||wussten volume_up volume_up|
|ich||rannte volume_up volume_up|
|du||ranntest volume_up volume_up|
|er||rannte volume_up volume_up|
|wir||rannten volume_up volume_up|
|ihr||ranntet volume_up volume_up|
|sie||rannten volume_up volume_up|
Which past tense should you use
Typically, the Simple Past Tense is always used for sein, haben and werden (the auxiliary verbs) and also for the modal verbs. Outside of those verbs, generally you would use the Compound Past Tense. One final rule of thumb, you should use the Compound Past Tense much more often when speaking rather than writing. You will sea more verbs conjugated according to the Simple Past Tense when reading.
- The Simple Past or Imperfect Tense (das Präteritum) - dartmouth.edu
- The Present Perfect Tense (das Perfekt) - dartmouth.edu
- The Perfect in German (Perfekt) - germanveryeasy.com
- The Preterite in German (Präteritum)- germanveryeasy.com
- Perfect vs. Preterite - germanforenglishspeakers.com
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