Everything about German Verbs
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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

  1. Actions that have occurred in the past and are complete.
    • Wir haben einen guten Film gesehen. → We saw a good film.
  2. 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)

Past Participles

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

 say 
sagen volume_up volume_up
gesagt
 make 
machen volume_up volume_up
gemacht
 split 
teilen volume_up volume_up
geteilt

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

 go 
gehen volume_up volume_up
gegangen
 stand 
stehen volume_up volume_up
gestanden
 speak 
sprechen volume_up volume_up
gesprochen

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

 bring 
bringen volume_up volume_up
gebracht
 think 
denken volume_up volume_up
gedacht
 know 
kennen volume_up volume_up
gekannt

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

 pick up 
aufnehmen volume_up volume_up
aufgenommen
 spend 
ausgeben volume_up volume_up
ausgegeben
 repeat 
nachsagen volume_up volume_up
nachgesagt

The final pattern for past participles are the verbs that end in -ieren , which just replace their endings with a t.

Past Participles of common Loan Words in German

 criticize 
kritisieren volume_up volume_up
kritisiert
 control 
kontrollieren volume_up volume_up
kontrolliert
 discuss 
diskutieren volume_up volume_up
diskutiert

Compound Past Tense

To form the compound past tense, you take a helper verb (either haben or sein) and the past participle of the verb. First, let’s talk about the past participle.

To conjugate verbs in the compound past tense you combine the past participle with either haben or sein like so:

 go 
gehen volume_up volume_up
  • ich
  • du
  • er
  • wir
  • ihr
  • sie
  • habe
  • hast
  • hat
  • haben
  • habt
  • haben
  • gehen
  • gehen
  • gehen
  • gehen
  • gehen
  • gehen
 see 
sehen volume_up volume_up
  • ich
  • du
  • er
  • wir
  • ihr
  • sie
  • habe
  • hast
  • hat
  • haben
  • habt
  • haben
  • sehen
  • sehen
  • sehen
  • sehen
  • sehen
  • sehen

Now, you may be wondering, when do you use haben and when do you use sein? Here’s the general rules:

  • 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.

 make 
machen volume_up volume_up
ichmachte volume_up volume_up
dumachtest volume_up volume_up
ermachte volume_up volume_up
wirmachten volume_up volume_up
ihrmachtet volume_up volume_up
siemachten volume_up volume_up
 see 
sehen volume_up volume_up
ichsah volume_up volume_up
dusahst volume_up volume_up
ersah volume_up volume_up
wirsahen volume_up volume_up
ihrsaht volume_up volume_up
siesahen volume_up volume_up
 split 
teilen volume_up volume_up
ichteilte volume_up volume_up
duteiltest volume_up volume_up
erteilte volume_up volume_up
wirteilten volume_up volume_up
ihrteiltet volume_up volume_up
sieteilten 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.

 speak 
sprechen volume_up volume_up
ichsprach volume_up volume_up
dusprachst volume_up volume_up
ersprach volume_up volume_up
wirsprachen volume_up volume_up
ihrspracht volume_up volume_up
siesprachen volume_up volume_up
 remain 
bleiben volume_up volume_up
ichblieb volume_up volume_up
dubliebst volume_up volume_up
erblieb volume_up volume_up
wirblieben volume_up volume_up
ihrbliebt volume_up volume_up
sieblieben volume_up volume_up
 hold 
halten volume_up volume_up
ichhielt volume_up volume_up
duhieltst volume_up volume_up
erhielt volume_up volume_up
wirhielten volume_up volume_up
ihrhieltet volume_up volume_up
siehielten 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.

 have 
haben volume_up volume_up
ichhatte volume_up volume_up
duhattest volume_up volume_up
erhatte volume_up volume_up
wirhatten volume_up volume_up
ihrhattet volume_up volume_up
siehatten volume_up volume_up
 know 
wissen volume_up volume_up
ichwusste volume_up volume_up
duwusstest volume_up volume_up
erwusste volume_up volume_up
wirwussten volume_up volume_up
ihrwusstet volume_up volume_up
siewussten volume_up volume_up
 run 
rennen volume_up volume_up
ichrannte volume_up volume_up
duranntest volume_up volume_up
errannte volume_up volume_up
wirrannten volume_up volume_up
ihrranntet volume_up volume_up
sierannten 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.

References

  1. The Simple Past or Imperfect Tense (das Präteritum) - dartmouth.edu
  2. The Present Perfect Tense (das Perfekt) - dartmouth.edu
  3. The Perfect in German (Perfekt) - germanveryeasy.com
  4. The Preterite in German (Präteritum)- germanveryeasy.com
  5. Perfect vs. Preterite - germanforenglishspeakers.com