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The Simple Past in German

Das Präteritum


First and foremost you need to understand this one vital difference between English and German when it comes to the simple past:

The simple past is the most frequent tense used in both conversational and written English to describe an event that has happened in the past. On the other hand, the simple past is usually not expressed in spoken German – in fact in some southern German dialects, “das Präteritum” has been completely eradicated. The simple past in German is mostly used in written works, such as in stories:

Es war einmal ein Ehepaar… (There once was a married couple.)
Der Junge schleichte sich langsam zur Tür hin und wartete einen Moment. Dann riss er die Tür plötztlich auf und fing an laut zu schreien... (The boy quietly crept to the door and waited for a moment. Then he suddenly flung the door open and began to scream…)

Quick Facts About the Simple Past

  • The simple past is used mostly in written German to describe an event or action that both started and ended in the past.

  • The simple past in German is also identified as das Imperfekt.

  • Special case: Modal verbs and the verbs haben (to have), sein (to be) and wissen (to know) are exceptions – they, unlike other verbs, will be used mostly in the simple past tense in spoken German.

  • The common verb möchten (to want) has no past tense. The verb wollen is used instead:
    Ich möchte einen Keks
    (I would like a cookie.) -> Ich wollte einen Keks ( I wanted a cookie.)

  • The Formation of the Simple Past Tense in German

    German verbs are divided into weak and strong verbs and are conjugated into the simple past tense accordingly:

    1. Weak Verbs: As with other tenses, weak verbs follow a predictable pattern here as well.

      Verbstem + -te +Personal ending

      Take note: When the stem of a weak verb ends in either d or t, then –ete will be added:

      Ich rede zu viel (I talk too much) -> Ich redete damals zu viel. (I spoke too much then)
      Er arbeitet morgen. (He is working tomorrow) -> Er arbeitete ständig jeden Tag. (He worked steadily each day)

      To a beginner, this double te “stutter” sound may seem odd at first, but you see it so often in text, that it will soon become second nature to you.

      lachen (to laugh)                 sich duschen (To shower)

      Ich lachte                               Ich duschte mich
      Du lachtest                             Du duschtest dich
      Er/Sie/ Es lachte                     Er/Sie/Es duschte sich
      Wir lachten                             Wir duschten uns
      Ihr lachtet                               Ihr duschtet euch
      Sie lachten                             Sie duschten sich

    2. Strong Verbs
      As with other tenses, strong verbs do NOT follow a predictable pattern. Their verb stem changes. It is best to just memorize them. Sometimes the consonants change too, but thankfully not as drastically:

      ß->ss         schmeißen -> schmiss
      ss->ß         giessen -> goß
      d-> tt         schneiden -> schnitt

      The simple past tense of some common strong German verbs:

      fahren (to drive)                 stehen (To stand)

      Ich fuhr                               Ich stand
      Du fuhrst                             Du stand(e)st
      Er/Sie/ Es fuhr                     Er/Sie/Es stand
      Wir fuhren                           Wir standen
      Ihr fuhrt                               Ihr standet
      Sie fuhren                           Sie standen

      A small number of strong verbs have two simple past tense forms. Some of these are common verbs:

      erschrecken (to get scared/ to scare)-> erschrak/ erschreckte
      hauen (to hit) -> hieb/ haute (more common)
      stecken (to get stuck) – stak/ steckte (more common)

    3. Mixed Verbs

    Mixed verbs are those verbs which have elements of both strong and weak verbs. In the case of the simple past that would mean that the stem vowel changes and the endings follow the pattern of weak verbs. A good example of mixed verbs are modal verbs. They are conjugated as follows:

    könnensollen wollenmüssendürfenmögen
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