The Nostalgic’s Guide to the German Past Tense
Knowing how to form the two common German past tenses, the simple past and conversational past, is key to becoming a better German speaker and achieving fluency.
Your days of speaking only about the present are over. Get ready to get a little nostalgic—we’re looking back to the past.
- Why Learn the German Past Tense?
- Conjugating in the Simple Past
- Conjugating in the Conversational Past
- Where to Practice the German Past Tense
- And One More Thing...
Why Learn the German Past Tense?
There are plenty of good reasons to learn how to conjugate verbs in the past tense. Learning the past tense is a critical step toward overall German fluency. The more verb tenses you know, the more things you can express in German. When you interact with other German speakers on a daily basis, the ability to manipulate verbs is crucial to successful communication.
More specifically, knowing how to conjugate verbs in the German past tense will allow you to tell (and listen to) stories about what has already happened. Lots of simple German conversations involve the past tense, such as telling your roommate how your day was, asking a new friend about her childhood or fielding questions about past experience in a job interview. You’ll have better, deeper conversations with German speakers if you aren’t limited to the present tense.
So, what are the key differences between the simple past and conversational past tenses? Let’s take a deeper look.
Conjugating in the Simple Past
In German, the simple past is used mostly for writing and storytelling. You might have also heard this tense called the Imperfekt (imperfect) or Präteritum (preterite).
You’ll find that most German books are written in the simple past tense. This can be confusing if you’re still new to German because you may not recognize many of the verb conjugations at first. But now that you know what to look for, you’ll find that books can be a great resource for practicing the simple past.
Conjugating in the simple past follows different rules for weak verbs (which don’t change their stem) and strong verbs (which do change their stem).
Conjugating Weak Verbs
The first thing you’ll have to do when conjugating a weak verb is identify its stem.
Let’s take a look at the weak verb lernen (to learn).
First, locate your stem, which in this case is lern-.
Then you’ll take that stem and add on a new verb ending based on the conjugation rules.
These simple steps and verb endings apply to any regular verb.
Let’s look at how conjugations work in the context:
Er sagte, dass er ein Arzt ist. (He said that he is a doctor.)
Conjugating Strong Verbs
Strong verbs, on the other hand, undergo a stem change when conjugating so you’ll just have to memorize them.
Let’s look at the strong verbs werden (to become) and bleiben (to stay), for example:
Let’s consider an example sentence with another strong verb, such as lesen (to read). This verb uses las as its stem.
Welches Buch liest du? (Which book are you reading?)
Even though our guide above suggests we’d use –test as the du ending, lesen loses the first “t” in the ending. Therefore we’ve got las + -est, which gives us lasest.
Welches Buch lasest du? (Which book did you read?)
As you can see, most of the time you’ll need to memorize just the endings for weak verbs but entire new verb forms when it comes to strong verbs.
To better understand how German verb conjugation works in general, you can head over to FluentU and see diverse examples of native speakers using them in context.
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Conjugating in the Conversational Past
The conversational past, also known as the present perfect or Perfekt tense, is used in everyday conversations to describe an action that has been completed.
In German, as in English, there is also the past perfect tense known as the Plusquamperfekt . It’s used when speaking about past actions in past simple or present perfect, but for describing something that happened even before that.
The conversational past is comprised of two components. The first component is the helping verb, and the second is the past participle.
Helping Verbs: Choosing Between Haben and Sein
We’re going to start with the helping verb first. In German, there are two to choose from: haben (“to have”) or sein (“to be”).
Here’re their conjugations:
|You (plural) are
|You (plural) are
|They/you (formal) are
|They/you (formal) are
You’ll want to memorize which helping verbs go with which past participles. An easy trick to differentiating between haben and sein lies in the meaning of the main verb.
If the main verb describes movement, use sein. If not, use haben.
Forming the Past Participle
Once you’ve identified and conjugated your helping verb, you’ll need to add a past participle. Weak verbs will use the following formula for the past participle:
ge + verb stem + t
Let’s get into some examples for context:
Ich lebe für die Schokolade. (I live for the chocolate.)
Since leben , or “to live,” is a weak verb, we can go by the formulation above. Taking leb from the infinitive, we’ve got ge + leb + t, which results in gelebt.
Now that we’ve got the past participle, let’s consider the helping verb. Since leben doesn’t show movement, we’ll use haben.
Conjugate haben for ich (I) and you end up with:
Ich habe für die Schokolade gelebt. (I lived for the chocolate.)
Strong verbs, on the other hand, will often discard the “ge,” the “t” or both to form a unique past participle all their own.
Let’s use fliegen , a strong verb which means “to fly.”
Wohin fliegen sie nächste Woche? (Where are they flying to next week?)
The good news is that fliegen keeps the ge prefix. The bad news is that it decides what it wants after that. The past participle of fliegen is geflogen, and since we have to move in order to fly, sein is our helping verb.
Do a simple conjugation of sein for sie (they) and you’ve got:
Wohin sind sie letzte Woche geflogen? (Where did they fly to last week?)
As you can see, strong verbs take their own forms when it comes to past participles.
A Note on Modal Verbs in the Conversational Past Tense
Speaking of their own forms, modal verbs (such as can, might and should) are particularly tricky when it comes to the conversational past tense. They use what’s called a double infinitive structure.
Basically, if the only verb in the sentence is the modal, you’ll use haben and the weak verb conjugation rules we described above.
However, if there’s another verb in addition to the modal, you’ll use two infinitives at the end of the sentence rather than the past participle.
Hence the double infinitive name. Confused? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.
Where to Practice the German Past Tense
Beyond creating your own sentences and conjugating verbs in the past tense yourself, there are a few resources you can tap into for practice of the German past tense.
Here are some of the most enjoyable and useful ones:
If you’re looking to practice your conjugation skills in the simple past, look no further than German.net’s fill-in-the-blank exercises. Try to write an answer for every verb—even the ones you have to guess on—before checking your answers.
If you’re looking to practice the conversational past, you’re in luck. German.net has several different exercises to help you here. You can check out their general fill-in-the-blank quiz on the present perfect. Or, if you feel pretty confident on helping verbs but just want to practice the past participle, German.net has an exercise for that, too.
Quizlet offers many exercise sets on both the simple and conversational past tenses. Check out this one to start, or use the search bar to find one that suits your needs. The “learn” mode can be a great way to gain confidence and reinforce your conjugation skills.
For fans of flashcards, check out one of Quizlet’s many virtual flashcard decks. They can be incredibly helpful for memorizing simple past endings and past participles, especially for irregular verbs.
Sporcle’s timed quizzes help you practice your conjugations under time pressure, which can be a great way to prepare for real-world settings. For example, check out this timed past participle quiz. How many past participles can you identify in 10 minutes? Try to do it from memory before searching on Google.
You can browse Sporcle’s German subcategory for tons of quizzes about German culture and language.
German grammar can be a pain. But with a little ingenuity and some good old-fashioned fun, a simple thing like talking about the past can be more enjoyable than you think.
Let your worries about the German past tense be just that—a thing of the past. Move forward with your German fluency and you’ll be one step closer to talking—and conjugating—like a pro.
And One More Thing...
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