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German Simple Past Tense: An Easy-to-follow Guide on the Präteritum

The German simple past tense might seem a lot more complicated than its name lets on—unless you’ve got a handle on its verb conjugations.

Below, I’ve unpacked what this tense is all about: what it is, when to use it and how to handle strong and weak verb conjugations in the German simple past tense.

I’ve also included some places where you can practice your freshly-developed German simple past conjugation skills, so dig in.

Contents

What Is the German Simple Past Tense?

The German simple past tense is often referred to as the Präteritum . Sometimes, it’s also called the imperfekt (imperfect), though if you use that word, people might not know what you’re talking about.

Similar to its English counterpart, the German simple past tense can be used to discuss past events that have a definite timeframe. Unlike in English, however, the Präteritum is more likely to appear in written German than in everyday conversation.

That’s because native German speakers rely more on the present perfect tense when they’re talking, unless they’re trying to be formal or speak in a somewhat antiquated manner. For example, you’re more likely to hear  ich habe gesagt (I have said) than ich sagte (I said).

Generally, the German simple past tense is indicated by the endings -te, -test, -ten and -tet (assuming you’re dealing with weak verbs and depending on the personal pronoun accompanying it). If you’re dealing with strong verbs, you’ll change the stem (i.e., not just drop the ending, but change the actual root of the verb) and add either -st, -en, -t or nothing at all.

We’ll go into more detail on how to conjugate the Präteritum later in this post, but for now, let’s talk about the instances where you can use it.

When Is the Simple Past Used in German?

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the German simple past is generally used in writing, while the present perfect is used for speech. However, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule.

  • If someone is telling a story, they’ll likely use the simple past. That’s because it’s considered a more narrative way of talking. In the same way that starting an English story with “once upon a time” puts us in the mood to settle in for a nice story, spoken simple past indicates to the audience that the person is talking about something that already happened—whether that something is fictional or not.
  • If it’s actually more efficient than the present perfect tense, the simple past would be used.  Ich war (I was) is a lot faster to say than  ich bin gewesen (literally “I am been,” but used as “I was”). Similarly,  ich hatte (I had) is a whole lot easier than  ich habe gehabt (I have had) and sounds less repetitive, too. Just remember that if you choose to use the simple past in everyday speech for “I was” and “I have,” remember to emphasize the “a” in  hatte to differentiate between ich hatte (I had) and  ich hätte (I would have), which is the conditional form and sounds like a request—like ich hätte gern … (I’d like to have …), a phrase you’ll often hear in restaurants and other service-oriented businesses.

How to Conjugate Verbs in the German Simple Past

To conjugate verbs in the German simple past, you have to determine whether you’re dealing with a weak, strong or mixed verb.

Weak Verbs

Think of weak verbs the same way you’d think of regular verbs in English—that is, their conjugations are pretty straightforward.

All you have to do is memorize four endings (-te, -test, -ten and -tet) and their corresponding nominative pronouns.

Let’s use the verb  sagen (to say) as an example. When you want to conjugate this verb in the simple past, start with the infinitive and drop the -en. Then, replace it with one of the following endings (shown in bold):

Simple Past Form of the Verb SagenEnglish Translation
Ich sagte I said
du sagtest you said
er sagte he said
wir sagten we said
ihr sagtet you (plural) said
sie sagten they said

It really is that easy. For regular verbs, there are no “gotcha” moments, tricks or underhanded stem changes. Just replace the verb ending.

Strong Verbs

Strong verbs are slightly trickier because (1) you have to remember which verbs are strong verbs and (2) they don’t follow a systematic conjugation pattern like weak verbs do.

There are two general steps you should follow when conjugating strong verbs in the simple past tense:

  • Change the stem or root of the verb. You don’t just drop the ending like you do with weak verbs.
  • Add either -st, -en, -t or nothing at all. Again, there’s no hard-and-fast rule on which of these endings you should use for a particular strong verb. The only way to know is by immersing yourself in as much (written) German as you can.

Consider the example  finden (to find). Rather than simply changing it to ich findte—which is pretty hard to say and sounds like the present form of  ich finde (I find)—we change the root to  ich fand (I found) and the rest of the conjugations are based on the new root:

Simple Past Form of the Verb FindenEnglish Translation
Ich fand I found
du fandest you found
er fand he found
wir fanden we found
ihr fandet you (plural) found
sie fanden they found

Rather than list all the strong verbs here, Vistawide has already done that for us, so check out their list of strong and irregular German verbs.

Mixed Verbs

A mixed verb is a verb that, when conjugated in the simple past, uses the systematic endings of weak verbs and has stem changes.

Fortunately, there aren’t a ton of mixed verbs, and the ones that you’ll encounter are common enough that they’ll likely stick in your mind even when you’re not actively studying them.

I’ll use  haben (to have) as an example:

Simple Past Form of the Verb HabenEnglish Translation
Ich hatte I had
du hattest you had
er hatte he had
wir hatten we had
ihr hattet you (plural) had
sie hatten they had

Note here that we don’t just drop the -en ending, but the “b” in haben also changes to a “t.” That’s the stem change. The rest of the conjugation, however, is based on the systematic endings of weak verbs.

You can find a complete list of mixed verbs (a.k.a. gemischten Verben ) and their stem changes here. Copy them into a table, and practice conjugating them. Once you’re done, check your answers against the ones you get from these German conjugation apps.

To get used to how the simple past works with different types of verbs, look out for them in German videos with narration and subtitles.  As previously discussed, one of the few times the simple past is used in spoken German is when someone is telling you a story. You can find these videos on FluentU.

Tips and Tricks for Practicing the Simple Past

  • Use apps to help with memorizing. For example, you can use flashcard apps to memorize the strong and weak verbs. If you prefer to make your own flashcards, start with a resource like a verb list from The German Professor.
  • Practice writing an essay in German. As I’ve mentioned, the simple past is more likely to appear in writing, so an essay is the perfect place to practice this tense.
  • Read in German. You’re going to get more exposure to simple past tense verb conjugations if you pick up a German book than if you watch a movie in German.
  • Check out audiobooks. Even though audiobooks are spoken aloud, they still contain the simple past because the narrators are reading from a written narrative. Plus, audiobooks allow you to hear exactly how the words should be pronounced, which is a great bonus.

 

Ready to  write letters about things you’ve done recently, or read the local newspaper without stumbling over unexpected verb conjugations?

Well, now you’re prepared to set forth with confidence and conjugate those verbs in the simple past.

And One More Thing...

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