Präteritum Problems? Here’s How to Use the German Simple Past Tense
Until you’ve got a handle on its verb conjugations, the German simple past tense might seem a lot more complicated than its name lets on.
I’ve broken this tense down and found a straightforward way to remember what the simple past is, when to use it and how to handle strong and weak verb conjugations in this tense.
I’ve even included some pointers to opportunities where you can practice your freshly-developed German simple past conjugation skills.
- What Is the German Simple Past Tense?
- When Is the Simple Past Used in German?
- How to Conjugate Verbs in the German Simple Past
- Tips and Tricks for Practicing the Simple Past
What Is the German Simple Past Tense?
If you’re a native English speaker, you’re probably already familiar with the simple past, even if you’re not quite sure what it is. Think of it like a way of saying something in past tense with as few verbs as possible.
“I have eaten?” Well, that’s the present perfect and it has two verbs (“have” and “eaten”). “I ate?” There you go. Just one verb. That’s the simple past.
You can’t get much simpler than one verb!
In German, the simple past (also know as the “imperfect”) is referred to as Präteritum. That’s a good word to know if you’re studying the language because if you refer to it as imperfekt (imperfect), people might not know what you’re talking about.
Some German speakers might understand that imperfekt refers to the simple past, but it’s borrowed from English and it’s not the native German word for this tense.
You also get an advantage as an English speaker, because in English, the simple past is often used to discuss past events that have a definite timeframe, referring to when something happened. In German, it can be used the same way, though it’s generally not used as often in spoken language as it is in English.
When Is the Simple Past Used in German?
When native Germans speak their language, most of them tend not to use the simple past in everyday situations. You’re not going to encounter a lot of ich sagte (I said) but instead you’ll hear ich habe gesagt (I have said). 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.
The simple past is seen as a bit old-fashioned, which is great if you want to be traditional about your speech, but you’re just not going to hear it that much.
So if, after you’ve finished your German lesson for the day, you find yourself reading books, magazines or newspapers, you might suddenly think you didn’t learn German as well as you thought you had—unless, of course, you’re familiar with the fact that the simple past is often used in writing.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, right? And if the rule is that the German simple past is used in written language while the present perfect is used for speech, let me now give you the two exceptions to the rule:
- If someone is telling a story, they’ll likely use the simple past. It’s considered a more narrative way of talking. That might be the case whether they’re speaking or writing.
Consider how your speech changes when you’re telling a child a bedtime story. You might soften your tone a bit and start with, “once upon a time, there lived a sorcerer in a castle…” and whoosh! We’re transported to a scene where the feeling is to settle in for a nice story.
Spoken simple past has the same sort of effect in German. It indicates to the audience that a story is being told and it can cause a shift away from a conversational mood.
- 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”) and ich hatte (I had) is a whole lot easier than ich habe gehabt (I have had) and it sounds less repetitive, too. There’s a reason German culture is often associated with efficiency.
If you choose to use the simple past in everyday speech for “I was” and “I have” (which you really should because, as mentioned above, it’s just efficient), 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. One phrase you’ll often hear in restaurants or service-based businesses is ich hätte gern… (I’d like to have…).
How to Conjugate Verbs in the German Simple Past
Now that we have a good sense of when to use the simple past, let’s focus on how to use it. The first thing to be aware of when conjugating verbs in the simple past is whether you’re working with a strong or weak verb.
In general, verbs are weak (also referred to as “regular”), so you can generally use the regular verb conjugation rules and just focus on remembering the outliers (the strong and mixed verbs). It’ll save you some trouble.
Weak Verbs Conjugated in the Simple Past
The meat-and-potatoes of regular (or weak) simple past verb conjugation is straightforward.
Weak verbs conjugate systematically, so just by memorizing six endings, you’ll have it down.
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):
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 just that easy. For regular verbs, there are no gotcha moments, no tricks up anyone’s sleeve and no underhand stem changes. You just replace the verb ending.
Strong Verbs Conjugated in the Simple Past
If weak verbs are the easy part, strong verbs are the slightly-less-easy part. They require a bit more memorization because:
- You have to remember which verbs are strong verbs.
- There’s no systematic conjugation pattern so after you remind yourself not to use the weak system, you’ll have to recall the word that replaces it.
Generally speaking, you’ll conjugate strong verbs in the simple past by changing the stem (not just dropping the ending, but changing the actual root of the verb) and by adding either -st, -en, -t or nothing at all.
Consider the example finden (to find). If this were a weak verb, we could just say ich findte but that’s frankly pretty hard to say and would probably end up sounding like the present form of ich finde (I find). Instead, we change the root to ich fand (I found) and the rest of the conjugations are based on the new root:
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 or read about conjugating German verbs in the simple past and start memorizing! This is also a great exercise for the incorporation of flashcards.
Mixed Verbs Conjugated in the Simple Past
A mixed verb is a verb that, when conjugated in the simple past, relies on the systematic endings of weak verbs and has stem changes. Fortunately, there aren’t so many mixed verbs and a few of them are so common, you’ll end up using them frequently and they’ll stick in your mind whether you try to memorize them or not. I’ll use haben (to have) as an example:
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.” There’s the stem change. The rest of the conjugation, however, is based on just the systematic endings of weak verbs.
A few common weak verbs and their stem changes are: bringen (to bring) → brachte (brought), denken (to think) → dachte (thought), haben (to have, as above) → hatte (had), kennen (to be familiar with) → kannte (knew, as in to have been familiar with), nennen (to name) → nannte (named), rennen (to run) → rannte (ran) and wissen (to know) → wusste (knew).
Tips and Tricks for Practicing the Simple Past
Use apps to help with memorizing. This is a fantastic resource for memorizing that list up there of strong German verbs.
Flashcards are great, but if you don’t want to mess with a bunch of physical cards, there are great smartphone apps that work as well as flashcards. If you prefer to make your own flashcards, start with a resource like a verb list from The German Professor.
With an app like FluentU, you’ll hear the simple past tense as it’s used in many different contexts, by people from all over the German-speaking world through various authentic German videos like movie clips and news segments.
Practice writing an essay in German. This is the simple past German tense in its native habitat. If you force yourself to become familiar writing in German using the simple past, then when you actually do need to write an essay or a story in German, you won’t be thrown off and you won’t have to rely on the present perfect.
Read in German. Just as general life advice, read a lot. In particular, for learning German, read a lot of German. But, all joking aside, reading is more useful than conversing if you want to work specifically on the simple past, because it’s mostly found in written language.
You’re going to get more exposure to simple past tense verb conjugations if you pick up a German book than if you go see a movie in German.
Okay, okay, if you don’t have time to read as many books in German as you’d like—who doesn’t run out of time?—but you still want to get your fill of the simple past tense, you’re in luck. Audiobooks still contain the simple past because it’s someone reading aloud from a written narrative. You might find some audiobooks in German that are meant to be conversational, in which case they might revert back to present perfect, but audiobooks are a great alternative to reading if you still want to hear the simple past.
Plus, what’s great about audiobooks is you can hear exactly how the words should be pronounced, too. Consider that a little added bonus.
Ready to write letters about things you’ve done recently?
To 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.
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