The Präteritum is a way to express past tense in German. In form and function, the Präteritum has some similarities to the English simple past tense. Both consist of one word that refers to an event that started and ended in the past. But while in English it’s perfectly normal to use different past tenses interchangeably when speaking or writing, the same can’t be said for German. The Präteritum is reserved mostly for writing, while other past tense forms are more commonly used for speaking. But don’t worry. We have broken it all down into bite-sized little steps for you.
What is the German Präteritum?
The German Präteritum is one of three past tenses in German. Together with Perfekt and Plusquamperfekt, the Präteritum helps German speakers talk about past events. As a reference, English also has three very similar past tense forms: simple past, present perfect, past perfect.
- “Ich kam zur Arbeit.” – I came to work. (Präteritum/simple past)
- “Ich bin zur Arbeit gekommen.” – I have come to work. (Perfekt/present perfect)
- “Ich war zur Arbeit gekommen.” I had come to work. (Plusquamperfekt/past perfect)
In English, the simple past is used to describe completed actions in a time before now. This is also known as preterite or imperfect. The present perfect is used for actions that started in the past but are still continuing now. The past perfect is used to refer to actions that happened up to a certain point of time in the past.
Now, based on the example above, you may be thinking that the German Präteritum works in pretty much the same way as the English simple past. . But, as you’ll learn below, the rules on when to use the Präteritum (or simple past) can be quite different in German.
When to use the German Präteritum
In theory, the differences between the German Präteritum and Perfekt are the same differences between the English simple past and present perfect. After all, both the Präteritum and Perfekt tenses can be used to refer to past events, finished or not. But in practice they can’t actually be used interchangeably. The German perfect tense (Perfekt) is mainly used in spoken language, while the German simple past (Präteritum) is more or less restricted to the written language of newspapers and books.
You would also use the Präteritum when telling a story. This has the effect of transporting the listener to another place and time as if they were reading a book.
In other words, as in this line from a nursery rhyme, you would write:
- “Hänsel and Gretel verliefen sich im Wald.” – Hänsel and Gretel got lost in the woods. (Präteritum)
But telling your friend about your adventures yesterday you would say:
- “Gestern habe ich mich im Wald verlaufen.” – Yesterday I got lost in the woods. (Perfekt)
Both describe the same event that started and ended in the past. In the written form, we use the Präteritum, in a conversation we use the Perfekt to refer to it.
To sum it up, the rule of thumb is to use the Präteritum when writing and the Perfekt when speaking. Exception: The auxiliary verbs haben (to have) and sein (to be), the modal verbs können (can, to be able to), müssen (must, have to), sollen (shall), dürfen (may, to be allowed to), mögen (to like) and wollen (want) are usually used in the Präteritum even in spoken language. The same applies to some common verbs, some of them describing the state of something. Here are some examples of German words that prefer the imperfect tense even in spoken language:
- “es gibt: es gab” – there is: there was
- “ich denke: ich dachte” – I think: I thought
- “ich weiß: ich wusste” – I know: I knew
- “ich kenne: ich kannte” – I know: I knew
- “ich stehe: ich stand” – I stand: I stood
- “ich liege: ich lag” – I lie: I lay
- “ich hänge: ich hing” – I hang: I hung
How to form the German Präteritum
Now let’s learn how to form the Präteritum.. To do that, we have to differentiate between weak verbs, strong verbs and mixed verbs. We’ll need to look at some special cases, too.
Weak verbs are verbs that are conjugated in a regular way. They are the regular verbs. To form the Präteritum for these regular verbs, you add the following endings to the stem to form the Präteritum:
er, sie, es: -te
Let’s look at some examples:
sagen – to say
lernen – to learn
machen – to make
Strong verbs are irregular verbs. They are called irregular because their stem-vowel changes in one or more tenses. In the Präteritum, they take the same endings as the modal verbs in the present tense. Mixed verbs have a stem-vowel change just like the strong, irregular verbs, but in the past tense use the same endings as the weak, regular verbs.
sehen – to see (strong verb)
ich sehe – sah (minus the e)
du siehst – sahst
er/sie/es sieht – sah (minus the t)
Sie sehen – sahen
wir sehen – sahen
ihr seht – saht
sie sehen – sahen
Sie sehen – sahen
denken – to think (mixed verb)
ich denke – dach-te
du denkst – dach-test
er/sie/es denkt – dach-te
Sie denken – dach-ten
wir denken – dach-ten
ihr denkt – dach-tet
sie denken – dach-ten
Sie denken – dach-ten
If the stem of the verb ends on -d or -t, we insert an extra -e before endings beginning with -t or -st:
landen – to land (weak verb)
finden– to find (strong verb)
If the stem of a strong verb ends on -s/ß/z, we need to take away the s of the ending or insert an extra -e in the forms that end with -st or -t:
lesen – to read (strong verb)
And then there is the irregular Präteritum of the frequently used verbs sein (to be) and haben (to have):
sein – to be
haben– to have
With so many rules and irregularities, the forms of the German Präteritum might be a lot to take in. It gets easier though if you memorize the Präteritum for German verbs in your vocabulary list. And when writing, you can always use a grammar checker to see if you got it right. Reading will expose you to a lot of Präteritum forms and can help even beginners boost their confidence using the German simple past.
Mastering the German Präteritum
The German Präteritum is mainly used in written language as in newspapers or books. Therefore, reading is a good way to practice the German simple past. The more you see the different forms of weak, strong and mixed verbs in the Präteritum, the easier it will get to form them yourself. Another way to master the Imperfekt is to memorize the right form while learning vocabulary.
Sandra lives in Istanbul, together with her kids, cat and dog. As a historian she thrives exploring this ancient city with her two- and four-legged loved ones. Together, they also love to go on adventures through all of Turkey and its neighboring countries. The perfect opportunity to put all the language learning into practice. If she’s not on the road, Sandra is busy putting her experiences into writing as a freelance copywriter for the travel industry and everything related to language, culture and family. Her particular interest lies in providing information on animal welfare with her website contentrundumstier.de.