When learning German, there’s always a point where you step away from the comfort of using verbs in the present and start using other tenses.
The German past tense can be especially tricky, so to make the transition a little easier, I’ve put together this guide.
All you really need to follow along is a basic idea on how verbs act in German (and some of their weird quirks), so even beginners should be able to follow along.
Let’s get started.
How the past works in German
In German, the past, the way of talking about things that have happened, is done in two ways, by either using the simple past or, more commonly, by using the present perfect.
I realize that may seem like a typo, but, yes, German uses a present tense to talk about the past!
It’s a bit weird, but once you get your head around it, it’s not too bad.
Dutch does the same, too, another thing the two languages share.
Besides figuring out which tense to use when, you also need to learn which form verbs can take.
In the simple past especially verbs can change a lot, but thankfully the present perfect keeps things a bit more straightforward.
Let’s take a closer look at what we use when.
Simple past vs present perfect
The first thing to know about these two different ways of talking about the past is their appearance.
The simple past is just made up of one word, while the present perfect will be made up of two.
Let’s see what that looks like:
Ich sah einen Vogel
I saw a bird
In the simple past, the verb sehen gets a new form — we’ll talk a little more about that in the next section — but it remains one word.
However, in the present perfect it changes form and gets an auxiliary, or “helper” verb.
Ich habe einen Vogel gesehen
I have seen a bird
There’s a lot going on in this sentence, but again we’ll get to that further down, in its own section.
What’s important right now is that the past perfect isn’t used in conversation very much, it’s considered to be more literary.
With the exception of a few particular examples, in spoken, conversational German you’ll more often use the present perfect to describe something that has happened.
So, to use our examples, you’re much more likely to hear ich habe einen Vogel gesehen and to read ich sah einen Vogel.
This will likely take you some time to get used to, but there’s good news: the present perfect is a lot easier to memorize because it barely changes.
The simple past is pretty tricky, as you’ll see now.
Simple past (Präteritum)
The German term for the simple past is Präterium, but to keep things as simple as I can I’ll just refer to it as I have.
It’s used the same way in German and English, so you can directly translate a short sentence like the one below.
I had a friend
Ich hatte einen Freund
However, that’s the easy stuff, the hard part is that the German simple past has both regular and irregular verbs, and the irregular ones make some crazy changes.
To make the simple past with regular verbs, you take the present simple and add -te to the word, between the root and the suffix.
This is very nice about it, though: the suffix stays the same.
It’s not like in Greek, where each tense gets its own suffixes for each person.
Let’s compare them.
Erich spielt Fussball
Eric plays football
In this example, Eric regularly plays football, say every week.
However, let’s pretend that at some point he lost interest in the sport.
In that case, you’d say:
Erich spieltet Fussball
Eric played football
The final “t” stayed, the root didn’t change, all we did was add -te between them.
It really is that simple, and it works for all regular verbs and all persons, with one exception.
Verbs that have a root ending with “d’ or “t” get -ete, so the present looks like this:
Er arbeitet jeden Tag
He works every day
While the simple past looks like this:
Er arbeitete jeden Tag
He worked every day
I know that stuttering with all those similar sounds seems kind of weird, and honestly I think that may be one of the reasons why the simple past has fallen out of favor.
Other than that, though, that’s pretty much how regular verbs work.
Now let’s take a look at irregular ones.
Irregular verbs are a different kettle of fish altogether.
Let’s take a closer look at an example I used earlier, let’s start with the present:
Ich sehe einen Vogel
I see a bird
Though using the present tense like this feels a bit weird in English, this is a fairly normal way to speak in German.
In the simple past it looks like this:
Ich sah einen Vogel
I saw a bird
Like in English, in the simple past certain verbs can change inside the word, changing the root.
In this case, you do not add the -te anywhere, but the suffix denoting person stays the same.
Sahst du einen Vogel?
Did you see a bird?
Now, I’d like to say that there are rules governing how the roots of irregular verbs change, but just like in English there isn’t anything solid to go on.
Just like with German noun plurals, you’re going to have to learn them when you learn the verb.
It sucks, too, because as with any language, irregular verbs are the ones that are used the most, so there’s no way to cheat the system.
You’ll just have to do some unpleasant rote learning for these.
To round it off, let’s look at the handful of so-called mixed verbs, ones that have characteristics belonging to both regular and irregular verbs.
The main ones are _sein _(“to be”) and haben (“to have”).
You need to learn these two off by heart because, unlike other verbs, you’ll still come across the past simple of these even in spoken German.
Haben and sein in the past simple
Another example are modal verbs, which are just like the other two in that they’re often used as auxiliaries.
German modal verbs in the simple past
With this knowledge under our belts, let’s go to our next section.
Now that we have a good idea of the more complicated form of the past in German, let’s take a look at the more frequently used one.
The present perfect is formed by getting a participle of a verb (the ge- form) and adding an auxiliary verb to it, usually sein or haben.
Wherever in English you’d use a simple past or even a past perfect, you slot in a present perfect, instead.
I flew to New York
Ich bin nach New York geflogen
If you look closely at how that sentence is formed, you’ll see that the auxiliary verb (bin in this case) has taken the place where the main verb would go.
It also is the part of the verb that changes with the subject of the sentence:
Du bist nach New York geflogen
You flew to New York
By changing the subject of the sentence, only the auxiliary changed, not the participle!
Another important thing to note is that the main verb, in its participle form, moved all the way to the back of the sentence.
The object of the sentence is thus sandwiched between the two verbs (called the predicate).
This kind of structure may take you some time to get used to, but eventually it will start to feel more natural, it’s just like German noun cases.
Note that in compound sentences you only need to use the auxiliary once.
Ich habe Hans gesehen und (habe) mit ihm Kaffee getrunken
I saw Hans and drank coffee with him
In this sentence the second habe isn’t necessary, you can use it or not, it doesn’t matter too much, especially in spoken German.
Forming the participle
Of course, you still need to have an idea on how to form the participle.
Like with the simple past, it matters whether verbs are regular or irregular, just not to the same degree.
Regular verbs form the participle with ge-root-t, so the participle of lernen is gelernt.
Irregular verbs do it almost the same way, except the ending changes, so it’s ge-root-en.
So sehen becomes gesehen.
These rules count for most verbs, most of the time.
Exceptions are verbs with a preposition baked in, as well as longer compound verbs.
However, I’ll leave those for another time.
That’s pretty much all you need to know to start forming the past in German.
While the simple past can be tricky, you don’t need to fret it too much; the priority should definitely be on the present perfect if you’re a beginner.
I hope this guide gets you on your way (also check out my guide on the German future tense).
Grab the link to this article
How do you conjugate simple past tense? ›
If a verb ends in -e, you add -d. If a verb ends in a vowel and a consonant, the consonant is usually doubled before -ed. If a verb ends in consonant and -y, you take off the y and add -ied. But if the word ends in a vowel and -y, you add -ed.What is the simple past tense in German? ›
Past Tense in German
There is the simple past tense called "Präteritum" (sometimes called the "Imperfect tense"), the present perfect, which is "Perfekt," and the past perfect, which they call "Plusquamperfekt" in German. Just like in English, German speakers frequently use the “Perfekt” form to describe past actions.
The conjugation of verbs in the simple past is the same for all forms. We add -ed to the regular verbs, but the irregular verbs have to be learned by heart. In negative sentences and questions, we use the auxiliary verb did or did not together with the main verb in the infinitive.Is German conjugation easy? ›
German Verb Conjugation Isn't As Hard As It May Seem
Most German verbs follow regular rules with simple endings that can be learned quickly. Daily practice and repetition will help you learn these concepts faster. You should start by learning regular verbs in the present tense.
- Lisa went to the supermarket yesterday.
- Sam cooked a tasty dinner yesterday.
- My brother saw a movie yesterday.
- Last year, I travelled to France.
- I washed the dishes.
- My mother bought a dress for me.
The easiest way to teach past tense verbs is to have a collection of pictures that include before and after pictures of the same scene. These will give you a prompt for asking the question “what happened”.How do you conjugate past in German? ›
- ich poste (1st PersonSingular)
- du postest (2nd PersonSingular)
- er postet (3rd PersonSingular)
- wir posten (1st PersonPlural)
- ihr postet (2nd PersonPlural)
- sie posten (3rd PersonPlural)
Speaking of verbs, you've probably noticed that German has 2 past tenses: the simple past (Imperfekt) and the present perfect (Perfekt).How do you write a simple past tense sentence? ›
Typically, you would form the past tense as follows: Take the root form of the verb (the one you will find in our amazing dictionary) and add –ed to the end. If the verb ends in -e, you would just add a -d. For example, the simple past tense of look is looked, and the simple past tense of ignite is ignited.What are 5 past tense verbs? ›
|Present Tense||+ -d or -ed||Past Tense|
What is the formula of past tense? ›
Past Tense- Structure
Subject + past form of the verb(verb 2) + rest of the sentence. Subject + had + past participle (third form of the verb) + rest of the sentence.
To form the simple past tense, you have to use the past tense form of the verb. Just add an '-ed' to the base form of the verb. For example: walk → walk ed.Is German or Spanish harder? ›
Overall, Spanish might be easier than German at the beginning stages, but the two tend to even out in difficulty once learners get to the more advanced stages. German has more complicated grammar rules that need to be mastered early on, but once learners get familiar with them, they find that they're pretty consistent.Is German the easiest language? ›
Getting Great at German
German might not be as familiar to English speakers as Spanish, but it's still one of the easiest languages to learn. Like Spanish, it's also a phonetic language, which makes pronunciation easy to figure out.
Because there are few pronunciation rules
Unlike English, for instance, where every word is pronounced in its own way or French, where to rules are so severe and dictations are done even in the most progressed course levels.
- Simple Past Tense.
- Past Continuous Tense.
- Past Perfect Tense.
- Past Perfect Continuous Tense.
- Past simple.
- Past continuous.
- Past perfect.
I sometimes walked home at lunchtime. I often brought my lunch to school. We saw a good film last week. Yesterday, I arrived in Geneva.What is the easiest way to teach tenses? ›
- Use the tense grid. Introducing tenses to students can be tough. ...
- Teach a single time frame at a time. It is essential to slow down during transitions. ...
- Practice a time frame before moving on to the next. ...
- Distinguish between the simple, continuous, and perfect. ...
- Take time with the tricky tenses. ...
He/She/It practiced. I practiced. You/We/They practiced. He/She/It was practicing.
What is perfect past tense in German? ›
The Past Perfect Tense (das Plusquamperfekt) in German:
It is constructed just like the present perfect tense, except that the auxiliary "haben" or "sein" is in its simple past form: "hatte" or "war."
- Start with the verb's infinitive. This is the form listed in the dictionary. ...
- Drop the ending from the infinitive to find the stem. ...
- Add the verb ending for the appropriate subject and tense.
The Present Tense.
German word order in the past tense
The only difference here with the past tense sentences is that the second verb at the end of the sentence is in the past participle form rather than the normal infinitive form. Example sentences: I have bought a house. ⇨ Ich (S) habe (V1) ein Haus gekauft (V2).
ich blieb (I stayed) du bliebst (You stayed) er/sie/ese blieb (He/she/it stayed) wir blieben (We stayed)What are 2 past tense verbs? ›
Generally, the way to form the simple past tense is to add 'ed' to the end of the verb. It is important to note that there are many exceptions to this rule, as a lot of verbs have irregular past forms.Can you give me a list of past tense verbs? ›
|Verb||Past Simple||Past Participle|
Add "-ed" to a verb to change it to the past tense. *For example: laugh + ed = laughed. When the verb ends in "e", add only "d." *For example: like + d = liked. When the verb ends in consonant + "y," change the "y" to "i" and add "-ed".What is the past tense of fly? ›
In the past simple tense, fly becomes flew.
What is past tense uses and examples? ›
The past tense is a verb tense used for a past activity or a past state of being. For example: I jumped in the lake. (This is a past activity.)How do you conjugate past tense in Spanish? ›
The preterite is used to describe actions which have been completed.
|Person||Verbs ending in -ar||Verbs ending in -er and -ir|
|él, ella, usted||-ó||-ió|
The conjugation of English verbs in the simple present is relatively simple. We add an -s/-es to verbs in the third person singular (he/she/it), otherwise the verb does not change. In positive sentences, we use the verb in its present form. In negative sentences and questions, we use the auxiliary verb do.How do you conjugate tenses? ›
English Verb Conjugation Examples
To form the different tenses, you add -ed, -d, or -ied to for the past tense and past participle forms. Examples include jumped, smiled, and cried. Typically, verb endings will be predictable based on their infinitive form.
Add "-ed" to a verb to change it to the past tense. *For example: laugh + ed = laughed. When the verb ends in "e", add only "d." *For example: like + d = liked. When the verb ends in consonant + "y," change the "y" to "i" and add "-ed".What are the 3 forms for conjugate the to be verb in past? ›
To Be: Past Simple
You were. You were. He/She/It was.
The past tense in English is used: to talk about the past. to talk about hypotheses (when we imagine something)What is past tense explained? ›
The simple past tense shows that you are talking about something that has already happened. Unlike the past continuous tense, which is used to talk about past events that happened over a period of time, the simple past tense emphasizes that the action is finished.What are the 3 steps to conjugate a verb? ›
To conjugate a regular verb in the present tense, all you have to do is know your subject, remove the ending from the verb, and add the ending for the corresponding subject.What are the 5 steps to conjugate a verb? ›
- write out pronoun chart.
- write and define infinitive.
- find stem of verb and drop the ending.
- put stem of verb beside each pronoun.
- add appropriate verb endings.
What are the 6 conjugations? ›
To be verb conjugation
In English, we have six different persons: first person singular (I), second person singular (you), third person singular (he/she/it/one), first person plural (we), second person plural (you), and third person plural (they).
- Create Lots of Conjugation Charts. ...
- Write Short Paragraphs with All the Conjugation Forms. ...
- Record Yourself Conjugating Verbs. ...
- Write Your Own Conjugation Song. ...
- Sing Someone Else's Conjugation Song. ...
- Practice Conjugation with a Fluent Spanish Speaker. ...
- Read Plenty of Spanish Books.
- Present. I. teach. you. teach. ...
- Present continuous. I. am teaching. you. ...
- Simple past. I. taught. you. ...
- Past continuous. I. was teaching. you. ...
- Present perfect. I. have taught. you. ...
- Present perfect continuous. I. have been teaching. you. ...
- Past perfect. I. had taught. you. ...
- Past perfect continuous. I. had been teaching. you.