The German Simple Past Tense, Explained Simply (2023)

The German Simple Past Tense, Explained Simply (1)

By sarah Last updated:

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 andhow 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
    • Weak Verbs Conjugated in the Simple Past
    • Strong Verbs Conjugated in the Simple Past
    • Mixed Verbs Conjugated in the Simple Past
  • Tips and Tricks for Practicing the Simple Past

Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

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 asPräteritum. 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 imperfektrefers 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.

(Video) These Verbs Always Use The Simple Past | Super Easy German 191

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 hatteto 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 (thestrong 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)

(Video) The Past Tense in German

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, -tor nothing at all.

Consider the example finden(to find). If this were a weak verb, we could just say ich findtebut 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 ichfand(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)

(Video) Learn German | Perfekt | Past tense | Part 1 | German for beginners | A1 - Lesson 44

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 ofstrong and irregular German verbsor read about conjugating German verbsin 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 -enending, but the “b” in habenalso 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.

(Video) Simple Past (Preterite) w/ Regular Verbs - German 2 WS Explanation - Deutsch lernen

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) andwissen(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 greatsmartphone appsthat work as well as flashcards. If you prefer to make your own flashcards, start with a resource like averb 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.

Practicewriting 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 manybooks in Germanas 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 someaudiobooks in Germanthat 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.

(Video) German Tenses | The German Present Tense Explained | A1 Beginner

Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)


What is German simple past tense? ›

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.

What is the simple past tense of answers? ›

answered - Simple English Wiktionary.

What does it mean by simple past tense explain it briefly? ›

The simple past is a verb tense that is used to talk about things that happened or existed before now.

Could you explain about the simple past tense give the examples? ›

An example of a simple past tense verb used in a sentence would be: "I went to the park." The speaker completed their action of going to the park, so you use the verb "go" in the simple past tense.

What is simple past tense structure? ›

The basic formula of the simple past tense is as follows: Subject + verb in the past tense (verb + 'ed/d' for regular verbs)

What is the format of simple past tense? ›

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 10 examples of simple past tense? ›

Simple Past Tense Examples to Show Complete Actions
  • 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.

What is the simple tenses of answer? ›

Answer and Explanation: Answered is the simple past tense of the verb answer.

What are simple past tense questions? ›

We can use past simple questions to ask about the past.
  • Did you have fun with your friends yesterday?
  • Where did she go for her last holiday?
  • What did they watch on TV last night?

What are the 3 uses of simple past tense? ›

Use of the Simple Past
  • actions finished in the past (single or repeated) I visited Berlin last week. ...
  • series of completed actions in the past. First I got up, then I had breakfast. ...
  • together with the Past Progressive/Continuous – the Simple Past interrupted an action which was in progress in the past.

What are 5 examples of simple past tense? ›

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.
  • John Cabot sailed to America in 1498.
  • My father died last year.
  • He lived in Fiji in 1976.
  • We crossed the Channel yesterday.

What is the main function of simple past tense? ›

The Past Simple Tense is used to refer to actions that were completed in a time period before the present time. In the Simple Past the process of performing the action is not important. What matters is that the action was completed in the past. The action may have been in the recent past or a long time ago.

What are the two types of simple past tense? ›

Forming the Past Tense

There are two types of past simple verbs: regular and irregular.

What are the 4 types of past tense? ›

What are the different types of past tense?
  • Simple Past Tense.
  • Past Continuous Tense.
  • Past Perfect Tense.
  • Past Perfect Continuous Tense.

What is the rule of simple tense? ›

We use the simple present tense when an action is happening right now, or when it happens regularly (or unceasingly, which is why it's sometimes called present indefinite). Depending on the person, the simple present tense is formed by using the root form or by adding s or es to the end. I feel great!

What are the 3 types of simple tenses? ›

Verbs have three simple tenses: the present, the past, and the future. The present tense shows an action or condition that occurs now. The past tense shows an action or condition that was completed in the past. The future tense shows an action or condition that will occur in the future.

What is simple tenses with examples? ›

Simple Tense Examples – Past

Actions that are finished are written using the simple past tense form of the verb. Rajesh drank black coffee. My grandmother woke up at six o'clock today. We ate our breakfast at 9 a.m.

How can I teach simple past questions? ›

Have pairs of students ask each other questions and give answers about a day in the past. For example, one student might ask, “Did you spill your coffee yesterday?” The other would answer, “No, I didn't spill my coffee yesterday.” This is a great way to practice questions and negative use of the simple past.

What are the two past tenses in German? ›

Speaking of verbs, you've probably noticed that German has 2 past tenses: the simple past (Imperfekt) and the present perfect (Perfekt).

What is the difference between Präteritum and Perfekt? ›

In modern German, the Perfekt tense is used when speaking about past events, whereas the Präteritum tense is used when writing about past events.

What is the simple present tense in German? ›

The present tense also called the simple present (Präsens) is used to talk about the present and future in German. We can translate it into one of three English tenses: the simple present, present progressive and future with will or going to. It is the most commonly used tense in the German language.

What is the difference between Imperfekt and Perfekt in German? ›

The imperfekt is the simple past tense: saw, was, made = sah, war, machte. The perfekt is the tense known as the present perfect in English: has seen, has been, has made= hat gesehen, ist gewesen, hat gemacht. Spoken German tends to use the perfect to express the past, while written German tends to use the imperfekt.

What is the past tense word order in German? ›

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).

What is the overview of German tenses? ›

There are 6 basic tenses in German. The two 'simple' tenses are present and simple past. They use just one, conjugated verb. The four 'compound' tenses are present perfect, past perfect, future, and future perfect.

How do you say stayed in German past tense? ›

ich blieb (I stayed) du bliebst (You stayed) er/sie/ese blieb (He/she/it stayed) wir blieben (We stayed)

What are the only two tenses of Germanic language? ›

There are 6 basic tenses in German. The two 'simple' tenses are present and simple past. They use just one, conjugated verb. The four 'compound' tenses are present perfect, past perfect, future, and future perfect.

How many German tenses are there? ›

In total, the German language has six different tenses, which are used to describe events and actions from the past, present and future. In other words, the tense you choose will depend on when the event or action you are describing is actually taking place.

What are 5 examples of simple present tense? ›

  • He goes to school every morning.
  • She understands English.
  • It mixes the sand and the water.
  • He tries very hard.
  • She enjoys playing the piano.

What is simple present tense answers? ›

Simple Present Tense is a type of sentence that has a function to express an activity or fact that occurs in the present, and structurally or its arrangement, simple present tense uses only one verb. Present Tense is one of the forms of verb tenses. It simply describes the actions, truths(facts), future and situations.

How do you form all tenses in German? ›

German verb tenses
  1. Future tense [Futur I] = werden + infinitive of main verb.
  2. Present perfect tense [Perfekt] = present tense of haben or sein + past participle of main verb.
  3. Past perfect tense [Plusquamperfekt] = simple past tense of haben or sein + past participle of main verb.
Dec 28, 2009


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