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German verbs

The simple past tense

Simple past tense forms | Simple past tense usage | All strong & irregular verbs | Summary of verb tenses
GRAMMAR INDEX

About the "simple" past tense

The present tense and the simple past tense are the only two verb tenses in German that are finite forms. While all of the other tenses are compound tenses that employ helping verbs to create their forms, the present and simple past tenses are created using a single word. This means that the form of the verb itself changes -- either in its stem or by adding prefixes and suffixes -- to provide all of the grammatical information necessary to understand its role in the sentence.

The simple past tense is also called the preterite or the imperfect tense (in German: Präteritum and Imperfekt). All of these terms refer to the same tense in German.



Simple past tense forms | Simple past tense usage | All strong & irregular verbs | Summary of verb tenses
GRAMMAR INDEX

Tense formation

All German verbs form their simple past tense in one of three ways, depending on whether the verb is a weak verb, strong verb, or mixed verb.


WEAK VERBS IN THE SIMPLE PAST TENSE

Verbs that belong to the German weak verb class all follow a basic, predictable pattern in the simple past tense. The simple past tense is formed using the present infinitive stem + the weak simple past morpheme -te + the personal endings.
Simple past stem (infinitive minus -(e)n + weak simple past suffix -te) + personal endings: -, -st, -, -en, -t, -en.

Another way to approach the simple past is: Simple past forms = Infinitive minus -en + simple past personal endings: -te, -test, -te, -ten, -tet, -ten.

EXAMPLES:
hören
ändern arbeiten mögen
 ich hörte  ich änderte  ich arbeitete  ich mochte
du hörtest du ändertest du arbeitetest du mochtest
er hörte sie änderte es arbeitete es mochte
wir hörten wir änderten wir arbeiteten wir mochten
ihr hörtet ihr ändertet ihr arbeitetet ihr mochtet
sie hörten Sie änderten sie arbeiteten Sie mochten


VARIATIONS:

• Verbs whose stems ends in -d, -t, or -m or -n following another consonant add an additional -e- before an -te, -test, or -tet ending:
  INFINITIVES: reden, arbeiten, zeichnen, atmen
  CONJUGATED: du redetest, du arbeitetest, er zeichnete, ihr atmetet.

• In the wir- and sie/Sie-forms, the -te suffix is conflated with the personal ending -en to -ten. The -e- is not written twice:
  INFINITIVES: fühlen, reisen, tanzen
  CONJUGATED: wir fühlten, Sie reisten, sie tanzten.
It is easy to overlook the simple past signifier -t- buried in the middle of these verbs sometimes. Be particularly aware of verb conjugations with the suffixes: -te, -test, -ten, -tet. These endings signify the simple past of a weak verb. However, it is also important to remember that these suffixes may also simply be present tense conjugations of verbs whose stems end in -t. Compare:

INFINITIVE STEM PRESENT TENSE SIMPLE PAST TENSE  
arbeiten
arbeit- ich arbeite
wir arbeiten
ich arbeitete
wir arbeiteten
 
falten falt- es faltet
du faltest
es faltete
du faltetest
 
warten wart- er wartet
sie warten
er wartete
sie warteten
 

You can confirm the tense of the verb by looking it up in a dictionary to see if the -t is part of the verb stem. If it is not, then you know that the -t is part of the verb conjugation.


STRONG VERBS IN THE SIMPLE PAST TENSE

Unlike the weak verbs, which use the same infinitive stem in the formation of the simple past tense, each of the strong verbs has a stem change that signifies the simple past tense. The simple past stems of strong verbs are unpredictable. They must be learned or looked up in a dictionary. For easy reference, we have compiled a comprehensive list of the strong and irregular verbs that exist in German. Personal endings are added to this simple past stem to form the simple past conjugations.
Simple past stem + personal endings: -, -st, -, -en, -t, -en.

EXAMPLES:
gehen to go
sprechen to speak fliegen to fly tragen to carry, wear
 ich ging  ich sprach  ich flog  ich trug
du gingst du sprachst du flogst du trugst
er ging sie sprach es flog es trug
wir gingen wir sprachen wir flogen wir trugen
ihr gingt ihr spracht ihr flogt ihr trugt
sie gingen Sie sprachen sie flogen Sie trugen


MIXED VERBS IN THE SIMPLE PAST TENSE

As the name implies, mixed verbs share characteristics of both strong verbs and weak verbs. Like weak verbs in the simple past tense, the mixed verbs use a -te suffix to indicate tense. Like strong verbs in the simple past tense, the mixed verbs also have a stem change. There are fewer than 20 such verbs in the German language.

Simple past stem + personal endings: -te, -test, -te, -ten, -tet, -ten.

EXAMPLES:
denken to think
bringen to bring brennen to burn wissen to know
 ich dachte  ich brachte  ich brannte  ich wusste
du dachtest du brachtest du branntest du wusstest
er dachte sie brachte es brannte es wusste
wir dachten wir brachten wir brannten wir wussten
ihr dachtet ihr brachtet ihr branntet ihr wusstet
sie dachten Sie brachten sie brannten Sie wussten
The modal verbs are a subset of the mixed verbs. The simple past tense of modal verbs is discussed in detail in the section on modal verbs.

See also: Comprehensive list of strong & irregular verbs.


Simple past tense forms | Simple past tense usage | All strong & irregular verbs | Summary of verb tenses
GRAMMAR INDEX

Usage of the simple past

HOW TO USE THE SIMPLE PAST TENSE

As a finite form, the simple past tense occurs in the 2nd position (or the 1st position in yes-no questions) and is conjugated to agree with the subject of the sentence. Any additional verbal components, such as separable prefixes and complementary infinitives (with modal verbs), appear at the end of the sentence.
EXAMPLES of SIMPLE PAST TENSE
Wir gingen auf die Straße. We went out on the streets.
Sie sagte nichts. She said nothing.
Mein Bruder schlief bis elf Uhr. My brother slept until 11 o'clock.
EXAMPLES of SEPARABLE PREFIX VERBS in the SIMPLE PAST TENSE  
Sie kam zu spät an. She arrived too late.
Ich machte die Tür auf. I opened the door.
Er brachte seine Tochter mit. He brought his daugher along.
EXAMPLES of MODAL VERBS in the SIMPLE PAST TENSE  
Wir wollten sie verkaufen. We wanted to sell them.
Es musste sofort gegessen werden. It had to be eaten immediately.
Durftet ihr zusammen gesehen werden? Were you allowed to be seen together?

WHEN TO USE THE SIMPLE PAST TENSE

SIMPLE PAST vs. PRESENT PERFECT
The German simple past tense is roughly equivalent in meaning to the German present perfect tense. Both are used to refer to action or events that has occurred in the past.
SIMPLE PAST TENSE PRESENT PERFECT TENSE ENGLISH MEANING
Es regnete. Es hat geregnet. It rained. / It was raining.
Ich war müde. Ich bin müde gewesen. I was tired.
Konntest du nicht schlafen? Hast du nicht schlafen können? Couldn't you sleep?
The difference between the two is primarily in their usage. The present perfect tense is used mostly in conversational contexts in German and the simple past tense is used mostly in written German and usually to narrate past events.

2ND PERSON FORMS ARE UNCOMMON
Because the simple past is primarily a written form, the 2nd person forms (du, ihr, Sie) are very uncommon and usually sound strange to the ear of a native speaker. There are very few thinkable situtations where it would not be odd to be narrating directly to a person what he or she did at some past time. Phrases such as du trankst and ihr sangt sound very odd and would rarely, if ever, be used by a native speaker. This means that the ich-, wir, er/sie/es, and sie(plural)-forms are really the only commonly used forms of the simple past tense.

EXCEPTIONS
There is a group of verbs, however, that represent an exception to this guideline. The simple past tense of the 6 modal verbs, sein, haben, werden, and sometimes wissen are preferred over the perfect tense forms, even in spoken German. For this reason, their forms will commonly be used in the 2nd person and they are used with equal frequency in written and conversational German.Notice how speech can alternate between the perfect tense and the simple past of these common verbs.
Ich bin heute aufgestanden und war so müde. Ich hatte auch großen Hunger, aber wollte nicht in die Bäckerei. Ich habe also gleich zwei alte Brötchen gegessen und bin zurück ins Bett gegangen.
A few other common verbs may be occasionally heard in the simple past in spoken German (sagte, ging, gab, stand, blieb, kam), but it is equally usual to hear them in the present perfect tense.


Simple past tense forms | Simple past tense usage | All strong & irregular verbs | Summary of verb tenses
GRAMMAR INDEX


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