The simple past tenseSimple past tense forms | Simple past tense usage | All strong & irregular verbs | Summary of verb tenses
About the "simple" past tenseThe 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.
Tense formationAll 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.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:
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.
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.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.
Usage of the simple pastHOW 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
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.
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.
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.
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