Das Präteritum (German Simple Past)

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What is the German Simple Past Tense (Präteritum)?

In German, there are two different tenses we can use to talk about he past: the Simple Past Tense (Präteritum) and the Perfect Tense (Perfekt)

They both mean the same thing (something happened in the past), but we use them in different circumstances (in general: the simple past when writing, the perfect when speaking).

Examples of the German Simple Past Tense:

  •  „Das Wetter war schlecht.“
  •  „Er machte Urlaub.“
  •  „Wir hatten Glück.“

How to Construct the Simple Past Tense (Präteritum)?

Conjugation - Regular Verbs

Regular verbs are conjugated by removing the "-en" ending and replacing it with another ending (based on the subject of the sentence):

German Simple Past Conjugations - Präteritum

Special Features:

If the verb stem ends in „-d“ or „-t“ add an „e“ before the ending.

Example with „arbeiten“:  

  • „ich arbeitete“,
  • „du arbeitetest“,
  • „er arbeitete“, …

Conjugation - Strong (Irregular) Verbs

Verbs that have a vowel change are called strong verbs. These are normally the same verbs that are irregular in the present tense, but not always!

In plural, they often use the German Simple Present (Präsens) endings.
In the first and third person singular, they often have no ending (the first and third person singular are always identical to each other, for both regular and irregular verbs).

Examples for irregular verbs:

Starke Verben Präteritum - German Simple Present Tense

Bad News for German Learners

About 50% of all verbs are irregular in the simple past!

Even some Germans don‘t know the conjugations of all verbs in the simple past.

When possible, they try to avoid using them. And you should to!

Deutsch Präteritum

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When to use the German Simple Past Tense (Präteritum)?

For completed actions in the past:

  • „Er war letztes Jahr in Deutschland.“
  • „Ich ging gestern ins Theater

For facts and conditions about the past.

  •   „Das Wetter war gut.“
  •   „Deutschland wurde 1990 Fußballweltmeister.“

But aren't those the same times we use the Perfect Tense?!?!? Yep! The simple past and the perfect have the same meaning. The difference is that we use the simple past when writing (especially formal writing) and the perfect when speaking.

Exception: Modal Verbs, Sein and haben almost always use the simple past (even when speaking).

Perfect Tense (Perfekt) or Simple Past Tense (Präteritum)?

Perfekt oder Präteritum? - German simple past or perfect?

Rule of thumb: when speaking, if you aren't sure, use the German Perfect Tense.

Related Topic:

Entire lesson in German only: Präteritum

More lessons about Tenses:

What is the general German word order? - Satzbau (Sentence Structure).

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