The Präteritum or Imperfect Tense in German

Unlike the Perfekt tense in German, which is mostly used in spoken German and for recent events, the Präteritum (in English "the simple past") is predominantly a written tense denoting events that date further back in the past. In this post, I will explain how to form and use the latter.



Before we look at how the Präteritum tense is formed, let's look at some examples that illustrate when we would use the Perfekt tense and when the Präteritum.


e.g. Perfekt


Ich habe gestern meinen Deutschkurs besucht.

Letzten Monat habe ich meine neue Stelle begonnen.

Ich studierte in Aachen, London und Oxford.


Präteritum


Mozart besuchte keine Schule. Sein Vater unterrichtete ihn.

Mozart zog 1781 nach Wien um.

Big Ben wurde 1859 fertig gestellt (this the passive voice in German)


As a rule of thumb, use the Perfekt tense in conversations and in writing if the events you're discussing happened minutes, hours, days, weeks or months go, and you're addressing someone informally, such as in an email. For anything dating further back in the past and when you address someone formally, use the Präteritum tense, including years, decades, and centuries etc. Unfortunately, German native speakers are not always careful in drawing theses distinctions. Indeed, they sometimes even mix the two tenses indiscriminately.


Let's now look at how the Präteritum tense is formed, distinguishing between regular and irregular verbs.


Regular verbs


Regular verbs keep their stem, as they always do, and add a +te as a sign of this tense.


e.g. spielen

ich spielte

du spieltest

er/sie/es spielte

wir spielten

ihr spieltet

sie/Sie spielten


Ich spielte Tennis, als ich jünger war.


NB. if the stem of the verb already ends on d or t, we add an "e" before the ending.


e.g. arbeiten

ich arbeitete

du arbeitetest

er/sie/es arbeitete

wir arbeiteten

ihr arbeitetet

sie/Sie arbeiteten


Er arbeitete früher in Köln.


When you pronounce the latter, you understand why this tense is used mostly in writing.


Irregular verbs


One reason why this tense is difficult for students is because there are many irregular verbs and they lose the +te. However, the two patterns that we already discussed with regard to the Perfekt tense also apply here.


ei - ie

schreiben becomes schrieb

bleiben becomes blieb


ich schrieb

du schriebst

er/sie/es schrieb

wir schrieben

ihr schriebt

sie/Sie schrieben.


Ich schrieb meiner Mutter einen langen Brief.


ie - o

fliegen- flog

anziehen- zog an


Wir zogen uns an, weil wir zur Schule gehen mussten.


Other examples of common verbs in their Präteritum form:


fahren - fuhr

beginnen - begann

gehen - ging

verlieren - verlor

einladen - lud ein

umziehen - zog um

trinken - trank

bekommen - bekam

geben - gab

anrufen - rief an

kommen - kam

ankommen - kam an


NB. As you know from our post on separable verbs in German, they do split here as they are the only verb in a main clause.


Sie kam immer zu spät zum Unterricht an.

Er fuhr als Kind mit dem Bus zur Schule.

Wir luden unsere Freunde zum Essen ein.


How do you figure out if a verb is regular or irregular?


There is no strictly logical rule, but there are two rules of thumb. One is to check the conjugation of the verb in the present tense. If there is a stem change in the singular, it is not only an irregular verb in the present tense but often also irregular in the past.


e.g. “fahren” conjugates er/sie/es fährt in the third person singular and is therefore irregular. And so is the past: gefahren is the past participle (in the Perfekt tense)- fuhr its Präteritum form.


However, there are exceptions, such as the verb “gehen”, which is regular in the present tense but irregular in the past. So my second rule of thumb is to consider the English language. If there is a stem change in English from present to past, it is a strong indication that the verb may be irregular in German as well.


e.g. to go in the present becomes went in the past, so gehen becomes gegangen in the Perfekt and ging in the Präteritum.


Again, there are exceptions, such as


buy- bought - kaufen- gekauft- kaufte

So when both rules of thumb let you down, you have to memorise whether or not the verb is irregular.


On our German Language Blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!", you will find posts on many topics in German grammar that will help you to progress more quickly in German- from adjective endings in German, the four German cases, pronouns, prepositions, the Plusquamperfekt tense in German to German syntax. We also teach you helpful German words and phrases for your next trip to Germany, list the ten most useful German verbs to get your German off the ground, give you tips on how to avoid the 5 most common grammatical mistakes in German, tell you how to translate English word busy into German, review of the language apps Duolingo, Memrise, Babbel, and Busuu, explain the difference between language levels A1, A2, B1, B2 etc., list the best online resources to learn German, give you an estimate of how long it takes to learn German, and we compare the most popular online dictionaries Linguee, dict.cc, dict.leo and Collins. So check out our blog and let us know what you think.


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