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.
Ich habe gestern meinen Deutschkurs besucht.
Letzten Monat habe ich meine neue Stelle begonnen.
Ich studierte in Aachen, London und Oxford.
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 we address someone formally, we normally 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 keep their stem, as they always do, and add a +te as a sign of this tense.
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.
Er arbeitete früher in Köln.
When you pronounce the latter, you understand why this tense is used mostly in writing.
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 meiner Mutter einen langen Brief.
ie - o
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.