German Simple Past Tense - Regular Verbs
Forming the simple past is not all that difficult and is similar to forming verbs in the present tense. For regular verbs (weak verbs), you use the stem of the verb and add a personal ending. Those personal endings are -(e)te, -(e)test, -(e)ten, and -(e)tet.
Past Tense 2: Imperfect (das Imperfekt/Präteritum)
The simple past/imperfect/preterite tense (das Präteritum/das Imperfekt) is the form of the past tense most often found in writing (i.e. narrative form; not to be confused with written dialogue, which maintains the present perfect tense). The spoken past tense in German (the present perfect or “das Perfekt”) typically only utilizes the simple past forms of the following verbs: sein, haben, wollen, sollen, dürfen, müssen, mögen, and können. However, the present perfect form of both ‘sein’ and ‘haben’ are also used in spoken German — for all intents and purposes, they are interchangeable in the spoken word.
Here are the conjugated forms of both verbs:
Present Perfect Simple Past
Ich bin sehr müde gewesen. OR Ich war sehr müde. = I was very tired.
Ich habe Kopfschmerzen gehabt. OR Ich hatte Kopfschmerzen. = I had a headache.
Notice that both the simple past and present perfect forms are identical in terms of meaning. The only difference between them is that one form (present perfect tense) is exclusively used in spoken German (or other communication construed as verbal such as email, texts, or dialogue), whereas the other (simple past/preterite) is valid for the spoken and written past forms.
The simple past is formed in one of 3 ways: for regular, mixed, and irregular verbs.
Regular verbs like ‘spielen,’ ‘arbeiten,’ and ‘tanzen’ drop the ‘en’ endings and add a ‘t’ + conjugated ending.
Note that verbs ending in ‘d’ or ‘t’ have to add an ‘e’ before the ‘t’ + ending (see ‘arbeiten’ above). Also, the first- and third-person singular (ich and er/sie/es forms) are identical in the preterite, just like with ‘haben’ and ‘sein’ (above). Other verbs that also add an “e” before the “t” are those that do so in the present tense, including atmen, begegnen, leugnen, widmen, and zeichnen (e.g. Er zeichnete/widmete/begegnete).
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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.