German Past Tense: How To Conjugate It (Easy Guide)
- Written byFergus O'Sullivan
- Read time8 mins
When learning German, there’s always a point where you step away from the comfort of using verbs in the present and start using other tenses.
The German past tense can be especially tricky, so to make the transition a little easier, I’ve put together this guide.
All you really need to follow along is a basic idea on how verbs act in German (and some of their weird quirks), so even beginners should be able to follow along.
Let’s get started.
How the past works in German
In German, the past, the way of talking about things that have happened, is done in two ways, by either using the simple past or, more commonly, by using the present perfect.
I realize that may seem like a typo, but, yes, German uses a present tense to talk about the past!
It’s a bit weird, but once you get your head around it, it’s not too bad.
Dutch does the same, too, another thing the two languages share.
Besides figuring out which tense to use when, you also need to learn which form verbs can take.
In the simple past especially verbs can change a lot, but thankfully the present perfect keeps things a bit more straightforward.
Let’s take a closer look at what we use when.
Simple past vs present perfect
The first thing to know about these two different ways of talking about the past is their appearance.
The simple past is just made up of one word, while the present perfect will be made up of two.
Let’s see what that looks like:
Ich sah einen Vogel
In the simple past, the verb sehen gets a new form — we’ll talk a little more about that in the next section — but it remains one word.
However, in the present perfect it changes form and gets an auxiliary, or “helper” verb.
Ich habe einen Vogel gesehen
There’s a lot going on in this sentence, but again we’ll get to that further down, in its own section.
What’s important right now is that the past perfect isn’t used in conversation very much, it’s considered to be more literary.
With the exception of a few particular examples, in spoken, conversational German you’ll more often use the present perfect to describe something that has happened.
So, to use our examples, you’re much more likely to hear ich habe einen Vogel gesehen and to read ich sah einen Vogel.
This will likely take you some time to get used to, but there’s good news: the present perfect is a lot easier to memorize because it barely changes.
The simple past is pretty tricky, as you’ll see now.
Simple past (Präteritum)
The German term for the simple past is Präterium, but to keep things as simple as I can I’ll just refer to it as I have.
It’s used the same way in German and English, so you can directly translate a short sentence like the one below.
I had a friend
However, that’s the easy stuff, the hard part is that the German simple past has both regular and irregular verbs, and the irregular ones make some crazy changes.
To make the simple past with regular verbs, you take the present simple and add -te to the word, between the root and the suffix.
This is very nice about it, though: the suffix stays the same.
It’s not like in Greek, where each tense gets its own suffixes for each person.
Let’s compare them.
Erich spielt Fussball
In this example, Eric regularly plays football, say every week.
However, let’s pretend that at some point he lost interest in the sport.
In that case, you’d say:
Erich spielte Fussball
The final “t” stayed, the root didn’t change, all we did was add -te between them.
It really is that simple, and it works for all regular verbs and all persons, with one exception.
Verbs that have a root ending with “d’ or “t” get -ete, so the present looks like this:
Er arbeitet jeden Tag
While the simple past looks like this:
Er arbeitete jeden Tag
I know that stuttering with all those similar sounds seems kind of weird, and honestly I think that may be one of the reasons why the simple past has fallen out of favor.
Other than that, though, that’s pretty much how regular verbs work.
Now let’s take a look at irregular ones.
Irregular verbs are a different kettle of fish altogether.
Let’s take a closer look at an example I used earlier, let’s start with the present:
Ich sehe einen Vogel
Though using the present tense like this feels a bit weird in English, this is a fairly normal way to speak in German.
In the simple past it looks like this:
Ich sah einen Vogel
Like in English, in the simple past certain verbs can change inside the word, changing the root.
In this case, you do not add the -te anywhere, but the suffix denoting person stays the same.
Sahst du einen Vogel?
Now, I’d like to say that there are rules governing how the roots of irregular verbs change, but just like in English there isn’t anything solid to go on.
Just like with German noun plurals, you’re going to have to learn them when you learn the verb.
It sucks, too, because as with any language, irregular verbs are the ones that are used the most, so there’s no way to cheat the system.
You’ll just have to do some unpleasant rote learning for these.
To round it off, let’s look at the handful of so-called mixed verbs, ones that have characteristics belonging to both regular and irregular verbs.
The main ones are _sein _(“to be”) and haben (“to have”).
You need to learn these two off by heart because, unlike other verbs, you’ll still come across the past simple of these even in spoken German.
Haben and sein in the past simple
Another example are modal verbs, which are just like the other two in that they’re often used as auxiliaries.
German modal verbs in the simple past
With this knowledge under our belts, let’s go to our next section.
Now that we have a good idea of the more complicated form of the past in German, let’s take a look at the more frequently used one.
The present perfect is formed by getting a participle of a verb (the ge- form) and adding an auxiliary verb to it, usually sein or haben.
Wherever in English you’d use a simple past or even a past perfect, you slot in a present perfect, instead.
I flew to New York
If you look closely at how that sentence is formed, you’ll see that the auxiliary verb (bin in this case) has taken the place where the main verb would go.
It also is the part of the verb that changes with the subject of the sentence:
Du bist nach New York geflogen
By changing the subject of the sentence, only the auxiliary changed, not the participle!
Another important thing to note is that the main verb, in its participle form, moved all the way to the back of the sentence.
The object of the sentence is thus sandwiched between the two verbs (called the predicate).
This kind of structure may take you some time to get used to, but eventually it will start to feel more natural, it’s just like German noun cases.
Note that in compound sentences you only need to use the auxiliary once.
Ich habe Hans gesehen und (habe) mit ihm Kaffee getrunken
In this sentence the second habe isn’t necessary, you can use it or not, it doesn’t matter too much, especially in spoken German.
Forming the participle
Of course, you still need to have an idea on how to form the participle.
Like with the simple past, it matters whether verbs are regular or irregular, just not to the same degree.
Regular verbs form the participle with ge-root-t, so the participle of lernen is gelernt.
Irregular verbs do it almost the same way, except the ending changes, so it’s ge-root-en.
So sehen becomes gesehen.
These rules count for most verbs, most of the time.
Exceptions are verbs with a preposition baked in, as well as longer compound verbs.
However, I’ll leave those for another time.
That’s pretty much all you need to know to start forming the past in German.
While the simple past can be tricky, you don’t need to fret it too much; the priority should definitely be on the present perfect if you’re a beginner.
I hope this guide gets you on your way (also check out my guide on the German future tense).
Hi! Thanks so much for all the valuable information. It's very well-explained and very helpful and practical. I just wanted to alert you in the friendliest way to a few little corrections that need to be made. In your simple past table of modal verbs you have durfen conjugated as konnen. Also you have a small grammar error in one English translation. It should be "I saw Hans and DRANK coffee with him", "not I saw Hans and DRUNK coffee with him." (As you probably know, "Drunk" would only be used with the helping verb have: "I have drunk coffee with Hans many times." A continuous action.) Thank you. I appreciate your hard work in compiling this information to help people like me!!