German past tense simple simple explained simply (2023)

German past tense simple simple explained simply (1)

BySara Last updated:

Until you domaster verb conjugations, the German simple past tense can seem much more complicated than the name suggests.

I broke this time into prime factors and found a simple way to rememberwhat is the simple past and when to use itIhow to handle strong and weak verbsback then.

I've even included some tips on the possibilitiesyou can trainYour newly developed German simple past tense conjugation skills.


  • What is the German past tense?
  • When is the past tense used in German?
  • How to conjugate verbs in the simple past tense in German
    • Weak conjugated verbs in the past simple
    • Strong verbs in the past tense, simple tense
    • Mixed verbs conjugated in simple past tense
  • Tips and tricks for using the past tense

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What is the German past tense?

If you're a native English speaker, you're probably already familiar with the simple past tense, even if you're not sure what it is. Think of it as saying something in the past tense, using as few verbs as possible.

"I ate?" Well, it's present tense, and it has two verbs ("to have" and "to eat"). "I ate?" Here you go. Only one verb. It is a simple past.

Can't get simpler than one verb!

In German, the simple past tense (also known as the "imperfect") is called the past tensepast tense. It is a good word if you are learning the language because if you refer to it asimperfect(imperfect), people may not know what you are talking about.

Some German speakers could understand thisimperfectrefers to the simple past tense, but is borrowed from English and is not a native German word for this tense.

You also have an advantage as an English speaker because the simple past tense is often used to discuss past events that have a specific time frame, referring to when something happened. In German it can be used in the same way, although it is generally not used as much colloquially as in English.

When is the past tense used in German?

When native Germans speak their language, most of them do not use the simple past tense in everyday situations. You don't meet manyI said(said I) but you will hear insteadI said(I said).Native German speakers are more dependent onpresent perfectwhen they speak, unless they are trying to be formal or speak in a slightly dated manner.

The simple past tense is seen as a bit old-fashioned, which is great if you want to keep it traditional in your speech, but you just don't want to hear it very often.

So if you start reading books, magazines or newspapers after finishing a German lesson for the day, you may suddenly think that you have not learned German as well as you thought - unless of course I am aware thatThe simple past tense is often used in writing.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, right? And if the rule is that the German past simple is used in written language and the present perfect is used in speech, let me now present two exceptions to the rule:

  • If someone is telling a story, they will probably use the past tense.It is believed to be a more narrative way of speaking. This can be true whether they are speaking or writing.

Consider how your speech changes when you tell your child a bedtime story. You can tone down the tone a bit and start with: "Once upon a time there lived a wizard in a castle..." and hooray! We are transported to a scene where we will settle for a good story.

The pronounced past simple has the same effect in German. It indicates to viewers that a story is being told and can cause a shift away from the mood of the conversation.

  • If it is actually more effective than the present perfect, the simple past will be used. I was(I was) you could say much faster thanI was(literally "I was", but used as "I was") andI had(had) is much easier thanI had(had) and it also sounds less repetitive. It is not for nothing that German culture is often associated with efficiency.

If you decide to use the simple past tense colloquially for "I was" and "I have" (which you really should because, as mentioned above, it's just effective), make sure to underline the "a" inhaddifferentiateI had(I hadI would(I would) which is a conditional form and sounds like a request. One of the expressions you often hear in restaurants or service companies is:I would like to…(I would like to have…).

How to conjugate verbs in the simple past tense in German

Now that we know when to use the past tense, let's focus on how to use it. The first thing to keep in mind when conjugating verbs in the past tense is whether you are working with a strong or a weak verb.

In general, verbs are weak (also called "regular"), so you can generally apply regular verb conjugation rules and just focus on remembering the outliers (strong and mixed verbs). It will save you trouble.

Weak conjugated verbs in the past simple

Meat and potatoes in the regular (or weak) past tense simple verb conjugation are simple.

Weak verbs are conjugated systematically, the so-calledjust by memorizing the six endings, you'll have it down.

Let's use a verbto speak(say) as an example. If you want to conjugate this verb in the simple past, start with the infinitive and delete-W. Then replace them with one of the following suffixes (shown in bold):

I saythe(I said)

you mattertry(You said)

is the thingthe(he said)

we sayof(we said)

you saytet(you [plural] said)

she saysof(they said)

It really is that simple. With regular verbs, there are no catch-up moments, no tricks up your sleeve, and no tricky stem changes. You just change the ending of the verb.

Strong verbs in the past tense, simple tense

If weak verbs are the easy part, strong verbs are the slightly less easy part. They require a little more memorization because:

  • You shallremember which verbs are strong.
  • Isno systematic conjugation patternso when you remember not to use a weak system you will have toRemember the word that replaces it.

In general, you will conjugate strong verbs in the past simply by changing the stem (not just removing the ending, but changing the stem of the verb) and adding:-st, -en, -tor nothing at all.

Let's consider an exampleFind(to find). If it was a weak verb, we could just sayI foundbut honestly, it's pretty hard to say and would probably sound like the current formI find(I find). Instead, we change the rootIfound(found) and the rest of the conjugation is based on the new stem:

I found(I found)

you found(you found)


we found(we found)

you found(found [plural])

they found(found)

Instead of listing all the strong verbs here, Vistawide has already done it for us, so check out their listGerman strong and irregular verbsor read about conjugating German verbs in the past simple and start memorizing! This is also a good exercise for using flashcards.

Mixed verbs conjugated in simple past tense

A mixed verb is a verb that, when conjugated in the simple past tense, is based on the systematic endings of weak verbsIhas stem changes. Fortunately, there aren't that many conjugated verbs, and a few are so common that you'll use them often and they'll stick in your mind whether you try to remember them or not. I will useAt have(have) as an example:

I had(I had)

you had(you had)

he had(he had)

we had(we had)

you had(you [plural] had)

they had(they had)

Notice that we don't just drop out-Wends but "b" inAt havealso changes to "t". The stem changes. However, the rest of the conjugation is based solely on the systematic endings of the weak verbs.

Here are some common weak verbs and changes in their stems:bring(bring) brought(brought),think(think)thought(thought),At have(has, as above)had(had),know(be familiar with)he knew(to know means to know)name(name)called(named),Start(to run)race(run) andknowledge(know)he knew(I knew).

Tips and tricks for using the past tense

Use apps that help you remember.This is a great resource for memorizing a list of strong German verbs.

Flashcards are great, but if you don't want to mess around with lots of physical cards, they're greatsmartphone applicationswhich work just as well as flashcards. If you prefer to create your own flashcards, start with a resource likeverb list from the German professor.

With an app thatFluentU, you will hear the simple past tense used in many different contexts by people from all over the German-speaking world through a series of authentic German videos such as film clips and news items.

Practicewrite an essay in german.This is the simple past tense of German in its original environment. If you force yourself to get used to writing German using the past tense, then when you actually have to write an essay or short story in German, you won't be thrown off and you won't have to rely on the present perfect tense.

Read in German.Like general life advice, read a lot. Especially to learn German,read a lot in German. But jokes aside, reading is more useful than speaking if you want to work specifically with the past simple, as it is mostly found in the written language.

If you pick up a German book, you will be more exposed to simple past tense verbs than if you go to the cinema in German.

OK, OK if you don't have time to read that muchbooks in Germanas you wish - who doesn't run out of time? – but you still want to complete yourself with the simple time of that time, you are in luck. Audiobooks still contain a simple past tense, as it is someone reading the written narrative aloud. Maybe you'll find somethingaudio books in Germanwhich is conversational and in that case can revert to the present perfect, but audiobooks are a good alternative to reading if you still want to hear the simple past.

Also, the biggest advantage of audiobooks is that you can hear exactly how words should be pronounced. Think of it as a little added bonus.

Ready to write letters about the things you've done recently?

Do you read the local newspaper without stumbling over unexpected verbs?

Well, now you are ready to boldly introduce and conjugate these verbs in the past simple.

Charge:This blog post is available in a convenient and portable PDF format that you can take anywhere.Click here to get a copy. (Charge)


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