Simple Past Tense in German (das Präteritum): Master the German Simple Past Tense Grammar (usage, regular verbs, irregular verbs, modal verbs etc.)

Simple Past Tense in German (das Präteritum): Master the German Simple Past Tense Grammar (usage, regular verbs, irregular verbs, modal verbs etc.)

Learning a new language is always a challenge, but understanding its tenses is crucial to mastering it. The German language, with its intricate grammar and verb conjugations, can be particularly daunting. This article aims to demystify the German past , or "Präteritum"or "Imperfekt", making it an accessible and less intimidating aspect of German grammar for learners at all levels.

What is the German Simple Past tense (Präteritum)?

The 'Präteritum', in German is primarily used for describing past events or situations. Unlike the present perfect tense, it is more commonly found in written German than in spoken language.

Understanding its Use

  • Historical Narratives: Often used in written stories or reports of past events.
  • Formal Speech: Appears in more formal or literary contexts.

The 'Präteritum' plays a crucial role in conveying clarity and precision in historical or formal contexts. It's particularly favored in academic writing, journalistic reporting, and classic literature, where accuracy in time framing is essential. 

Unlike its English counterpart, the German simple past doesn't always correspond directly to the English simple past, creating a unique learning curve. 


German Grammar: How to conjugate regular verbs and irregular verbs 

(weak verbs , strong verbs and mixed verbs)

Verbs in German simple past forms include these type of verbs: regular and irregular verbs (strong and weak verbs and mixed verbs)

Weak verbs: 

  • These verbs are formed by adding a "t" and each ending to the verb stem. For example: Er machte - he made. 
  • "machen" (make) becomes machte
  • If the stem of the verb ends with a “t”, “d” or “g” an extra “e” is added for the first person singular. For example: arbeiten - ich arbeitete - I worked.




to laugh

ich lachteI laughed
du lachtestyou (informal)  laughed
er, sie, es lachtehe, she, it  laughed
wir lachtenwe laughed
ihr lachtetyou (plural) laughed
sie, Sie lachten they, you (formal) laughed


  • Ich machte die Aufgabe. I did the task.
  • Der Student lernte viel. The student learned a lot.
  • Der Musiker arbeitete viel. The musician worked a lot.

Strong and mixed verbs (irregular German verbs)

Strong verbs have a vowel change: gehen - ging (go, went)

Mixed: They have the same ending like regular ones but have also a change of the vowel: bringen- brachte




to eat

ich aßI ate
du aßestyou (informal) ate
er, sie, es aßhe, sie, it ate
wir aßenwe ate
ihr aßtyou (plural) ate
sie, Sie aßenthey, you (formal) ate


  • Die Studentin lieh ihrer Freundin ein Buch. The student lent her friend a book.
  • Der Junge nahm seiner Mutter die Tasche ab. The boy took the bag from his mother.
  • Das Mädchen aß ein Brötchen. The girl ate a bread roll

Mixed: They have the same ending like regular ones but have also a change of the vowel: bringen- brachte




to bring

ich brachteI brought
du brachtestyou (informal) brought
er, sie, es brachtehe, she, it brought
wir brachtenwe brought
ihr brachtetyou (plural) brought
sie, Sie brachtenthey, you (formal) brought


  • Die Freunde brachten das Geschenk. The friends brought the gift.
  • Der Fahrer krachte gegen das Auto. The driver crashed into the car.
  • Der Junge dachte über die Geschichte nach. The boy thought about the story.


German Simple Past Quiz

We suggest regularly honing your understanding of the simple past in German through quizzes and exercises. Access the latest quiz on the German simple past: here.

Difference between present perfect tense and German past

German and English have some differences: The perfect is used in spoken German and the informal language while the imperfect is needed for formal and written past language. The perfect tense is formed by a form of "haben" or "sein" and a past participle at the end of the sentence while the you need to conjugate verbs in the Präteritum as explained in the chapter before.

Difference between spoken and  written German for the past tense in German

In German the written or formal language is using in general the imperfect while German speakers are using the perfect in the spoken language. The main reason for this is that the perfect in German is easier compared to the Präteritum. 

German Tenses: When to use  German present tense, perfect tense, simple past, past perfect tense, future tense and future perfect

The Präteritum (imperfect) describes actions in the past with no relation to the present tense. The imperfect tense is used mostly in written and formal German. You can read here how to use the other tenses like the present tense: here

Conjugation of auxiliary verbs (helping verbs) haben, sein, werden

These verbs are playing a very important role because they are all used a lot. The past forms of haben and sein are addionally needed to form the past perfect tense. 

  • Haben becomes "hatten"


haben (to have)


hatte (had)

ich habeich hatte
du hastdu hattest
er, sie, es hat er, sie, es hatte
wir haben wir hatten
 ihr habt ihr hattet
sie, Sie habensie, Sie hatten
  • Sein becomes waren. Sein is one of the most important verbs in German. 


sein (to be)


waren (were)

ich binich war
du bistdu warst
er, sie, es ister, sie, es war
wir sindwir waren
ihr seidihr wart
sie, Sie sindsie, Sie waren

Werden is not as important as the other two helping verbs, but it is still good to know the simple past form. Werden becomes wurden e.g. ich wurde. 

Conjugation of Modal Verbs in Präteritum

Modal verbs are irregular ones. Luckily the imperfect form is not too difficult. 

There are six modal verbs: 

  1. müssen - must, have to
  2. können - can, to be able to
  3. wollen - want, to intend to
  4. sollen - shall, should, to be supposed to
  5. dürfen - may, to be allowed to
  6. mögen - to like


Personal PronounConjugation of "können"
ich (I)konnte
du (you)konntest
er/sie/es (he/she/it)konnte
wir (we)konnten
ihr (you plural)konntet
Sie (you formal) sie (they)konnten


  • Ich konnte die Aufgabe erledigen. I was able to complete the task.
  • Du konntest niemanden erreichen. You couldn't reach anyone.
  • Der Student konnte sich nicht auf die Aufgabe konzentrieren. 


Personal PronounConjugation of "müssen"
ich (I)musste
du (you)musstest
er/sie/es (he/she/it)musste
wir (we)mussten
ihr (you plural)musstet
Sie (you formal) sie (they)mussten


  • Der Student musste viel lernen. The student had a lot to learn.
  • Thomas musste nach Hause gehen. Thomas had to go home.


Personal PronounConjugation of "wollen"
ich (I)wollte
du (you)wolltest
er/sie/es (he/she/it)wollte
wir (we)wollten
ihr (you plural)wolltet
Sie (you formal) sie (they)wollten


  • Du wolltest eine Party veranstalten. You wanted to throw a party.
  • Der Mann wollte nach Spanien ziehen. The man wanted to move to Spain.


Personal PronounConjugation of "sollen"
ich (I)sollte
du (you)solltest
er/sie/es (he/she/it)sollte
wir (we)sollten
ihr (you plural)sollte
Sie (you formal) sie (they)sollten


  • Der Angestellte sollte die Aufgabe für seinen Chef erledigen. The employee was supposed to complete the task for his boss.
  • Der Student sollte die Hausarbeit bis Montag einreichen, aber er hat dies nicht geschafft. The student was supposed to submit the term paper by Monday, but he did not manage to do so.


Personal PronounConjugation of "dürfen"
ich (I)durfte
du (you)durftest
er/sie/es (he/she/it)durfte
wir (we)durften
ihr (you plural)durftet
Sie (you formal) sie (they)durften


  • Der Junge durfte bis 22 Uhr aufbleiben. The boy was allowed to stay up until 10 pm.
  • Der Mann durfte in dem Gebäude nicht rauchen. The man was not allowed to smoke in the building.


Personal PronounConjugation of "können"
ich (I)mochte
du (you)mochtest
er/sie/es (he/she/it)mochte
wir (we)mochten
ihr (you plural)mochtet
Sie (you formal) sie (they)mochten


  • Der Student mochte die Party. The student liked the party.
  • Der Künstler mochte das Museum. The artist liked the museum.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Common pitfalls can hinder learning.

  • Frequent Error: Often students mix up the endings of the verb.
  • Correction Strategies: Learning the irregular verbs is essential because there are so many. This is a good list: here.




Article by Niko

Published 21 Jan 2024