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).
For mixed verbs, there are stem vowel changes, even though they appear at first glance to be regular (e.g. machen → machte, bringen → brachte).
As can be seen, these mixed verbs only differ from regular verbs in that their stems change from present to past tense. The irregular verbs, on the other hand, are very distinct from these forms.
Irregular verbs do not add a ‘t’ but do add most of the conjugated endings to their irregular stems. For example, ‘finden’ becomes ‘fand’ (3rd person singular form), and, like the 1st person singular, does not add an ending. Take a look at the chart of frequently used irregular verbs in the simple past below.
Although there are no set rules for predicting the past tense forms of irregular verbs, a number of verbs in English exhibit similar patterns of vowel changes as those in German (e.g. sing – sang – sung / singen – sang – gesungen). In German there are seven approximate categories of vowel change patterns, from infinitive to simple past to past participle (e.g. ride-rode-ridden):
- ei – ie – ie / ei – i – i = bleiben – blieb – geblieben / reiten – ritt – geritten
- ie – o – o / e – o – o = verlieren – verlor – verloren / heben – hob – gehoben
- i – a – u / i – a – o = singen – sang – gesungen / beginnen – begann – begonnen
- e – a – o = nehmen – nahm – genommen
- e – a – e / i – a – e / ie – a – e = essen – ass – gegessen / bitten – bat – gebeten / liegen – lag – gelegen
- a – u – a = einladen – lud ein – eingeladen
- a – ie – a / au – ie – au / ei – ie – ei / u – ie – u / o – ie – o / a – i – a = gefallen – gefiel – gefallen / laufen – lief – gelaufen / heißen – hieß – geheißen / rufen – rief – gerufen / stoßen – stieß – gestoßen / fangen – fing – gefangen
Modal verbs are commonly used in their preterite/simple past form in both written and spoken German, and their meanings are identical. Although the present perfect forms do exist, they are not really used. Notice that the umlauts are dropped when forming the past tense of these verbs.
You will note that the 1st- and 3rd-person singular forms of these verbs are identical, and a “t” is added to the end of the stem before applying the ending. In keeping with the phonological rule related to stems ending in a “d” or “t”, an “e” must be added before applying the conjugated verb endings (ihr and du forms). Thus, the du form of sollen would add a “t” + “e” + “st” for its simple past form, solltest. Of course, this makes no real difference when adding the ‘en’ ending to the wir, sie, and Sie plural forms, as no additional “e” separating the “t” from the ending is necessary. Note also that the ich, er, sie, and es forms add the “t” and then “e” only. Effectively, the simple past ending that is added to the modals and regular verbs is simply a “t” at the end of the stem.
N.B. The simple past forms of the modal verbs are the basis for the formation of the general subjunctive (modals with an umlaut in their infinitive forms
[müssen, dürfen, können, mögen]
add them to the simple past).