German Past Tense 3 – “The Written Past”

german-past-preterit-imageHello everyone,

and welcome to another part of the best German language online course ever.
Today (after about 4 god damn years of waiting, for the long-time readers), it is time for a new episode of the epic HBO series called “German Past Tense”. If you haven’t watched the first 29 episodes you can find them here:

Yeah… okay, I’m being silly. Of course, it’s only two episodes so far.
Part 1 was an overview about German Past tense and what we’ll have to learn, part 2 was all about the spoken past and today, in part 3, it is time for a look at:

the written past

In grammar jargon, this tense is known under the name preterit. But preterit is not intuitive at all and it sounds a bit scary, so we call it written past. Why written past? Because it’s one of THE main features of written accounts of stuff, while spoken past is what people use in daily life. Like… if Harry Potter were to tell Ron in German what he’s been up to all day on sick leave (sleeping, eating pizza, watching a movie, casting spells), he’d use spoken past.
When J.K. Rowling will narrate the same stuff in “Harry Potter 45 – Harry Potter and the Cursed Lumbago”, she’ll use the written past. When you read a novel in German, you’ll see written past all over the place.

Now, that would be a great system – if German were consistent about it. But it isn’t. German is consistent about pretty much no rule.
There’s a group of verbs for which the written past is also idiomatic in spoken language. For some, you can use both forms, for others the written past is the better choice, and then there are the ones you’ll REALLY love: The ones where the spoken past and the written past are both used, and mean two different things. But before we talk about that, we’ll learn how to build the forms. And for that, we’ll begin with a look at good ol’ English…

Past in English

When it comes to past tense, we can divide English verbs into two groups. And no, I don’t mean regular and irregular as linguistics does it. Linguistics – shminguistics, who gives a ship. We’re here for learnuistics.  So, the first group uses a straight forward simple marker for the past: the ending “-ed”.

cook – cooked
dance – danced
learn – learned
hyperventilate – hyperventilated

We could make an endless list here.  And an even endlesser list once we take a closer look at a whole bunch of other verbs, that are filed under “irregular” in English:

say    – said             (“sayed”)
hear – heard          (“heared”)
feel   – felt              (“feeled”)
leave – left              (“leaved”)
sleep – slept            (“sleeped”)

and even these:

make – made           (“maked”)
bend – bent                  (“bended”)

Yes, they’re irregular in so far as there’s no “-ed”. But there was. These forms got slurred in speech way back in the day, and this was then captured in writing. At the heart however is the standard “-ed” past marker.
Now, this group that uses the “-ed”-maker including the verbs where the marker has been slurred is huuuuge. I’d say it makes up 80% of all verbs that the English language has to offer.
That leaves about… uh… hold on… calculator… uh 20 percent of verbs for the other group. And that group would REALLY deserve the name  iRRregular.
They all have in common the same genius idea: screw endings, let’s change the stem. Which would be okay if the change was consistent. But it isn’t.

bring – brought, sing – sang, do – did, go – went**
(**went is a mega exception, by the way because it comes from the verb
“to wind”. Brits used the past form of one verb for the past of another.)

There are some patterns but let’s be honest … those patterns might be visible for a linguist. But for the average learner, it’s just random.

Anyway, so we have these two paradigms of marking the past: adding an “-ed” or changing the stem in some way.
Now you’re all like “Fine, but what does this have to do with German?”
Well, these two groups of verbs are also a thing of the Germanic languages in general. And guess which other language is Germanic besides English.
German! Big shock, I know.

In German, we also have these two groups of verbs and if you open a textbook or sit in a course, sooner or later you’ll hear the official names of the groups: weak verbs and strong verbs. Like… the weak ones are called weak because they do what they’re told. They’re obedient suckers that live by the book’s boring “-ed” rule, while the strong verbs do what they freaking want and get crazy tattoos all over their stem. Rock and Roll, mofos. Yeah, strong verbs use strong language, too.
German has the same two groups of verbs and the way that the past forms are built are really similar. But there are differences too. Let’s start with the so-called weak ones, the ones that get the “-ed” ending.

regular written past

In German, of course we have to first get the stem, so we have to remove the ending of the dictionary form. In the dictionary it says kochen (to cook) but the stem is only koch– . That’s what we add our ending to, which in German is not “-ed” but a simple “t”.  I mean,  German sounds a bit harsh and the “e” is silent anyway, right? So “t” makes a lot of sense.
But we’re not done yet. You might have already noticed that German is kind of a sucker for endings (if you haven’t yet … well, get ready for an unpleasant surprise) and because it likes endings and pointless extra syllables so much, the “t” is followed by an “e”.

Tadaaaah… that’s the past stem and even though it has just as many letters, the German version is two syllables long.

Yeah, I know I  sound silly… but that’s the rhythm pattern and it’s already enough to sound like past tense.
Now some of you are probably like “Emanuel… EMANUEL. What’s with the brackets. They’re just one of your unfunny jokes, right? RIGHT?”
Uhm… no. The brackets [___] are there because to finish off the past form, we need to add an ending.
“Whaaaat? But we already added the ending.”
Well, yes. But we only added the ending for past tense. Now we need to add the ending for the person. Come on guys, don’t look at me like that. I told you German loves endings.
Seriously though, the endings are really simple and they’re almost the more or less the same as the ones we need for the modal verbs in present tense.

____ kochen können
(present tense)
ich kochte – * kann – *
du kochte st kann-   st
er/sie/es kochte – * kann – *
wir/sie kochten könn – en
ihr kochtet könn – t

The only difference is the e for the wir and sie form but hey,  if we were to put it there, we’d wind up with “kochteen”, so it’s kind of a “common sense”-difference.
Of course, you can study those endings if you want, but you could also just remember to add st for the du-form and nothing for ich and er/sie/es.
Now, let’s look at some examples and see the rule in real life.

Again, pay attention to the difference in rhythm between the German version and the English version. One syllable vs. two syllables.
Oh and also note that the structure of the present and the past sentences are exactly. So we don’t have to do any crazy verb-to-the-end-voodoo like for the spoken past. More examples.

Whoops… what was that? Warteten? That doesn’t only sound funny, it also doesn’t fit with our rule. We learned that the past form is stem + te + person ending; in our case wart + te + n … 

  • wartten

But now,  the past marker is not audible anymore. That’s why there’s an extra “e” between the “t” of the verb itself and the “te”

  • wart-    e –          te –                   n
  • stem – filler – past marker – person ending

This filler -e- is used for all verbs where the stem ends in “t” or “d” and it’s really only there so you can actually hear that the form is past. Which is why I’d say this isn’t really an exception. It’s more like a common sense bending of the rule so it’s actually practicable in real life. Like what we do with traffic lights.  Or with the Controlled Substances Ac… anyways. This extra e is always there when the stem ends with a t or a d.

All right… what else… uh… yeah,  a quick couple of examples with prefix verbs, so we can see that also for those, the structure of present and written past are the same…

Sweet. So this was the regular way to build the past, which works for about 80% of all verbs.  Problem is… just as in English, many of the most common everyday verbs belong to the other 30 perce..uhm… I mean 20.

irregular written past

And there really isn’t much to explain or understand. It’s really the same mess as in English. These verbs mark the past with a stem change. Sometimes, it’s just the vowel…

sometimes it’s a bit more, and you kind of have to be high … uh… really creative and open minded to see a connection.

There are several possible changes and even though there are some patterns, the “look” of the verb won’t tell you with certainty which change it’s gonna be. Oh, and it won’t tell you if the verb is irregular at all…. just in case you’re wondering.

Now, of course these changes are not entirely random.  Like… there are like 10 or so different stem change patterns so each verb belongs to a certain group and technically, you could learn these groups and their change pattern and then learn for each verb to which group it belongs and then when you have to build a written past you apply the stem change of the respective  group… which sounds just as boring as it is.
Seriously, learning the groups is not necessary. Thing is… because the  English verbs and German verbs are siblings, English can often (not always) serve as a guide.

Sure, they’re not exactly the same but at least they can give you some idea about the direction of the change.
Back in elementary school, when we had to learn the English forms we’d just learn the whole triplet through repetition by sound. And in German you won’t need that many written past forms anyway, and the ones you do need, you’ll see over and over, so I’d say just learn those directly. And we’ll go over the most important ones together but fi… oh, wait… there’s a call…. Lisa from Vermont, welcome to the show
“Hey Emanuel, I have a question …”
Sure, go ahead.
“What about the endings? With the regular written past we had to add endings for the persons? Is that the same with these irregular ones? Or do we just use the stem?”
Oh, great question… I almost forgot.  Of course the irregular written past gets endings, too.
“Phew… German… never without endings.”
Haha… yeah… but it’s the pretty much the same endings as for the regular written past.
“Oh… that’s good then. Can you do it for a couple of verbs?”
Of course…

____ kochen


ich kochte – * ging – * schlief-*
du kochte st ging-   st schlief-st
er/sie/es kochte * ging- * schlief-*
wir/sie kochten ging-en schlief-en
ihr kochtet ging – t schlief-t


There’s a small difference with the extra “e” in the wir-form, but again, that’s just one of those common sense modifications.
“Oh… I see. Can you do some real life examples for some of the most important verbs?”
Yeah, we’ll actually go over all of the ones you’ll need but first we need to talk about the third group of verbs.
Uh… wait, the third group of verbs?”
Yes. German always has to complicate stuff.
“Haha… oh boy. Well, bring it on… “

Mixed written past

The two groups we had so far were regular (with the “te-“) and irregular (with the stem-change). The third group (a very small group) has a stem-change AND  a “-te” ending; the best of both worlds. Or was it the worst?
Anyway, take for instance bringen. If it were regular (or so called weak), it should be bringte-, if it were irregular it would have some sort of stem change… like, say, brang- or something.
The actual form is

So we have a somewhat substantial stem change AND a “-te”. And then it get’s the usual ending to top it all off.

There are not many of these verbs, but some of them, you really have to know

Why do you need those? Because they belong to that group of verbs for which the written past is also used in spoken German. Those verbs and how and when to use which form is what we’ll talk about now.
And by “now”, I mean “in 4 years”, when the second part of the third part comes out…. Hollywood style.


Nah kidding:). It won’t be that long. I just feel like we’ve done enough for today, even though  it wasn’t really that much new information because we know all this from English already.  Yeah… if you think about it, this part really was kind of a rip off. So … uhm… don’t think about it, okay ;)?
Seriously though, we’ve actually learned the forms for quite a few verbs today, so if you’re not familiar with those, make a list.

German is Easy – where the students have to make their own list.

Worst learning ever.
So, that’s it for today. As always, if you have any questions about what we’ve learned so far or some cool suggestions on how to learn the irregular forms, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it, and see you next time.