German Past Tense – The Basics

Hi everyone,

and welcome to our German is Easy- Learn German Online – Course. Today, we’ll start talking about the past tense in German which is, at least in my humble opinion

The Most Important Thing Ever

That’s right. I think it is THAT important crucial.
Now you might be like “But… but… what about the der die das den dem stuff… the textbook and my teacher say it’s really important.”
But the thing is that they don’t know what they’re talking about, because they’re fake frauds.
I’m kidding of course, but I do think beginner courses have weird priorities.
Yes, German has three genders and four cases, but these things are for later. They do NOT help a beginner.
Like… if you really pay attention to what you talk about in a day, the majority of it will be about stuff that (has) happened. I did this, I did that. I was thinking this. I was drinking that. You get the idea.
In my opinion and experience, as long as you don’t know how to speak about the past in a language, it makes no sense to even start having conversations. You’re not ready. I know lots of people say “Start speaking right away.” but I disagree. I really do think there is such a thing as “too early“, and my girlfriend says the same. I… I mean, in general.
So… instead of starting to speak as fast as you can, the better approach is to start learning about the past tense as soon as you can.
And yes, it’s more important that gender and cases! Much more impo
And while this is true for pretty much any language, it is turbo-true for spoken German.

… for one thing, it has a big impact on German sentence structure. Because this weird thing about part of the verb going to the end also happens in past.

  • Ich trinke einen Kaffee. (present)a) Ich trank einen Kaffee. (past A)
    b) Ich habe einen Kaffee getrunken. (past B)
  • Ich gehe nach Hause. (present)a) Ich ging nach Hause. (past A)
    b) Ich bin nach Hause gegangen. (past B)

Now you’re of course like “Okay, I’m gonna go with past A, thank you very much.” but the problem is… for most verbs past B is idiomatic.
We’ll get to that in a second, but I want to tell you another reason why learning the past very early is helpful.
And that’s because just like in English (think – thought) we’ll see quite a lot of vowel changes. Okay, that in itself isn’t really a “nice” feature. It’s more to learn for us. But what’s good about it is that these vowel changes are the key or at least hints to a whole bunch of nouns.
Here’s an example with the verb ziehen (to pull)

  • Ich ziehe.  (I pull.)Ich zog(past A)
    Ich habe gezogen. (past B)
  • related noun: der Zug (the train, the drag)

Sure, it’s not a perfect match, but it might be at least a hint.

Long story short, being comfy with the past tense is THE KEY to slowly starting to speak and read actual content and so that’s what we’ll learn in the next sections of this course.
And today, we’ll start with a general overview.

Past tense in German

There are two simple facts about the past in German.
First of, everything was better. And secondly, everything was cheaper. Take my grandfathers IPhone. He got the JFK-Edition back in 1965 for as little as $10 and you know what…. it works just fine and he even used it to knock down parts of the Berlin wa… what? Oh, I am being stupid again? … oh you’re right… I’m sorry.
Here are the real facts.
In the long rant about the importance of the past, we already saw that there seem to be two types of past. We called them past A and past B, but that’s not the real names. In proper grammar jargon, they’re called preterit and perfect. But I will call them spoken past and written past, because those names are more intuitive, as you’ll see in a second.
Oh and just to make sure…  EVERY verb has BOTH forms.
Now, so far this setup is no different from English with the
present perfect and the simple past. (And nerds… please don’t tell me that present perfect is in fact present tense with perfect aspect. It talks about events of the past, so to my German language brain it is just past. German doesn’t have the concept of aspect.)

Anyway… the structures of the German and the English past forms do resemble one another.

  • I saw a bird.
  • Ich sah einen Vogel.
  • I have seen a bird.
  • Ich habe einen Vogel gesehen.

But that’s where the commonalities end. The German spoken past may look a somewhat similar to  the English present perfect at times but the usage is totally different.
The thing is this… which form of German past to use does NOT, I repeat, NOT depend on the content or information you want to get across. It rather depends on HOW you get the information across… and it also depends on the actual verb. Here are some examples. Thus what is present perfect in English can translate to either form in German.

  • I have been to Paris.

can be translated to either of the following, depending on the situation or personal preference of the speaker.

  • Ich war in Paris
  • Ich bin in Paris gewesen.

And consequently this:

  • I was in Paris.

can also have either version as translation. It depends on the “mode” of language if you will.

  • He ordered a tea and began reading the newspaper.
  • Er bestellte einen Tee und fing an, die Zeitung zu lesen.
  • Er hat einen Tee bestellt und dann angefangen, die Zeitung zu lesen.

The first version is appropriate for a novel or an essay while the second version sounds fine in actual spoken German.
And that is the very reason why I call that form of past the spoken past. With a few exceptions it is the form used for spoken German… and that absolutely does include any writing that is kind of spoken language written down… like SMS, E-mails, letters, chats, blogs, diarrhea .. oh… I mean diary … so whenever you write as if you talk to someone, that qualifies as spoken. And in spoken German you ought to use spoken past.
Now, there are 2 exceptions to that. A small number of verbs like haben, können or wollen is always using the written past... not because they don’t have a spoken form… remember… every verb has either form. And also not because they are fancy modal verbs. Germans are simply used to it that way. Using the other way sounds weird.
Besides those written-past-only-verbs there are a few others like finden, wissen or geben for which both forms are used in spoken German. For some the choice depends on the content for others it is just personal preference but we’ll look into that in detail later on.
So… think of the spoken past as THE past. Learn how to build that and use it. And learn the few written-past-only-verbs as exceptions… there are maybe about 15 or so… so not too much.
Don’t sit down and learn the written past for all verbs. It is a waste of time for a beginner. You will NOT need it. The only occasion requiring you to have solid command of the written past for a verb like fahren (to drive) is if you want to write a novel. Or if you want to sounds like you’re stage acting.

  • Wie oft fuhrst du diesen Winter Ski?

This is what Google Translator translates it to

  • How many times have you went skiing this winter?

Well… close enough… now, this is what it actually should translate to if you want to conserve the tone and feel.

  • And so I shall inquire of thee on how many occasions thou have indulged in the amusement of skiing…

Using the written past in spoken German doesn’t make you sound smart and certainly it won’t make you sound like a native.

So… a quick recap and then we’re done for today.
There are 2 forms of past in German – the spoken past and the written past. The spoken past is used in spoken German and spoken-like writing for about 98 percent of all verbs. The other 2 percent use the written past also in spoken.
With the exception of said verbs, the written past is only ever used in real novel or newspaper writing. So… unlike in English the 2 past forms in German DO NOT differ in meaning nor should they be taken as indication which form to use in German.
You can use either form in either situation… it might just sounds awfully weird because it is against what people are used to.

Alright… so … next time we will learn how to build the spoken past for all verbs  and since every good show needs a cliffhanger, we will also find out just what is the terribly shocking secret Marvin the Mole had been hiding from his mole friends… dunn dunnn dunnnnnnn.
If you have questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

German Past Tense – Part 2

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