Learn German Online – German Past Tense

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 crucial. Now you may say
“Oh pshhhhhh… past shmast… I live in the here and now man, the present. Why should I bother with past? I’d rather learn how to hold conversation and speak fluently… can you do a post on that?”
Well… yes, the present tense is useful. I’m sure you’re doing all kinds of things right now… like reading, sitting, breathing in, transpiring, digesting and anticipa…
But this is NOTHING compared with what you have already done today, and even nothinger when you look back at the past months. The thing is, you can study all kinds of things like cases or prepositions or genders or vegetable names … you will NOT be able to hold even the easiest normal conversation if you don’t know anything about the past tense. 

This is true for pretty much any language. But it is turbo-true for spoken German. Why? Because the past tense has such deep an impact on German sentence structure.
In English you can often still understand the gist even if you don’t know anything about past.

  • I drink a coffee.
  • I drank a coffee.
  • I go home.
  • I went home.

Ok… the second example doesn’t really illustrate my point since present and past don’t have much in common there.
But compared to the standard German past used in 73,1 * % of all spoken conversation (*number made up, may differ from actual number), the normal present-past-sentence pairs in English are virtually twins.
Not so in spoken German.

  • Ich trinke einen Kaffee.
  • Ich habe einen Kaffee getrunken.
  • Ich gehe nach Hause.
  • Ich bin nach Hause gegangen.

Whops. The past version looks really really different from the present. And it sounds different, too, so if you don’t know about this, you will be super confused.
So… German past is something you really should dedicate a lot of energy to and make sure you got this automatized BEFORE you worry about all the other stuff. Trust me, it’ll be tremendously helpful.
And by the way… it’s not only helpful with speaking and understanding. It’s also great because the forms you’ll learn will help you trace back an incredible amount of adjectives and nouns to their core: a verb. Here is proof.

  • der Marktstand (the market stand) –
    identical to the past of stehen (to stand):

Ich stehe auf.  (I get up)
Ich stand auf.  (I got up)
Ich bin aufgestanden. ( I got up)

  • der Zug (the train) –
    similar to the past of ziehen (to pull)

Ich ziehe.  (I pull.)
Ich zog.  (I pulled.)
Ich habe gezogen. (I pulled.)

So, forget cases and gender and all this other crap. Focus your energy on past first.
And today we’ll start with a look at some general facts about German past.

Past tense in German

There are 2 simple facts about the past in German. First of, everything was gooder (even the grammar). 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. Firstly, there are types of past… in jargon they are called predator and adequate… or was is preterit and perfect? I’m not sure.
Anyway… I will call them spoken past and written past.And every verb has both forms. 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… and no… he is not a mole-ester
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