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 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

for members :)

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Bash
Bash

:) a very informative (and funny) post.
I didn’t know that the “written past” and the “spoken past” strictly do not differ in meaning. Very encouraging since I HATE the written past forms of verbs (will only stick to spoken past for now)!

thanks! Keep it up!

Lynn
Lynn

Thanks for another awesome post! I just finished a unit on the ‘written past’ with my German 2 students. I told them (and tested them) just on comprehension as the ‘spoken’ tense is what is really used (except for those 15 or so verbs you mention). I’m going to read parts of this to them as I think it underscores how the ‘written’ past would sound to a German in a way they will remember. I look forward to your next post. :)

Manni
Manni

Dear German-is-easy,
You said that there is no difference between the simple past and the perfect past in German, but what if you were to translate an English sentence in the PERFECT PAST tense to German? for example, “I’ve seen him” ….. Would “Ich habe ihn gesehen” and “Ich sah ihn” make no difference? Please explain, and thanks for your beautiful and insightful lessons :)
Cheers. Manni

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

A small difference arises when one adds some word that “enhances the perfective aspect”, so to say. One can’t write “Er sah ihn schon”, only “Er hat/hatte ihn schon gesehen”. In this respect there still is a meaningful, not simply stylistic difference between the german simple and perfect past tenses. Or at least so I have read ;) There are more, but that’s another story.

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

To be more clear: the difference arises, when a past action is somehow relevant to the present moment.

namsskogan
namsskogan

Your articles are execellent because they demystifies the german language in a humorous way. This article about the spoken past explains why it never sounds right when I try to speak german, although I have no problem reading german books. I guess I have read too many books in german… But now I will follow your advices and impress my german wife.

Jana P

I am such a fan of your blog, I am always learning fantastic stuff through it – things that a dictionary won’t tell you, and also that most German teachers won’t tell you, either because they think it’s too detailed and unnecessary, or because they can’t explain.

Anyway, just a little note from a language learner – I was repeatedly told what you said, that the ‘written past’ is unnecessary, and, because I was trying to fast-track my learning, I was only too happy to drop it and focus on more useful stuff… And then I came to Germany, and suddenly had lots of problems understanding what people said. Not just the newspapers and books, but what people said, what signs said…

For example, I remember clearly sitting in a kitchen in a WG, and a friend came in to report that girl X had just learnt how to roll cigarettes, and “sie aussahen wie Joints.” I have heard that Präteritum gets used more in the south, and she was Austrian, so maybe that’s the reason, but this was a very informal occasion, and I had a moment of total panic, because ‘aussah’ was not in my active German vocabulary.

I think that dropping the ‘written past’ works at the very beginning of your studies, because there is so much grammar to master, but it definitely needs to be learned before one can hold a half-reasonable conversation. And it’s also much easier to learn irregular verbs when you learn both pasts together, because the rules of irregularity are easier to get a feel for… I’m not disagreeing with everything you say (I’m a fan, truly), but I noticed my language skills really shot up the moment I actually learnt Präteritum. So I don’t think it’s exactly archaic/never used/completely old-fashioned. Maybe German teachers around the world underestimate its frequency…?

Thank you for your work. I hope you will publish a book one day :)

cmalbrecht

When I was beginning German (being naive) and saw that we say: ich gehe where in English we say I’m going, I thought this was a lack. German wasn’t as sophisticated as English or something. Now, in a more enlightened frame of mind, I see that people in any country can say anything they like; it’s just a matter of usage as we say, I went Germans say ich bin gegangen, usw. They don’t have to say it that way; it’s just the common way of saying it and therefore it sounds “right”. When studying a language we just have to remember that what we learn is simply the way people talk in that language.
I really enjoy these blogs. They really clarify and point up lots of little things and help refresh the memory as well. Besten dank!

cmalbrecht

Now you’ve got me a little confused (actually I was born confused). You say haben, wollen and können are usually used in the written past. Maybe you could show some examples. Or do you mean it would sound stupid to say: Ich habe schlafen gehen gewollt (or something like that)?

Alexander_
Alexander_

Can y tell how when we now when we use VER,GE,and BE in german language exampe and does ge always go with habe,hatte,war,ware tnx:)

Dave
Dave

I love your blog! I’m just starting to learn German, and your lessons both very entertaining and super useful. There’s one little English/German-shared-history bit that I think you missed out on, though. In your “Wie oft fuhrst du…” example, you use “thou have” while the conjugation should be “thou hast”, one of the few holdovers of German conjugation left in (archaic-sounding) English!

Benj
Benj

Really helpful once again, thanks, especially the spoken and written part as what is learned and what is used in every day life are so often different. I read the newspaper everyday here in Austria and wondered why everything was written in the “written past” instead of the “spoken past”, which is what I mostly know. Your explanations “keep it real”! Much appreciated.

Bernard
Bernard

First off all, I’d like to thank you for a very informative and entertaining way of teaching the German language. I’m very new to learning German and this might be a stupid question and I apologize in advance.

In your example: I have been to Paris
You translated it as: Ich bin in Paris gewesen
but in my little knowledge in German, I would have translated it as: Ich habe in Paris gewesen

Hope you could enlighten me in the matter. Thanks

Alma
Alma

This is incredibly amuzing. You are so funny! I have been trying to learn German on my own, never could. And now I don’t want to stop learning (reading your tutorial). So great! Thank you for writing this. It is incredible.

Anonymous
Anonymous

It is very cool! I am a very beginner. I like your blog!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Great Post !.Thx a lot !

ttimeea
ttimeea

Hy…I love the way you explain everything is called german :).
I want to ask you which are those written past verbs used in spoken past?
thank you

phil
phil

I’m confused.

So we have spoken past and written past, but usually spoken past is used. So:

I saw a bird.
Ich sah einen Vogel.

I have seen a bird.
Ich habe einen Vogel gesehen.

In German you’d usually say ‘Ich habe einen Vogel gesehen’ because it’s spoken past…but that doesn’t translate as ‘I saw a bird’. I’m confused because i’m trying to think of any circumstances where you’d say ‘I have seen a…’ in English. If you’re describing the past you’d usually say ‘I saw..’.

So am i right in thinking that this ‘I have seen a bird.’ is being translated literally to English, but in reality if you say it it really means ‘I saw’ in German?

berlingrabers

The fact of the matter is that the German present perfect is a past tense, while the English one isn’t. That’s all there is to it. “I have seen” just doesn’t mean “Ich habe gesehen.” That’s not necessarily true the other way around, especially if you throw in a “schon mal,” but the meanings of English verb forms are a lot more precisely defined.

“Ich habe gesehen” means “I saw.”

“I have seen” means “Mein aktueller Zustand ist, dass ich irgendwann gesehen habe.”

That’s why you never ever ever ever name a point in time when using the present perfect in English (ever). Emanuel, I know your German brain has a hard time with it, but it really and truly is a present tense. I really appreciate the whole explanation of the forms in German, but I think English speakers need to realize very early on that German verb forms just don’t map onto English ones and that a lot of the information they’re used to conveying just by using the right verb form needs adverbs and such to come across in German.

The sheer futility of trying to express succinctly what you’d “been doing” in German is really heartbreaking.

Cathi
Cathi

Please Please Please do the next part – the stuff about when to use präteritum in spoken. I’m even considering bribery…

Edu
Edu

I loved the BAD joke with sound effect, only thank you. Your post on adjective endings, really saved my life, I know get them 80% correct without trying. YOUR UNICORN WISDOM is awesome.

Ampity Rocks (@ampityrocks)

Totally awesome site man!!…been living in and struggling since 3 years to learn German (up to VHS B1), because my dumb brain always needs to ask ‘why’, or is wired the wrong way for learning languages. Your fun teaching approach truly helps folks like me, so thank you kindly!!!!

But do have a question (thumbs are pressed really hard: )…Is there a German “sentence structure” blueprint or something?

While I’ve studied and in theory ‘get’ all the structures (questions, side sentences etc), and can understand 95% of conversation…still can’t seem to put together a grammatically correct sentence. Like everything is friggen wrong, all the friggen time…quickly pointed out by my german girlfriend. Haha okay sidetrack, but maybe you’ve had students with the same problem?

I never learnt English grammar, so ‘present perfect’ stuff means very little too, is that perhaps the problem? Dayam you Physics: )

Truly appreciate any tips or guidance man…and thanks again for the amazeballs site!!