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

or as we could also call it

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 fast as you can.
And while I think this is a general truth about language learning, it is hyper-turbo-mega truth for spoken German because of… drumroll…

…  German sentence structure. The Tenet of sentence structures… if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand :).
We’ve already learned about this weird feature of the verb going to the end.
This also happens in  one version of the past tense.

  • 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)

You’re now 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.

And besides that there’s another reason why learning the past early is really helpful. And that’s because there are a lot of vowel changes. Just like in English where you have stuff like sing – sang – sung.
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.
Take the verb ziehen (to pull) for example

  • Ich ziehe.  (I pull.)Ich zog(past A)
    Ich habe gezogen. (past B)

That’s the past, and one of the related nouns is der Zug (the train, the drag).
Sure, it’s not a perfect match, but it might be at least a hint.

Anyway, I think I’ve spent enough time talking about why we should learn past tense.
Now let’s actually do it :).
And today, we’ll ease into the topic with a little overview.

Past tense in German – An overview

And there are two simple facts about the past.
Number one: everything was better. And number two: everything was cheaper.
Take my grandfather’s iPhone. He got the JFK-Edition back in 1965 for as little as $10 and you know what…. it still works just fine and he even used it to knock down parts of the Berlin wa… wait, I think I got lost, I’m sorry.
Let me grab a beer real quick and start over.

So… in the intro, we’ve already seen that there are two types of past in German. We called them past A and past B. In proper grammar jargon, they’re called preterit and perfect. But we will actually call them spoken past and written past. Because those names are more intuitive, as you’ll see in a second.
So… we have these two types of past and EVERY verb technically has BOTH forms.

So far, this setup is no different from English with the present perfect and the simple past. The family ties between German and English are really obvious here and the structures of the German and the English past forms “look” the similar.

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

But the crucial thing we MUST get into our heads is this:

What the languages do with the forms is different!

In English, there is a really clear distinction in meaning between “I ate” and “I have eaten“.
But German DOES NOT have that and German speakers learning English have a really hard time getting it right.
Because in German, the choice of which past form to use largely depends on… what’s idiomatic for a verb.
Here’s an example…

  1. I have been to Berlin.
  2. I was in Berlin.

To an English speaker, there’s some kind of distinction between the two, but even today, I still can’t tell for sure what it is because German doesn’t have it. In German, both sentences will translate to this:

  • Ich war in Berlin.

Because this past, the written past, is what’s idiomatic for the verb to be.
Now, the counter-check…

  • Ive seen a unicorn.
  • I saw a unicorn.

In German, those will be..

  • Ich habe ein Einhorn gesehen.

Because for sehen, the spoken past is idiomatic.
And that’s where we get back to the names spoken past and written past. Because German uses the forms differently depending on whether you’re living your everyday life, or writing a novel.

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

Both are correct. But the first version sounds like it is part of an autobiographical novel, while the second one is how I’d tell my friends about my visit at the cafe.

Now, usually when stuff depends on “what’s idiomatic” that can be quite the pain because you have a lot of learning to do.
But worry not – the German past is actually pretty simple.
Because for most of the verbs, like 98% of them, you will need the spoken past. And not only for actual speaking but also for written “normal” language like SMS, E-mails, letters, chats, blogs, recipes and so on.
In daily life, we only need the written past for a very small number of verbs for which it is idiomatic. And it’s the usual suspects like haben, können or müssen and so on.
And for like half a dozen of verb like finden or geben, both forms are idiomatic and it depends on the context.

So now we kind of have our road-map here:

  1. The spoken past is by far the most important thing, so we’ll learn how to build that first.
  2. Then, we’ll learn for which verbs we need the written past in daily life and learn it.
  3. And then we’ll go over the few verbs for which it really depends on context and meaning.

That’s where we’ll pick up next time :). Hooray! Who’s hyped up?
Seriously though, once we’re done with the spoken past, German will feel kind of familiar already and you’ll be able to speak.
So get ready for the next episode.
Oh and bring some coffee, because it’ll be long and intense.
For today we’re done, though… well, almost. Because now it’s time for you to get active and recap in a little quiz :)

As usual, 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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5 months ago

Here’s what I remember about the use of the ‘simple past’ and the ‘present perfect’ in English, e.g., “I was in Berlin”, vs.”I have been in Berlin.”

“I was in Berlin,” means that at some time in the past, I visited or lived in Berlin. But now I am not in Berlin. That’s an action that started and ended in the past.

“I have been in Berlin,” means that I spent time in Berlin, and I may still be there. That’s an action that started in the past and continues, or may continue into the present. (Present Perfect)

Please submit corrections.

4 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Native speaker of English #436478556 here. For me, “I was in Berlin” is the answer to the question “Where were you last week/month/year?” I was in Berlin answers that clearly. I wasn’t here, I was in Berlin. The complete five word phrase “I have been in Berlin” is a bit more fussy and proper. The one exception would be in a formal interview/deposition where a lawyer or officer of the law is asking you directly “Have you at any time ever visited a country other than the US?” Answer: Yes, I have been to Berlin. In its shortened form “I’ve been to Berlin” (the contraction immediately takes it down a stuffy notch or two) is more common and would be used to start off a sentence “I’ve been to Berlin and those dudes know how to party” or “I’ve been to Berlin a few times in my life”. It can’t be used to answer “Where were you last year?” The question almost NEEDS to have the word ‘have’ and ‘in’ in it. “Have you been in Berlin” Yes, I’ve been in Berlin. And then, it could mean 1956. Finally, one small detail: I was in Berlin – but – I’ve been to Berlin is more common.

7 months ago

I might be a bit too late here, but I wanted to add my perceived differences between “I have been to Berlin” and “I was in Berlin”. To me, if you use “was” instead of “have been” it implies you have been there relatively recently, or being in Berlin was the reason for missing something. For example, if someone asks “Where were you last week?” saying, “I have been in Berlin.” sounds extremely wrong. I can’t exactly explain it either, but it feels like there is also some innate time element that lets you know which form you should use. It’s confusing to think about for me and I can see how that would be annoying to try and learn.

4 months ago
Reply to  schaefera1855

Native speaker of English #436478559 here, I’m definitely too late but for any non-native English speakers still confused about this, I might be able to help clear things up just a little more.

As you’ve all already pointed out, past simple is used for a specific moment/period in the past (I lived in Berlin in the ’80s, it was wild; I went to Berlin last week/last year/in 1980).

Present perfect is used for several reasons, but the important one here is the idea of a life experience. If you’ve played the drinking game “Have you ever..?”, then you’ll know what I mean. That question asks about experience (e.g. “Have you ever danced with unicorns?”), and, apart from yes/no, the answer must also be in the present perfect, with any further (specific) information in past simple (Yes, I have – I danced with unicorns once when I was tripping).

So past simple is specific (think, last week)
while present perfect is general (think, whole life)

If anyone wants, I can (try to) explain the other uses of present perfect, but the main other idea with P.P. is that an action started in the past and hasn’t finished yet/is still true/results are in the present. E.g. “I have lost my key” = “I lost my key yesterday but I still don’t have it/I can’t get into my apartment” (result).

Source: used to teach English as a Second Language (possibly quite badly)

Hope that helps

7 months ago

Ich weiß nicht, wie man das sagt. * rewrite in past tense

9 months ago

Difference in Meaning:
“I have been to Berlin.” = I’ve visited there. It’s off my bucketlist. (location/vacation)
“I was in berlin.” = an answer to: Hey, haven’t seen you around lately… (Time)

10 months ago

Hi guys,
I’m new here. I have been using this platform for 1 day, and I’m finding it fantastic.
I want to thank Emanuel to let me in, without paying any fees. I want to thank all the people who pay for the students who can’t, and therefore study here free. Thank you all the members of this blog once again!
I am looking forward to learn a lot of different things here in future.

Javed Sumra
Javed Sumra
11 months ago

I am a new member. Right now I can’t login because I don’t have correct username or password. When I request for replacement, program screen ask for my email address. Next it tell me to follow direction from the email I am supposed to receive from YourDailyGerman. Only thing is that I don’t receive the email I supposed to. Please help me with this issue.

1 year ago

Hey Emannual, I have been trying to renew my subscription as it will end soon. I can’t seem to get to the correct forms. I got as far as entering my credit card info. , then the site insisted my username, etc. We’re already taken. Please let me know how to renew. Tried to email but that did not succeed, either. Danke

1 year ago

Fantastic write-up, as always! Thank you for this site, I am learning so much. I think, the difficulty that you alluded to goes both ways (at least for me it does): for an English speaker, what the German does here is super-counterintuitive too. But your explanation is awesome and really makes a ton of sense :) I can’t promise to make as much sense but I’d put the difference in the English usage like this. Past tense: you’re telling a story about a concrete one-time past event (or events). And so it’s usually going to have all of this story-telling stuff attached to the main idea. E.g.: When I was in Berlin, back in 2003, it was for a very brief visit, maybe two days. But what a trip it was! We did a ton of fun stuff, made a bunch of new friends, destroyed the hotel room… etc. Notice how in all of this an English speaker would not use the Perfect once. That’s because these are all concrete one-time past events. And it can be the distant past (like 2003 in my story, true story btw, sans the hotel room damage), or it can be two hours ago. E.g.: When I last saw him two hours ago he was having a beer. See again how there’s no Perfect there (it would sound very wrong). So, the importat thing is, as I understand it… we’re talking about a one-time past event, or any number of such events strung together into a narrative. And if it’s a repeating event, then I’d use the present tense. “When I visit Berlin, I do XYZ”. So that’s probably why the simple past is so popular in everyday English. You can’t tell a story without it, and as you noted above, we tell stories all day. For the Perfect, the most frequent usage that I can detect myself calling upon it for is actually what the google definition says it should be (it sounds richtig to me). How the past affects my present. I’ve been to Berlin (= it’s something I have accomplished in general / I have experienced it in my life / it is now a part of who I am – no specifics, if you decide to start giving specifics, other than specifying how many times (exceptions lol!), you’ll have to switch to the simple past). I’ve eaten crocodile (= again, something I have accomplished / experienced in my life – again, no specifics other than how many times, or you have to switch to the simple past and start telling the story). I’ve had Pinot Noir before (same thing, and again no specifics, but here you can see how the subtext might be something like “do you really think that I am not familiar with Pinot Noir? Of course I’ve had it before, silly”… under the right circumstances, the Perfect would convey something snarky like that, and “before” would deliver the snark… again though, the idea is that the person… Read more »

1 year ago

I was having two cups of coffee ready to go for this article. Since my experience with other articles I usually need four cups. Oh well, but this one… (maybe my german has gotten to another level…whisper)

1 year ago

I’m going thru old posts so I hope you don’t mind all my comments. You said you still could not see the difference between these statements:

I have been to Berlin.
I was in Berlin.

It’s pretty subtle and I struggled with how to describe the difference. So did everyone I asked. I think I can explain it this way:

The first one is an action that happened and is done. Been there, done that.

The second one is the answer to Where were you (I was in Berlin) or when did that happen (when I was in Berlin). I’ve heard some older British speakers answer the where were you question with I’ve been to Berlin but modern speakers say I was in Berlin. No one would answer the when did that happen question with I’ve been to Berlin.

I haven’t the vaguest idea how to describe that in grammatical terms. It really is subtle and even native speakers struggle to define it although we all know when to use it just from osmosis. I don’t feel like I did justice to the explanation but I hope that helps some.

6 months ago
Reply to  Desdra

I’m a (former)English teacher who has taught a lot of grammar. Desdra is correct in their explanation. Here’s some grammar terms that I hope will help. English uses the simple past simply to indicate something happened in the past. Most narratives rely on simple past. “When I went to the store, I saw Maria. She yelled at me. She said we owed her money.”

“I have been to Berlin” is in the present perfect tense. Grammatically speaking, perfect means when something has been completed, that is, perfected. We use the perfect tenses when the emphasis is on something being completed. So, “I have been to Berlin” emphasizes that I’ve completed being in Berlin. It’s done. It’s finished. “My wife has (already) been to the store. She has talked to Maria for the last time. She had paid Maria last week.”

Emmanuel, if I’m understanding you correctly, German perfect tenses don’t emphasize completion. They only convey a narrative past just like the simple past. If that’s correct, is there a way that German signals completion?

1 year ago

amazing post but I get confused occasionally due to spacing issues between words, any way you could edit those?
Thanks so much for this site, it’s been a godsend.
P.s. – I want to support you in the creation of this site but I really cannot swing a regular payment, any way I can make one-time donations?

1 year ago

Not sure if it’s the right section but… I found this phrase in a book

“Er hatte den alten Knupp die Läden des Wohnzimmerfensters schließen sehen”

I understand the meaning, but not the grammar, since there is sehen and not gesehen. What’s happening here?

1 year ago

Loved this post… very very helpful

2 years ago

Umm, by the way, were you aware the link on the word molester at the end of your lesson takes you to a sex toy website?

2 years ago

you are the teacher I’ve been searching for, for the past 2.5 years

2 years ago

Me : Why does German use “present tense” for future events instead of using “werden”
German : it’s easier and shorter without “werden”
Me: But you use hab….
German : shut up dude. Be chill

2) In all seriousness though, what is difference between

Ich hatte ein buch gelesen
Ich las ein buch

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

hatte gelesen. I think I know the diffrence if its “have gelesen” but sure why not discuss the possibility as well

3 years ago

Here’s an almost meaningless fun fact: old english shares more grammar with german than modern. thou is similar to du. So when you say “And so I shall inquire of thee on how many occasions thou have indulged in the amusement of skiing”, it turns out the correct conjugation for thou with the verb to have, is in fact hast: “thou hast indulged”. Only useful if you want to read the original canterbury tales, or the king james bible.

3 years ago

If the written past is not actually used, is this sentence correct?
‘Reiten ist schwerer als ich dachte.’
Or are there particular contexts in which the written-past form is correct?

4 years ago

Thank you, I look forward to learning German. I’m very happy i stumbled upon this site today :-)

4 years ago

thank you for giving me a chance of learning German with financial aid of being a member. The blog is really really helpful :) we love your detailed explanation. Great!!