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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