German Past Tense – When to use Preterit and Perfect

Hello everyone,

and welcome back to our look at the German past tense. Last time we spoke about what we call the written past (‘dem scholars call it preterit) and we’ve seen that it’s fairly similar to how it works in English. So some verbs build the form with an ending, others change their stem and for those you should just learn what change is happening.
If you haven’t read that part or you’re like “Hmm… I feel a bit shaky, maybe I should review” then you can find it here

Oh wait, wrong link…

“Man, Emanuel, you really can’t help it with these silly jokes, can you?”
Nah, not really.
Anyway, what will we do today? Today we’ll find out the verbs you need to use the written past are the idiomatic choice even for spoken German and we’ll check what effect is created when the other form is used. Because that varies. For some verbs it just sounds strange, for others it actually could change the meaning.
Sounds like we’re in for a lot of fun. Okay, no actually it sounds like work. But make no mistake, the things we talk about today are crucial if you want to speak idiomatic German. So let’s dive right in, shall we….

When to use the written past

Super quick recap first. German has two forms of past tense. The boring, old school oh-my-god-we-love-Latin-so-much-names are preterit and perfect but we call them written past and spoken past.
Why? Because the spoken past is mostly used in spoken German, the written past is used for novels and such.
Most verbs, 98.6152 % I’d say, use spoken past in spoken language, no matter the content. That’s a big difference to how it is in English and Germans really have to hustle to wrap their heads around the use of present perfect.
But anyway, for the remaining… uh… few verbs the written past is the idiomatic choice in spoken German.
Problem is, that these few verbs are pretty much the mostest verbs ever, so written past is effectively used all the time. Just like the world’s wealth. The top 1 percent get like 50% of the pie.
Which is insane and a shame and needs to end, by the way!! That’s right. #emanuelisacommie. 
Anyway, so this was our little recap. And now let’s find out for which verbs we need the written past.

haben, sein and the modals

These are really not a big surprise. They all have their special conjugation and they’re super common. Luckily the forms are not that crazy, and for haben and sein the connection to English really shows.

  • Ich hatte gestern einen Kater.
  • I had a hangover yesterday.
  • Ich war vorgestern auf einer Party.
  • I was at a party the day before yesterday.



It’s actually a bit ironic that haben and sein would use the written past for themselves. I mean… they play such a big role in forming the spoken past. But then again, it would be kind of double.

  • Ich habe gestern keine Zeit gehabt. (sounds “clumsy”)
  • Ich hatte gestern keine Zeit.
  • I didn’t have time yesterday.
  • Wo bist du gewesen? (sounds a bit high brow)
  • Wo warst du?
  • Where have you been/where were you?

You’ll probably hear the spoken past versions here and there. Some people might even claim that there’s a difference in meaning but even if there is – that’s interesting for a linguist but for a language learner it’s a waste of time as absolute as −269.15  Celsius (4 Kelvin)… get it? Get it? Haha. Physics puns. They’re the best.
What’s that? Oh 4 Kelvin is NOT absolute zero? Well I guess you haven’t heard of this thing called Global Warming then. Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh. And it’s gonna be at 10 Kelvin if we don’t cut emissions of gr…
“Hey Emanuel, why don’t YOU cut your emissions of bullshit for a start.”
Uh… uhm… okay.
Let’s move on to the modals. Their forms are not that similar to the English counterparts, but they are actually pretty much in line with the regular written past we learned in the last part.

  • I couldn’t sleep last night.
  • Ich konnte letzte Nacht nicht schlafen.
  • “Wo warst du denn gestern? Die Party war voll cool.”
    “Ich wollte kommen, aber ich musste eine Präsentation fertig machen.”
  • “Where were you yesterday? The party was really great.”
    “I wanted to come, but I had to finish a presentation.”
  • Am Anfang mochte Thomas seine neue Kollegin nicht.
  • In the beginning, Thomas didn’t really like his new colleague.
  • “Du solltest mich nach der Arbeit anrufen.”
    “Ich weiß.  Ich hab’s vergessen.”
  • “You were supposed to call me after work.”
    “I know. I forgot.”
  • Der kleine Tim durfte gestern zum ersten Mal Assassin’s Creed spielen.
  • Little Tim was allowed to play Assassin’s Creed for the first time.

If there’s an umlaut, you take it away and you have to note that for mögen you have to change the “g” to “ch” but that’s really it. The rest is like we know it. That’s why I’ll only give you the full table for können. You can do the others yourself :).


Now, how’s it with the spoken past for the modals? Is it idiomatic?
Well, for some it is and you might hear it once in a while but believe me… you do not want to do that.
Why? Well, this is what spoken past of modals would look like if we use the rules we learned

  • Ich habe arbeiten gemusst.
  • had to work.
  • Ich habe das nicht machen gewollt.
  • I did not want to do that.

Problem is that


Spoken past for modals works a little differently. For one thing, you do NOT use a ge-form but the dictionary form (infinitive) 

  • Ich habe arbeiten müssen.
  • Ich habe das nicht machen wollen.

And that’s the easy part. It gets really tricky once you start making side sentence. But let’s not go there. These things are for advanced learners. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that they’re super difficult or anything. You can comprehend the rules, no problem. But thinking about this stuff and trying to apply it will slow you down big time whilst not making your German sound any better. Just stick with the written past for the modals until you’re fluent.
Now with usual suspects for special behavior out of the way, let’s take a look at which other verbs use the written past and when they do it. Oh and before you get confused… I will NOT give you the full conjugation table for the verbs.
Yeah, I know….

#emanuel #worstteacher #giveusthetables

But hey… if you want it, you do it :). If you’re not sure, just review the last post in this series or just ask me in the comments. But you can do it, you’re smart enough. That’s a big part of language learning in my opinion actually – getting over the language-angst, realizing that you’re smart enough to understand the rules and apply them. You need to get rid of that doubt that says “Ohh, what I think is probably wrong,” because often it isn’t wrong at all. And even if it is… you need to say it with Trumpian resolve.
Seriously, you got this! And I really mean that!
But enough with the pep-talk… let’s look at the verbs.


There are essentially two gehens we’re dealing with; the factual gehen with the idea of going places, and then all the various abstract metaphorical variations of things going.  The factual gehen uses the spoken past, the more abstract, metaphorical gehen usually works with the written past.

  • Ich bin zu Aldi gegangen.
  • I have gone/went to Aldi.
  • Das Konzert war scheiße. Sei froh, dass du nicht hingegangen bist.
  • The concert was shit. Be glad you didn’t go [there].
  • Gestern ging es mir nicht so gut.
  • I didn’t feel very well yesterday.
  • Ich habe versucht, den Computer aufzumachen, aber das ging nicht.
  • I tried opening the computer but it wasn’t possible (the plan wasn’t “going”)

And gehen is pretty strict about this. Here are two examples where I used the “wrong” past version:

  • Mir ist es gestern nicht gut gegangen.
  • I wasn’t feeling well yesterday.
  • Das Konzert war scheiße. Sei froh, dass du nicht hingingst
  • The concert was shit. Be glad, you didn’t go [there].

The first example is super clumsy sounding, the second one sounds like you’re standing on a theater stage performing a play from 300 years ago.
So rule of thumb for gehen: spoken past for going places, written past for the rest.


Just like with gehen, we have a factual and a metaphorical side of the verb. The factual one is actual finding, as in finding your phone or just a 10 dollar bill on  the street. The abstract one is finden in sense of opinion – a usage that is much more common in German than it is in English.
And based on what we learned about gehen, what would you say which finden uses which past form?
Exactly! The factual one works with the spoken past, the opinion-finden takes written past.

  • Ich habe die Mütze gefunden.
  • I found the hat.
  • Hast du eine Wohnung gefunden?
  • Have you found an apartment/a flat?
  • Ich fand die Mütze zu teuer.
  • I found the hat too expensive.
  • Wie fand’st du den Film? (“e” is often swallowed in spoken German)
  • How did you like the movie?/What did you think of the movie?
    (lit.: “How did you find the movie?”.. super common phrasing)

Just like gehen, finden is pretty strict, so you shouldn’t mix up the two.

  • Ich fand mein Telefon.
  • Ich habe den Film gut gefunden.

The first one sounds incomplete. Like… you didn’t tell us your opinion yet. And the second one leans a bit toward the idea that you had no problem finding the cinema.
Just to make sure though… there’s technically nothing wrong with these. It’s just that people don’t ever say this and that’s why it sounds  strange.
So … spoken past for the factual finding, written past for the metaphorical ones. I wonder if we found a pattern here. Let’s see.


Sehen itself pretty much always uses the spoken past.

  • Maria hat gestern einen Film gesehen.
  • Maria watched a movie yesterday.
  • Ich hab’ gestern bei der Party Brad Pitt gesehen.
  • I saw Brad Pitt at the party yesterday.

And using the written past would once again sound a bit archaic or pompous.  Like in this famous quote by Cesar.

  • Ich kam, ich sah, ich siegte.

Now, for sehen, there isn’t a common abstract use that would be worth mentioning. But there is a SUPER useful prefix version: aussehen. Aussehen is to look in sense of someone’s appearance. And for this one, you should stick with written past. 

  • Maria sah gestern echt gut aus.
  • Maria looked great yesterday.
  • Ich wollte gestern joggen gehen, aber es sah nach Regen aus.
  • I wanted to go running but it looked like rain.

For the du-form the spoken past is actually the slightly better sounding option though. so please… don’t take any of this as a rule set in stone.  It’s just a description of what’s more likely.


The literal geben, the one about giving someone something, uses the spoken past. But even if you’re a beginner, you might have already come across the other geben, the really confusing abstract geben – geben in the sense of “there is” (“es gibt”). This one uses written past and kaboooooooooom…


To be honest though, geben is not as strict as finden.

  • I gave you the book.
  • Ich habe dir das Buch gegeben…. proper spoken German
  • Ich gab dir das Buch.
    (sounds stilted and old school. Like you’re studying literature or something)
  • 100 years ago, there were bears in this forest.
  • Vor 100 Jahren gab es in diesem Wald Bären.
  • Vor 100 Jahren hat es in diesem Wald Bären gegeben.
    (Sounds a bit more complicated than it needs to be, but not too bad either)

The written past in the first one does sound quite stilted, but the spoken past in the second is not exactly beautiful, but it rings okay; to my ears anyway.
And the next two verbs are even more laissez-faire about it.

stehen and liegen

Stehen and liegen in the sense of being positioned usually uses the spoken past BUT the written past sounds fine, too, especially for objects.

  • “Meine Beine tun weh und meine Nase läuft.”
    “Warum das denn?”
    ” Ich habe 5 Stunden im Regen in der Schlange gestanden.”
    “Ich stand 5 Stunden im Regen in der Schlange.”
  • “My legs hurt and my nose is running.”
    “Oh, why?”
    “I was standing in line in the rain for five hours. “
  • Ich hab’ bis um 2 im Bett gelegen. (sounds better)
  • Ich lag bis um 2 im Bett.
  • I stayed/was lying in bed till 2.
  • Das Buch lag auf dem Tisch. (sounds better)
  • Das Buch hat auf dem Tisch gelegen.
  • The book was lying on the table.

In some contexts one past version is preferable for the other but looking into details like this would be like laying out carpet in your new home when the walls aren’t even finished.
When it comes to the abstract uses, things are as usual: the written past is by far the more idiomatic choice.

  • In der Mail stand nichts von einem Vertrag.
  • The email said nothing about a contract.
  • “Der Abend war nicht so schön, aber das lag nicht an dir.”
  • “The evening wasn’t that great but that’s not on you/your fault.”

Oh, those are the main abstract use of stehen and liegen, by the way. Tadah. “Liegen an” is a common way to assign responsibility and stehen is the German counterpart to to say in contexts of the content of texts.
Wow, contexts of the content of texts…. what a messy sentence :).
All right.
Now, we’ve seen that there is a pattern, or actually let’s call it more of a trend. But for there are also some verbs that leave it completely up to you.

Whatever – wissen, denken, werden

For these ones it really doesn’t matter, which past version you pick. Both ways sound fine, both are used and you can pick whichever is easier for you.

  • Ich dachte, du weißt das.
  • Ich hab’ gedacht, du weißt das.
  • I thought you knew that.
  • Ich wusste das nicht.
  • Ich habe das nicht gewusst.
  • I didn’t know that.
  • Die Bar ist vor 2 Monaten eröffnet worden.
  • Die Bar wurde vor 2 Monaten eröffnet.
  • The bar was opened 2 months ago.

Actually werden is a bit controversial. Some books, online sources and teachers argue that there indeed is a clear and fleshed out difference  in meaning between the two past versions for werden. But I have to say... whenever I come across that I’m basically like this:

Well… with a two day old beard. But yeah, I don’t care that much and neither should you. There is some underlying trend but there are thousands upon thousands of examples that show that people DO NOT make a distinction in meaning, so at least for a learner it doesn’t matter.

Now, these were not ALL the verbs that, at times anyway, get used with written past in spoken German. Kommen (kam-), hängen (hing-), laufen (lief-), kennen (kannt-) would be some other examples. But I actually think with the pattern or trend we’ve found you should be fine – the abstract meanings tend to work with written past, the factual ones with spoken. Let’s try it.

  1. Ich laufe nach Hause. (I walk home.)
  2. Die Prüfung läuft gut. (The exam goes well.)

What would you say, which one takes which past?
Exactly, number 1 sounds better with spoken past, number 2 with written past.

  • Ich bin nach Hause gelaufen.
  • Die Prüfung lief gut.

I guess we should also mention that there are significant regional differences, especially for the less common ones. Like… the South uses spoken past for pretty much everything while the North sticks with written past more often. Because the North remembers.
It remembers the time before the spoken past came around.
That’s an interesting topic actually, because knowing the origin of the spoken past and the English Present Perfect could give us some cool insights into why the present perfect is the way it is and also to how this shines through in the German spoken past. In fact, we’ve talked about the evolution of Present Perfect before (I’ll add a link below).
But I think we’ve had enough input for the day, so let’s instead do a little exercise.

Let’s practice

I’ll give you a sentences in present and you have to translate it into past tense. The solutions are in the audio.
Oh, and I think you’ll be fine without translations ;).

  1. Ich finde die Party langweilig (boring).
  2. Ich kann mich nicht konzentrieren.
  3. Thomas gibt Maria das Buch.
  4. Ich bin zu Hause.
  5. Ich sehe die Katze nicht.
  6. Willst du joggen gehen?
  7. Auf der Party gibt es Chilli con Carne.
  8. Wir haben beim Lernen viel Spaß (fun).
  9. Maria muss nach der Arbeit noch einkaufen.
  10. Das geht nicht schneller. (“That can’t be done any faster”)
  11. Weißt du, wie viel das kostet?
  12. Hast du Spaß?
  13. Ich darf nicht Feierabend machen (finish work and go home).
  14. Was steht in dem Artikel?
  15. Mein Computerproblem liegt an meinem Browser.
  16. Ich denke, ich habe es verstanden.

Well… I actually hope that you DID understand it :).
If you want, you can leave your solutions in the comments and I’ll correct them and see if there’s a systematic mistake in there.
And if you want, I’ll draw up a longer exercise with many more examples that also include verbs we haven’t explicitly mentioned today. Just let me know, if that would be helpful for you.

So I think that’s it for today. This was our look at when to use the written past in spoken German and guess what:
we’re actually DONE with the past tense.
You now know everything you need to know for daily conversation. Hooray :).
As always, if you have any questions about any of the things we’ve talked about today or if you want to talk about the usage of some verbs that I haven’t mentioned today in more detail,  just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Oh… in case you’re a beginner and you don’t know what to learn next: by now, you should know

  • present tense
  • past tense
  • main sentences
  • questions
  • the first part of adjective endings

If you haven’t completed this list yet, head right over to the course section and do it. If you know all this already, now is the perfect time to look into cases ;).

Further Reading:


5 38 votes
Article Rating

German in your inbox

Sign up to my epic newsletter and get notified whenever I post something new :)
(roughly once per week)

No Spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.