German Past Tense 4 – When to use “Written Past”

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.



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.

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.

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) 

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.

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.

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.

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

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:


for members :)

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THANK YOU! That was so helpful. I studied German in high school and college and learned both of these forms, but not really when to use them… when I was in Germany I asked a German friend when I should use the written past and he basically said “never” (well, in speaking, anyway). It was in Wuerzburg, so pretty south-ish… but some forms sound kinda funny in spoken past–now I know why!

One thing–is number 10 meant to be ambiguous? I initially interpreted it as a “literal use”, like “That cannot go any faster” but I think based on your past tense, it’s supposed to be “That doesn’t work if it’s faster” or something like that. Is that right?


Was Uhrzeiten betrifft, gibts einen Unterschied zwischen “bis um” and “bis”? Z.B., ich habe ??? 22 Uhr gearbeitet.

Ano Menschkind Königin
Ano Menschkind Königin

Oh Emanuel, mein Geburtstag kommt auf 23. Januar, nicht heute! xD

Es berühmt mich noch sehr, dass du es dich erinnert hast! Du bist ja einer der beste! <3

Jade Erhard
Jade Erhard

Well, wish I could have seen two free lessons over the last several weeks. I might have learned more German. But it appears that I am not allowed to even see one free lesson a week. Sad, I am.


Dankeschön, Emanuel, diese Lektion war sehr klar und hilfreich. Darf ich eine Frage über den Gebrauch von ‘bei’ und ‘auf’ mit ‘Party’ stellen? In den Übungen steht die zwei Beispielsätze ‘Ich hab’ gestern bei der Party Brad Pitt gesehen.’ und ‘Auf der Party gab es Chilli con Carne.’ Kann man in diesen beiden Fällen ‘bei’ und ‘auf’ austauschbar verwenden?


I find this written/spoken past thing fascinating, because it’s so different from English and my native language (Swedish). I remember from my German lessons in school (a very long time ago) that “imperfekt” is used a lot more but that was about it. I wish this blog had existed back then ;)


Awesome that you finished this series – I think these posts really hit a sweet spot where they’re obviously helpful for beginners but are really worth reading through for more advanced learners too. Lots of “oh THAT’S why it sounds right that way” moments.

Just wondering: would you tend to use more written past if you’re telling a story? Like, not about what you did last weekend, but actually telling a folk tale, or a piece of history, or something like that, in front of an audience (and not reading it aloud). In that kind of circumstance, would written past still sound kind of stilted or archaic like it would in conversation, or would it fit the occasion/material?




awesome lesson, even my language partner wasn’t able to give me direct answer on when to use the past and when to use the present perfect, and of course when to use written and spoken past for the same modal verb.


German-is-easy, can you please tell me the difference between Lauten and Sein? I understand that “sein” is far more encompassing than “lauten” is but as far as I know, they both mean “to be”. Any help with be greatly appreciated!


“Sein” is just as general as “to be,” but German (at least in writing or more formal contexts) tends to avoid “sein” wherever a more specialized verb is available, if that makes sense.

“Lauten” is really very specialized; I’d say 99% of the times I’ve heard it in real life, it’s referring to a phone number or something like that that someone is about to read off or recite. It can also be translated with the intransitive version of “to read,” as one of LEO’s examples has it:

– Der Brief lautet folgendermaßen:
– The letter reads as follows:

In more everyday English, you’d be more likely to say, “The letter says:”

It’s just one of those verbs that doesn’t have a single, clear English equivalent, so you can’t think of it as “meaning” “to be.” I’m afraid it’s just not well suited to a vocab flash card… :)

Hope that helps for a start.


Hey Emmanuel. LOVED this audio format for the exercises. Instant gratification and all that. And I got a good bunch of them correct so it was a good confidence builder hearing your voice backing up my answers :) But yes, another worksheet would be great – if you’ve got a spare few hours (how good are you?!!!) Or a link, of course. I’ve never reslly grasped this concept before so a few more exercises would really help it sink in…
Top marks for using Trumpian Resolve in a german lesson AND a climate warming quip about absolute zero! Too much!!!. Best. Language. Teacher. Ever.


Fantastisch! Diese Art von Übung mit Antworten im Audio hat mir sehr gefallen :)


With global warming, John Cage’s piece 4′ 33″ will become only 4′ 29″. The lack of those four seconds of silence will be a torture! I appreciate your sense of humour greatly! The information that you are providing about the past tense is a godsend and hearing your voice to correct or corroborate what one hopes to be right is a great learning idea! Thanks a lot, Emanuel


Kismet! Emmanuel, I found your incredible blog when googling (…something…I’ve forgotten since I’ve become addicted to reading these posts the past few days!!) I studied German for 7 years, jr. high to high school, got good but never used it and all but lost it over the years. Always wanted to get it back, and now I feel there’s HOPE! I love it. I’m starting from the beginning. Thank you so so SO much for doing this blog <3333 You make learning German fun and achievable!! I've learned so much already, my notebook is filling up fast! Will do a membership too. I'm sure I'm not alone in saying how much your work is very appreciated!!!

Question: Do you have a post on the different uses of prepositions like, zu, nach, fur, auf, ab, etc.?


Hi folks! I’ve recently been granted a free subscription to this blog because of the generosity and kindness of this blog’s community of supporters who not only contribute to keep the blog going but also to allow people like me, a student who live on less than half the minimum wage, to be able to access this amazing content. By making knowledge accessible to more people you give them the tools to make the world a better place, and you bet that whenever I’m able to I’ll do the same for other people as you’ve done for me.

Thanks to the community for supporting me and, I bet, hundred others in a similar situation!


I loved the exercise at the end of the article, ’cause sometimes I learn something new but then I don’t know how to apply what I learned right away and then forget.


I don’t think a cat that looks like Hitler is appropriate in a German course lel


Which sounds better:
Ich reiste viel
Ich bin viel gereist?

Charlie Joe
Charlie Joe

I’m jumping ahead. I haven’t read the other comments yet, but I will. I always learn a lot from the comments. But I actually have something in the way of a correction offer. I can’t believe it. But I do. In English we never write numbers in a non-mathematical context as “1” or “100” but always we write them out. It reads better I was taught. But studying German I realize that that rule is totally arbitrary. But if I were writing something to be read by someone else I would not mix numbers and letters usually. And you would never begin a sentence with a number like “100” or something. But it’s arbitrary. But I thought maybe you didn’t know and so you like to learn new things about language. So…

Second, sometimes you write “a” instead of “an” before a word that begins with a vowel. To English speakers my age that sounds really yucky. Like “a apple” or “a ice cube”. We replace “a” with “an” before words that begin vowels and also before words that begin with “h” if the “h” isn’t sounded. So I was taught you would write and say “an Hawaiian” not “a Hawaiian”. I think you probably know this rule but are busy with other things and aren’t really bugged out about it. But finally I have something to contribute…. I love your course. And the proof is that after studying on my own for five years and translating Hermann Hesse’s “Der Steppenwolf” and Richard David Precht’s “Wer Bin Ich, und Wenn Ja, Wie Viel?” I realized that I really didn’t know too much. Your course is very addictive and useful. I think if you publish a book it would be great.


It’s my understanding that numbers ten or less are written out and numbers greater than ten are written as numerals. E.g, There were ten people on the bus but 11 people on the train.

Charlie Joe
Charlie Joe

I spent over a year with Der Steppenwolf. I remember “korrigiert” when I first ran into it. I couldn’t make head or tails of it. I confused it with “corduroy”, the fabric! For over a year I never got what they were referring to and once I got it I’ll never forget it. Translating a book for yourself tells you nothing about grammar. I learned in reading that a “t” at the end of a verb meant it was present tense and adding an “e” after that made it past. But there were so many exceptions. I did this translation because as a boy I learned to read my own language English by reading and re-reading a borrowed library book on the Founding of Jamestown. I wanted to know the story so bad that I kept re-reading it. And in that book “pinnace” was like “korrigiert”. It was many re-readings before I realized it was a type of boat. With a book you get caught up in the story and it pulls you through the work. I have a vocabulary list for every chapter in Wer Wen Ich, and Wenn Ja, Wie Viel. It turned out to be a very personal (ala Precht) look at modern philosophy. And while that turned out to be very educational I felt ripped off by the title which seems to promise so much more than it delivers.

With Der Steppenwolf you remember the turns of phrase. The pechschwarz walls in the mansion during the final party. The cars hunting pedestrians in the story within the story. But while I learned how the original sounded in German I never even knew there was a difference between spoken and written German. But you can convince yourself that you are accomplishing what you intended. And maybe years from now I would be able to mostly read a German book instead of translating it. Then I ran across your blog and I decided to stop re-reading Prech and go through your course instead.

I want to learn German because I am jealous of how well Germans speak English and that began my quest.