A Simple Guide to the German Preterite Tense

german preterite tense

Hallo! In this article, we will be looking at the German Preterite tense, what it is and how to use it. Enjoy!

What is the German preterite tense?

The German preterite (or Präteritum) is the first past tense in German. There are three different past tenses in general (Präteritum, Perfekt and Plusquamperfekt) and each of them is used for specific reasons. 

When should we use the German preterite tense?

It is important to know, when to use the German Präteritum and when the Perfekt, since these two forms resemble the most in their use.

For the German preterite, we can say that in general, it is almost used exclusively in written German. 

There are a few verbs, which are frequently used in daily communication (we will mark them down below) but mainly, this tense has withdrawn into our written language.

We find the preterite in telling, reports, facts, states and to describe actions that were completed in the past. This can include one single, completed event or also a series of completed actions.

The German Perfekt, on the other hand, has taken a lot of work off the Präteritum. It is much easier to build and has fewer irregularities. 

The Perfekt is our go-to language for daily, spoken communication. In written language, however, it might seem a bit clumsy to use. 

The Präteritum, however, is more elegant and defends its status as hard to learn but beautiful tense.

How do we form the preterite tense?

As you already know from, German tenses always require personal pronouns. 

These are the German personal pronouns, which you have to learn by heart:

1st person singular ich1st person plural wir

2nd person singular du2nd person plural ihr
3rd person singular er / sie / es3rd person plural sie / Sie*

*The polite form in German is the 3rd person plural Sie

In order to form our verbs in the preterite tense, we need the infinitive. The infinitive is the basic form of our verb, so the verb that has not been conjugated yet.

The regular German verbs end on “-en”. We take away this suffix (or ending) which leaves us with the verb’s stem. To this stem we now add this suffixes to mark the preterite tense:
1st person singular - te1st person plural - ten
2nd person singular - test2nd person plural - tet
3rd person singular - te3rd person plural - ten

Take for example the important verb machen (to do). To the stem mach we now add our endings of the preterite tense.

1st person singular ich mach - te1st person plural wir mach - ten
2nd person singular du mach - test2nd person plural ihr mach - tet
3rd person singular er/sie/es mach - te3rd person plural sie/Sie mach - ten

With the mandatory personal pronouns, this gives us:

  • ich machte
  • du machstest
  • er / sie / es machte
  • wir machten
  • ihr machtet
  • sie / Sie machten.
Or as another example the verb wohnen (to live; to stay). 

The stem is wohn, which gives us the following conjugation:
1st person singular ich wohn - te1st person plural wir wohn - ten
2nd person singular du wohn - test2nd person plural ihr wohn - tet
3rd person singular er/sie/es wohn - te3rd person plural sie/Sie wohn - ten


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Irregularities in the preterite tense

Reading a written medium in German, you will soon notice that most of the preterite forms are irregular. 

Unfortunately, there is no way around those irregularities and you simply have to learn them by heart.

For the beginning, we can focus on the most important ones, which are necessary to know.

Additionally, the verbs marked with an “!” are often used as preterite form in spoken, daily German, too. 

Sein (to be) !
1st person singular ich war1st person plural wir waren
2nd person singular du warst2nd person plural ihr wart
3rd person singular er/sie/es war3rd person plural sie/Sie waren

Haben (to have) !

1st person singular ich hatte1st person plural wir hatten
2nd person singular du hattest2nd person plural ihr hattet
3rd person singular er/sie/es hatte3rd person plural sie/Sie hatten

Gehen (to go)

1st person singular ich ging1st person plural wir gingen
2nd person singular du gingst2nd person plural ihr gingt
3rd person singular er/sie/es ging3rd person plural sie/Sie gingen

Mögen (to like) !

1st person singular ich mochte1st person plural wir mochten
2nd person singular du mochtest2nd person plural ihr mochtet
3rd person singular er/sie/es mochte3rd person plural sie/Sie mochten

Here are some sentences, which contain irregular verbs in the preterite tense:

Ich war am Samstag da.I was there on Saturday.
Wo wart ihr gestern?*Where have you been yesterday?
Seine Familie hatte nie einen Hund.His family never had a dog.
Damals hatten wir noch ein großes Haus.Back then, we still had a big house.
Sie gingen zusammen nach Hause.They went home together.
Mochtest du die Vorstellung?*Did you like the performance?
Ihr mochtet euch schon immer.You have always liked each other.

*You might notice that the personal pronoun stands behind the conjugated verb when you are asking a question. This type of question we call Inversion.

a) Modal verbs

Let us continue with some more irregular verbs. German has modal verbs, which are used frequently in our daily communication.

Also the preterite for appears daily in spoken German and should be thus learned by heart.

You might notice that the Umlaut in können, müssen and dürfen changes:

Können, ö -> o

Müssen & dürfen, ü -> u

Können (can; to know how to do sth.) !
1st person singular ich konnte1st person plural wir konnten
2nd person singular du konntest2nd person plural ihr konntet
3rd person singular er/sie/es konnte3rd person plural sie/Sie konnten

Müssen (to must; to have to) !

1st person singular ich musste1st person plural wir mussten
2nd person singular du musstest2nd person plural ihr musstet
3rd person singular er/sie/es musste3rd person plural sie/Sie mussten

Dürfen (to be allowed; to can) !

1st person singular ich durfte1st person singular ich durfte
2nd person singular du durftest2nd person plural ihr durftet
3rd person singular er/sie/es durfte3rd person plural sie/Sie durften

The last two modal verbs, wollen and sollen, are in fact regular!

Nevertheless, we added them to the other modal verbs so that it is easier for you two learn them together.

Wollen (to want) !
1st person singular ich wollte1st person plural wir wollten
2nd person singular du wolltest2nd person plural ihr wolltet
3rd person singular er/sie/es wollte3rd person plural sie/Sie wollten

Sollen (to be supposed to; shall) !

1st person singular ich sollte1st person plural wir sollten
2nd person singular du solltest2nd person plural ihr solltet
3rd person singular er/sie/es sollte3rd person plural sie/Sie sollten

Here are some sentences which contain modal verbs in the preterite tense:

Ich musste ihm helfen.I had to help him.
Du konntest die Aufgabe lösen.You could solve the task.
Wir konnten nicht kommen.We couldn’t come.
Konnte sie schon immer so gut tanzen?Could she always dance that well?
Ihr musstet lange dort bleiben.You had to stay there a long time.
Ihr musste früher gehen.I had to go earlier.
Er durfte nicht mit uns kommen.He wasn’t allowed to come with us.
Durften sie das essen?Were they allowed to eat that?
Sie wollte das nicht.She didn’t want it.
Ich wollte immer Kinder.I always wanted kids.
Ihr solltet anrufen, wenn ihr angekommen seid.You were supposed to call when you arrived.

b) Strong verbs

Strong verbs change their main vocal, which makes them irregular.

However, they are part of our daily communication and you will especially notice them in written German. 

Here you find the most commonly used strong verbs. 

Essen (to eat)

Notice that this verb also changes its double s to a German ß!
1st person singular ich aß1st person plural wir aßen
2nd person singular du aßest2nd person plural ihr aßet
3rd person singular er/sie/es aß3rd person plural sie/Sie aßen

Sehen (to see)

1st person singular ich sah1st person plural wir sahen
2nd person singular du sahst2nd person plural ihr saht
3rd person singular er/sie/es sah3rd person plural sie/Sie sahen

Sprechen (to speak)

1st person singular ich sprach1st person plural wir sprachen
2nd person singular du sprachst2nd person plural ihr spracht
3rd person singular er/sie/es sprach3rd person plural sie/Sie sprachen

Helfen (to help)

1st person singular ich half1st person plural wir halfen
2ndperson singular du halfst2nd person plural ihr halft
3rd person singular er/sie/es half3rd person plural sie/Sie halfen

Geben (to give)

1st person singular ich gab1st person plural wir gaben
2nd person singular du gabst2nd person plural ihr gabt
3rd person singular er/sie/es gab3rd person plural sie/Sie gaben

Schreiben (to write)

1st person singular ich schrieb1st person plural wir schrieben
2nd person singular du schriebst2nd person plural ihr schriebt
3rd person singular er/sie/es schrieb3rd person plural sie/Sie schrieben

Fahren (to drive)

1st person singular ich fuhr1st person plural wir fuhren
2nd person singular du fuhrst2nd person plural ihr fuhrt
3rd person singular er/sie/es fuhr3rd person plural sie/Sie fuhren

Laufen (to walk; to run) !

1st person singular ich lief1st person plural wir liefen
2nd person singular du liefst2nd person plural ihr lieft
3rd person singular er/sie/es lief3rd person plural sie/Sie liefen

Tragen (to carry, to wear)

1st person singular ich trug1st person plural wir trugen
2nd person singular du trugst2nd person plural ihr trugt
3rd person singular er/sie/es trug3rd person plural sie/Sie trugen

Beginnen (to begin, to start)

1st person singular ich begann1st person plural wir begannen
2nd person singular du begannst2nd person plural ihr begannt
3rd person singular er/sie/es begann3rd person plural sie/Sie begannen

Here are some sentences, which contain strong verbs in the preterite tense.

Only the sentence marked with “ ! “ are likely to be used in spoken German, too.

Am Abend aß er nur Brot.In the evening, he only ate bread.
Wir aßen gemeinsam.We ate together.
Er sah sie an einem Tisch sitzen.He saw her sitting at a table.
Ihr saht müde aus.You looked tired.
Ich sprach nicht aus, was ich dachte.I did not say what I thought.
Sie sprachen leise.They talked quietly.
Sie half mir.She helped me.
Wir halfen den Jungen.We helped the boys.
Gab es etwas zu essen? !Was there something to eat?
Wir gaben alles, was wir konnten.We gave everything we could.
Sie schrieben sich Briefe.They wrote letters.
Ich schrieb dir eine Nachricht.I wrote you a message.
Ihr fuhrt mit dem Auto.You took the car.
Er fuhr am Abend zu ihr.He drove to her in the evening.
Wie lief deine Klausur? !How was your exam?
Es lief gut. !It went well.
Wir liefen uns über den Weg. !We ran into each other.
Sie trug ein schönes Kleid.She wore a nice dress.
Ich trug seine Tasche.I carried his bag.
Wir trugen die gleiche Jacke.We wore the same jackets.
Ich begann mir Sorgen zu machen. !I began to worry.

Vielen Dank!

We hope you have learnt something from this article.

Surely, you can always come back here to check on a conjugation. 

We know that the German preterite seems complicated at first but keep in mind that your successful learning comes from steady repetition: Constant dripping wears away the stone. 

Or as we say in German: Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein.

About the Author Marion Maeurman

Marion studies English, French and Italian in Freiburg, Germany. She enjoys diving into new cultures and never misses the opportunity to somehow improve her language skills.

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