4. Simple Past Tense of Verbs

Keep in mind that English’s past-tense complexity leaves you with a choice of various English ways to translate German’s straightforward past tense. Given ich hatte, you will need to consider context in order to choose from: “I had,” “I was having,” or “I did have.” In any case, German past tense always indicates that the action or status is completed and done.

Regular Verbs

Most English verbs form their past tense by adding the suffix –ed (example: played), and German regular verbs behave similarly, by adding the suffix –t– (or, when pronounceability requires it, –et-). However, unlike English verbs, which lose their person/number verb suffixes in past tense (example: I played, she played) German verbs do carry person/number suffixes: They are simply appended to the past-tense suffix. Compare the person/number suffixes you already learned in Unit 2 on p. 12, and note the similarities between those present-tense endings and these past-tense endings. Thus, using spielen (to play) and warten (to wait) as our examples:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich spielte (I played) wir spielten
2nd du spieltest ihr spieltet
3rd er/sie/es spielte sie/Sie spielten
Person Singular Plural
1st ich wartete wir warteten
2nd du wartetest ihr wartetet
3rd er/sie/es wartete sie/Sie warteten

Notes

  1. The third person singular past tense is the same as the first person singular.
  2. Watch out for potential confusion between present-tense and past-tense forms of regular verbs. Consider:

    Wartest du? (Are you waiting?)
    Wartetest du? (Did you wait?)

    Let’s examine wartetest: First you can recognize the ending –est as the person/number marker, since it matches the subject du. That leaves you with a stem of wartet-. Your dictionary will tell you that there is no such infinitive-form verb as warteten, and there is such a word as warten, so therefore the root of this word must be wart-, and the et suffix must be a past-tense marker.

Irregular Verbs

These verbs form their simple past tense by undergoing a vowel change just as “swim” and “give” do in English (swam, gave). The changes are always indicated in the list of irregular verbs in your dictionary. With a few exceptions, these verbs all share the same pattern of endings. Let us use schwimmen (to swim) as our typical example:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich schwamm wir schwammen
2nd du schwammst ihr schwammt
3rd er/sie/es schwamm sie/Sie schwammen

Note: Both the first and third person singular past tense forms of irregular verbs have no endings.

Exceptions to the Rule

There are a few common verbs in German that do not follow the general rule in the formation of their simple past forms. These are listed in the list of irregular verbs, because they have a change of vowel in the past tenses. Some common examples are:

Infinitive Past Tense 3rd Person Singular
brennen (to burn) brannte
bringen (to bring) brachte
denken (to think) dachte
senden (to send) sandte
wenden (to turn) wandte
wissen (to know a fact) wußte
kennen (to know a person/object) kannte

Finally, note that “simple past” is called “preterite” in some grammar reference works.

Last revised on January 2, 2018.