When to Use the Präteritum in German
While the Perfekt is mostly used when speaking, the Präteritum is mostly used when writing. Both forms express that an action has ended. Technically the Perfekt should be used when the event has completely come to an end, while the Präteritum is for things that aren’t completely done. As a rule of thumb, however, use the Perfekt when speaking and the Präteritum when writing.
If you want to test your mastery of this tense, you should download Herr Antrim’s quick guide along with a worksheet and answer key. This will help you practice, regular and irregular verbs in a variety of different ways.
Conjugation of Regular Verbs in Präteritum
Regular verbs receive a “T” between the verb stem and the ending. This “T” marks the German past tense in the same way that “ED” does in English. Let’s take a look at a few examples. In the present tense, the verb “sagen” is conjugated like this:
Changing Present Tense into Präteritum
sagen – to say
ich sage – I say
du sagst – you say
er, sie, es sagt – he, she, it says
wir sagen – we say
ihr sagt – you say
sie, Sie sagen – they, you say
In order to form the Präteritum tense, we add “T” between the verb stem and the ending.
sagen – to say
ich sagte – I said
du sagtst – you sayd
er, sie, es sagtt – he, she, it sayd
wir sagten – we said
ihr sagtt – you sayd
sie, Sie sagten – they, you said
As you may have noticed, verbs are difficult to pronounce in the “du”, “er, sie, es” and “ihr” forms and they look funny. With “er, sie, es” the fix is simple. We just replace the last “T”, which is the present tense ending with an “E”.
For “sagen” with “du” and “ihr” we need a helper. A vowel that helps us pronounce these verbs. Here we use “E” again.
sagen – to say
ich sagte – I said
du sagtest – you said
er, sie, es sagte – he, she, it said
wir sagten – we said
ihr sagtet – you said
sie, Sie sagten – they, you said
Verb Endings in Präteritum
If you want to simplify this entire concept, you could say that the endings are as follows:
er, sie, es -te
sie, Sie -ten
“machen” in Präteritum
And now example sentences with the verb “machen”.
to do, make
Ich machte den ganzen Tag nichts.
I did nothing the entire day.
Was machtest du?
What did you do?
Der Mann machte, was er wollte.
The man did what he wanted.
Wir machten eine Liste.
We made a list.
Ihr machtet ein gutes Angebot.
You made a good offer.
Die Diener machten, was die Prinzessin befahl.
The servants did what the princess commanded.
Verbs with D or T
If a verb stem ends with “D” or “T”, we again use the helping vowel “E” and put it between the verb stem and the ending, just like we did with “ihr sagtet”. For example:
Ich redete mit dem Lehrer.
I talked with the teacher.
Redetest du mit deiner Mutter?
Did you talk with your mother?
Die Krankenschwester redete mit den Eltern des Kindes.
The nurse talked with the parents of the child.
Die Leute redeten und wir hörten nicht zu.
The people talked and we didn’t listen.
Redetet ihr mit dem Bürgermeister.
Did you talk to the mayor?
Die Studenten redeten über Moral und Religion.
The students talked about morals and religion.
Ich arbeitete in einem Lebensmittelgeschäft.
I worked in a grocery store.
Arbeitetest du am ersten Weihnachtstag?
Did you work on Christmas Day?
Mein Vater arbeitete als Mechaniker.
My father worked as a mechanic.
Wir arbeiteten zusammen.
We worked together.
Arbeitetet ihr an Sylvester?
Did you work on New Year’s Eve?
Die Verkäufer arbeiteten die ganze Nacht.
The sales people worked the entire night.
Verbs with 2 Consonants
This rule also applies when two consonants are next to each other and their sounds are not the same. For example:
Ich atmete tief ein.
I breathed in deeply.
Du atmetest aus.
You breathed out.
Der Fisch atmete unter dem Wasser.
The fish breathed under water.
Wir atmeten nicht unter dem Wasser.
We did not breathe under water.
Did you breathe?
Die Bäume atmeten auch.
The trees breathed too.
Examples of Regular Verbs in Präteritum
Those are all of the rules for regular verbs in the Präteritum. I think we need some more examples, however, so here they are.
Ich glaubte an Gott.
I believed in God.
Warum zeigtest du ihm deine Münzensammlung nicht?
Why didn’t you show him your coin collection?
Das bedeutete viel Arbeit für mich.
That meant a lot of work for me.
Wir führten die Ponys auf dem Weg.
We lead the ponies on the path.
Was meintet ihr darüber.
What did you think of that?
Die Neandertaler lebten vor langer Zeit.
The neanderthals lived a long time ago.
Ich fragte den Polizist, warum er mich hielt.
I asked the police officer why he stopped me.
Stelltest du das Buch zurück auf den Regal?
Did you put the book back on the shelf?
Er spielte oft Schach im Park.
He often played chess in the park.
Wir brauchten zehn tausend Euro.
We needed ten thousand Euros.
Warum folgtet ihr mir?
Why did you follow me?
Die klugen Schüler lernten Deutsch.
The smart students learned German.
If you would like to see a list of regular verbs in German click here.
Practice Regular Verbs in Präteritum with a Story
Rules for Irregular Verbs in Präteritum
The verb “geben” is a perfect example of irregular verbs in the Präteritum. Irregular verbs in this tense start with some sort of stem change. Often this is simply a vowel change, but sometimes it can be a complete transformation of the infinitive of the verb. The “ich” and “er, sie, es” forms don’t get endings after the stem, but the other forms simply require the same endings they did in the present tense. Let’s take a look at a few examples of “geben” in the Präteritum.
Ich gab ihm eine Flasche Wasser.
I gave him a bottle of water.
Was gabst du deinem Vater zum Geburtstag?
What did you give your father for his birthday?
Meine Mutter gab mir etwas Geld.
My mother gave me some money.
Meine Schwester und ich gaben dem Kind einen Lutscher.
My sister and I gave the child a lollipop.
Was gabt ihr dem Polizisten?
What did you give the policeman?
Die Lehrer gaben den Schülern die Hausaufgaben.
The teachers gave the students the homework.
Präteritum with Irregular Verbs that End with “S” or “ß”
What happens if the verb stem ends with “S” or “ß”? For example the verb “essen” in Präteritum the verb stem is “aß”. In this case we add the helping vowel “E” between the verb stem and the ending with “du” and “ihr”. The other forms do not need this.
Ich aß jeden Tag Schokolade.
I ate chocolate everyday.
Aßest du den Apfel?
Did you eat the apple?
Der Angestellte aß das Butterbrot vom Boden.
The employee at the sandwich off of the floor.
Wir aßen jeden Tag in der Mensa.
We at everyday in the dining hall.
Aßet ihr den ganzen Käselaib?
Did you eat the entire wheel of cheese?
Die Bauarbeiter aßen jeden Tag um zwölf Uhr.
The construction workers at everyday at twelve o’clock.
Präteritum with Irregular Verbs that End with “D” or “T”
We do the same for verb stems that end with “D” or “T”. For example:
finden – to find
Ich fand den Heiligen Gral.
I found the Holy Grail.
Fandest du deine Schlüssel?
Did you find your keys?
Die Lehrerin fand den Spickzettel.
The teacher found the cheatsheet.
Fandet ihr das vermisstes Kind?
Did you find the lost child?
Die Archäologen fanden die Mumie.
The archaeologists found the mummy.
tun – to do
Ich tat nichts.
I did nothing?
Was tatest du?
What did you do?
Er tat, was sie sagte.
He did, what she said.
Wir taten, was wir konnten.
We did, what we could.
Tatet ihr das?
Did you do that?
Meine Eltern taten alles für mich.
My parents did everything for me.
How do you know what the verb stem of an irregular verb will be in the Präteritum?
The conjugation for irregular verbs isn’t so complicated, but now you are asking yourself how you are supposed to know which verb stem to use if the stems seem to be completely random with these irregular verbs. You might see verbs like: sein – war, geben – gab, essen – aß, finden – fand, tun – tat. This might lead you to think that all irregular verbs in this tense require an “A”. Then you see bleiben – blieb and this rule is broken. Do all of the irregular verbs at least end with the same consonant they did in the present tense? No. ziehen – zog.
Why does everything in German have to be so complicated? In my opinion, it isn’t that complicated. You simply have to recognize the patterns. Since I can recognize these patterns, I can usually guess what a verb will do in the Präteritum without googling it. With a bit of practice, you can do it, too.
Many verbs that include “EI” in the verb stem in their infinitive form, will switch these in the Perfekt and Präteritum. Be careful with this, however, as there is also the verb “heißen” which switches once and then switches back. For example:
Although most verbs with “EI” in the stem will switch these vowels, there are a few verbs that simply use “I” in place of “EI”. For example:
“IE” often becomes “O” in the Präteritum and Perfekt.
E-A-O and E-A-E
If a ver has “E” in the stem, there are two popular patterns, E-A-O and E-A-E.
A-U-A and A-IE-A
If the verb stem includes “A”, there are two popular patterns, A-U-A and A-IE-A.
I-A-U and I-A-O
There is also I-A-U and I-A-O verbs. For example:
Verbs That are Similar to the English
What I think is especially helpful is that these verbs are often similar to the English versions. English is a Germanic language after all. If you already know the English verbs, the German ones are much simpler. For example:
Although these verbs are look almost the same in English and German, there are many other verbs that are irregular in German and English. Often it works that if a verb is irregular in English, it is irregular in German, too. If you know that you are using a verb that is irregular in English, there is a high probability that the verb is also irregular in German. They might not be irregular in the same way, but it is a good rule of thumb: irregular in English = irregular in German.
Unfortunately many English native speakers can’t form the irregular past tense properly either. Then it isn’t helpful at all.
Mixed Verbs or Irregular Weak Verbs
There is one more category of verbs that some teachers use in their lessons, which I think is dumb. They call this category of verbs in the Präteritum either “mixed verbs” or “irregular weak verbs”. This category includes the following verbs, for example:
The Problem with the Label “Mixed Verbs”
First let me explain why I think it is dumb to call these verbs either “mixed verbs” or “irregular weak verbs”. They don’t follow the rules for regular verbs in the Präteritum. Because the stem is not the same as it is in the infinitive, that means that you have to memorize what it is. In my opinion, leaners should simply memorize that, as if it were any other irregular verb.
Why do they call them “mixed verbs”?
So why do some teachers call these verbs this and what are “irregular weak verbs” anyway? There is a semantic difference that no learner understands nor needs. Weak verbs are those that follow the rules. In Präteritum this means that the verbs are conjugated with the -te endings and in the Perfekt tense they end with -t. Strong verbs don’t get a -te ending in Präteritum and end with -en in Perfekt.
Regular verbs don’t have a stem vowel change in Präteritum or Perfekt, while irregular verbs do. There are also teachers that believe “irregular” means that a verb doesn’t follow any rules and therefore they are very rare. For example: gehen – ging – gegangen
Why does it have to be so complicated?
There are a few problems with this way of thinking, however. First, most learners don’t want to know things like this. They don’t need to know it. It is simpler to say “There are two categories of verbs, regular and irregular. The regular verbs follow the rules and the irregular verbs, do what they want. You simply have to memorize them.”
Second, too many teachers don’t understand the difference between strong and weak verbs correctly and they teach it incorrectly. They have no idea that they aren’t even right.
Third, there are enough things that German learners have to memorize without confusing them with weak and strong and regular and irregular.
The Simple Version
Regular verbs do what the rules require. Irregular verbs do something strange. How this “strange thing” looks depends on how weird the verb wants to be. There are other patterns, which the verbs follow, but those that I have already mentioned are the most common.
I already have a few videos about the categories of irregular verbs. The video below was created especially for those of you who read this far into this article. I sorted the most important irregular verbs and read them aloud.
Why haben & sein are often used in the Präteritum even when speaking
Unfortunately, it isn’t always so easy as “Perfekt when speaking and Präteritum when writing”. Because the verbs “haben” and “sein” are used as helping verbs in the Perfekt, there are often two forms of “haben” or “sein” in the same sentences.
Ich bin da gewesen.
I was there.
Ich habe einen Hund gehabt.
I had a dog.
Therefore the Präteritum is often used with “haben” and “sein” even when speaking. The Präteritum is also a building block of the Plusquamperfekt and the Konjunktiv 2, but these topics must be tabled for today, as we aren’t quite ready for those.
haben im Präteritum
Let’s start with the conjugation of “haben”. In Präteritum, you conjugate it like this:
ich hatte – I had
du hattest – you had
er, sie, es hatte – he, she, it had
wir hatten – we had
ihr hattet – you had
sie, Sie hatten – they, you had
Examples of “haben” in Präteritum
In an older video I created, I used a ton of examples of “haben” in the Präteritum. You can see them listed below.
Mein Kumpel, Jim, hatte eine Geburtstagsparty.
My buddy, Jim, had a birthday party.
Er hatte fast alle Ninja Turtle Actionfiguren.
He had almost all Ninja Turtle action figures.
Deshalb hatte er eine Ninja Turtle Geburtstagsparty.
Therefore he had a Ninja Turtle birthday party.
Ich hatte nie eine Themengeburtstagsparty.
I never had a themed birthday party.
Sie hatten auch nicht so viel Geld.
They also didn’t have that much money.
Wir hatten magnetisches Schach und Leiterspiel.
We had magnetic chess and chutes and ladders.
Meine Familie hatte niemals ein Motorrad.
My family never had a motorcycle.
sein im Präteritum
The Verb “sein” is conjugated like this in Präteritum:
ich war – I was
du warst – you were
er, sie, es war – he, she, it was
wir waren – we were
ihr wart – you were
sie, Sie waren – they, you were
As you can probably tell, “war” isn’t similar to “sein” at all. “War” is the new verb stem, which we can see in every form. For “ich” and “er, sie, es” we don’t need anything else. “War” is enough. Ich war… Er war… The other endings are exactly like they are in the present tense. “Du” requires -st. “Wir” and “sie” -en and “ihr” -t.
Caution: Don’t Mistake “was” and “were” in English when using “sein” in Präteritum
In English there is often confusion between “was” and “were”, because many people don’t know the difference between “preterit” and “subjunctive”. For example:
If I was in the shopping center…
Wenn ich im Einkaufszentrum war…
If I were in the shopping center…
Wenn ich im Einkaufszentrum wäre…
In the first sentence I really was in the shopping center. I wasn’t in the second sentence. In German the counterparts of “was” and “were” and their differences are more clearly discernible.
Examples of “sein” in Präteritum
Ich war ein braver Junge.
I was a well-behaved boy.
Warst du am Wochenende zu Hause?
Were you at home this weekend?
Mein Bruder war ein frecher Junge.
My brother was a naughty boy.
Wir waren nicht da.
We weren’t there.
Wart ihr in der Schule?
Were you in school?
Die Kinder waren in der Küche.
The children were in the kitchen.
Ich war 9 Jahre alt.
I was 9 years old.
Jim war mein bester Freund.
Jim was my best friend.
Meine Eltern waren nicht arm.
My parents weren’t poor.
Examples with “haben” and “sein” in Präteritum
Because none of the previous examples used “du”, “ihr” or “Sie”, I will now show a few other examples. Because Germans are supposed to be efficient, I will use “haben” and “sein” in each sentence.
Als ich in der vierten Klasse war, hatte ich einen Topfschnitt.
When I was in the fourth grade, I had a bowl cut (hair style).
Hattest du dein eigenes Auto, als du sechzehn Jahre alt warst?
Did you have a car when you were sixteen years old?
Ob meine Mutter zu Hause war, hatte mein Bruder keine Idee.
If my mother was at home, my brother had no idea.
Als wir in München waren, hatten wir keinen Hund.
When we were in Munich, we didn’t have a dog.
Hattet ihr genug Zeit, als ihr in der Bank wart?
Did you have enough time when you were in the bank?
Wenn es Halloween war, hatten die Kinder zu viel Schokolade.
When it was Halloween, the children had too much chocolate.
Practice the Präteritum with Rapunzel
Now that you know all there is to know about this tense, you can practice what you know by following along with this worksheet about Rapunzel. You can download your own copy for free here. You can watch this story with entertaining graphics here.