Simple Past Tense Introduction – Regular Verbs

Hey there, German learners! In our previous lesson, we explored the 6 German tenses and how they compare to their English counterparts. We discussed when and how to use these tenses and even touched on how to form them. Today, we’re taking a closer look at the Präteritum tense in German. In this lesson, we’ll provide an overview of what this tense is, why it’s important when to use it, and how to use it with regular verbs.

das Präteritum: Purpose, Use & Regular Verbs of the German "Simple Past" - A2/B1 German Grammar

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Before we get started, I want to let you know that in future lessons, we’ll tackle more complex aspects of the Präteritum tense, such as irregular verbs and modal verbs or modal auxiliaries. These lessons will be part of a playlist for your convenience, so keep an eye out for the link to those if you want to continue your journey into German grammar.

The Präteritum Tense: What Is It and Why Learn It?

So, what exactly is the Präteritum tense? Technically speaking, it’s used to express ongoing actions in the past. The closest English equivalent in terms of meaning is the past progressive tense, as in sentences like “I was going to the store” and “We were walking across the street.” However, when it comes to how it looks in sentences, it often resembles the simple past tense in English, similar to “I went to the store” and “We walked across the street.”

In everyday use, the Präteritum tense is mainly employed when writing or narrating stories about the past. It’s also commonly used when speaking in German to describe past events, particularly when using the verbs “haben” (to have) and “sein” (to be), as well as modal verbs. Since these verbs have their quirks, we’ll focus on regular verbs for now. Just keep in mind that even in spoken German, using the Präteritum tense with “sein” and “haben” in the past is quite common.

Now, you might be wondering why it’s essential to learn a tense that’s mostly used in writing. Well, here’s the deal: practically every narrative story you encounter in German will be written in the Präteritum tense. Whether you’re reading fairytales, news articles, novels, or biographies, if it’s set in the past and written, chances are it’s using this tense. At the very least, you should be able to read and understand this tense to enjoy these forms of media fully.

Additionally, as you progress in your German language journey, you’ll likely find yourself telling stories or recounting past events. To do this effectively, you’ll need the Präteritum tense in your repertoire.

Forming the Präteritum Tense with Regular Verbs

Now that we understand the importance of the Präteritum tense, let’s dive into how it works with regular verbs. Forming the Präteritum tense with regular verbs involves a few straightforward steps:

  1. Start with the Verb Stem: Begin with the verb stem, which is the base form of the verb minus the -en at the end. For example:
    • “brauchen” (to need) becomes “brauchte.”
    • “danken” (to thank) becomes “dankte.”
    • “feiern” (to celebrate) becomes “feierte.”
  2. Add -t to Indicate Past Tense: Attach -t to the end of the verb stem to indicate the past tense.
  3. Include -e for Pronunciation: Introduce -e to aid in pronunciation.
  4. Apply Appropriate Endings: Finally, conjugate the verb by adding the appropriate endings, depending on the subject:
    • Ich (I): Keep the base form with -te at the end.
    • Du (You, informal): Add -est to the base form.
    • Er/Sie/Es (He/She/It): Use the base form with -te.
    • Wir (We): Append -ten to the base form.
    • Ihr (You all): Include -tet to the base form.
    • Sie/Sie (They/You formal): Apply -ten to the base form.

Let’s solidify these rules with some examples:

GermanEnglish
Die drei kleinen Schweinchen brauchten ein neues Haus.The three little pigs needed a new house.
Der Junge dankte dem Kellner.The boy thanked the waiter.
Ihr feiertet in der Gartenlaube.You all celebrated in the gazebo.

In these examples, you can observe the addition of -te to the verb stem to create the past tense. This is followed by the appropriate endings based on the subject. While it might seem a bit intricate at first, with practice, forming the Präteritum tense with regular verbs becomes more intuitive.

Exploring Verb Conjugation in Präteritum Tense

Let’s roll up our sleeves and dive deeper into the Präteritum tense by examining verb conjugation. We’ll start with the verb “brauchen” to illustrate the formula in action. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown:

  1. Identify the Verb Stem: Begin by removing -en from the infinitive form to uncover the verb stem, which in this case is “brauch.”
  2. Add -te to Form the Base: Now, add -te to the verb stem to create the base form of the verb in the Präteritum tense, which becomes “brauchte.”
  3. Apply the Subject Endings: Finally, conjugate the verb by adding the appropriate endings for each subject. For regular verbs like “brauchen,” the conjugation chart looks like this:
    • ich brauchte – I needed
    • du brauchtest – you needed
    • er, sie, es brauchte – he, she, it needed
    • wir brauchten – we needed
    • ihr brauchtet – you all needed
    • sie, Sie brauchten – they, you needed

Now, it’s your turn to give it a try with the verb “danken” (to thank). Here’s how you would conjugate it in the Präteritum tense:
(Click to unblur the answers.)

  • ich dankte – I thanked
  • du danktest – you thanked
  • er, sie, es dankte – he, she, it thanked
  • wir dankten – we thanked
  • ihr danktet – you all thanked
  • sie, Sie dankten – they, you thanked

When to Add an Extra E with Präteritum Verbs

You may recall from our discussion of the present tense that sometimes we need to add an “E” between the verb stem and the conjugation ending. Well, in the Präteritum tense, this rule applies to all forms, not just the “du,” “er,” “sie,” “es,” and “ihr” forms. We add that extra “E” between the verb stem and the Präteritum ending.

Now, let’s take a look at the verb “arbeiten” (to work) as an example:

  • ich arbeitete – I worked
  • du arbeitetest – you worked
  • er, sie, es arbeitete – he, she, it worked
  • wir arbeiteten – we worked
  • ihr arbeitetet – you all worked
  • sie, Sie arbeiteten – they, you worked

Here, we began by removing the -en from the infinitive, revealing the verb stem “arbeit.” Because the verb stem ends with a “T,” we added “E” before adding the Präteritum base -te. This gave us the Präteritum base for this verb, “arbeitete.” When we used the “du” form, we added “-st.” The “wir” and “sie” (they) and “Sie” (you formal) forms gained an “N” to become “arbeiteten.” The form that may appear the strangest is “ihr arbeitetet.” While it might look a bit unusual, these are the correct conjugated forms of “arbeiten” in the Präteritum tense.

Now, it’s your turn once again! Try conjugating the verb “reden” (to talk) using the same pattern. Here are the results:
(Click to unblur the answers.)

  • ich redete – I talked
  • du redetest – you talked
  • er, sie, es redete – he, she, it talked
  • wir redeten – we talked
  • ihr redetet – you all talked
  • sie, Sie redeten – they, you talked

As you can see, the formula remains consistent, and you simply insert the appropriate endings based on the subject.

Narrative Examples in Präteritum Tense

To bring it all together, let’s explore some narrative examples in the Präteritum tense:

  • Lisa, Max, Anna, Peter und Julia bereiteten alles vor. – Lisa, Max, Anna, Peter, and Julia prepared everything.
  • Sie packten das Zelt. – They packed the tent.
  • Lisa sagte: “Ich packe meine Schlafsäcke ein.” – Lisa said: “I am packing my sleeping bag.”
  • Max fügte hinzu: “Ich nehme die Campingkocher mit.” – Max added: “I am taking the camping cooker with me.”
  • Während sie ihre Sachen packten, regnete es draußen. – While they were packing their things, it rained outside.
  • Peter schaute aus dem Fenster. – Peter looked out the window.
  • Die Anderen lachten darüber. – The others laughed about it.
  • Julia schickte eine Nachricht an ihre Eltern. – Julia sent a message to her parents.
  • Sie freute sich auf die Campingreise. – She was looking forward to the camping trip.
  • Sie machten sich auf den Weg zum Campingplatz. – They got on their way to the campground.

You may notice that in these examples, the forms “er, sie, es” and “sie, Sie” (plural) appear frequently. This is quite common in storytelling, as you don’t often need the first and second person pronouns. While the “ihr” form of certain verbs in this tense may seem peculiar, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to use forms like “arbeitetet” in everyday conversation or storytelling.

Quiz: Translating Sentences into German

Let’s put your newly acquired knowledge to the test by translating the provided sentences into German:
(Click to reveal the answers.)

Paul listened to music and did his homework.

German Translation: Paul hörte Musik und machte seine Hausaufgaben.

In the summer I learned German.

German Translation: Im Sommer lernte ich Deutsch.

The Joker laughed.

German Translation: Der Joker lachte.

Last year my brother and his wife traveled to Germany.

German Translation: Letztes Jahr reisten mein Bruder und seine Frau nach Deutschland.

The kids danced the entire evening.

German Translation: Die Kinder tanzten den ganzen Abend.

Präteritum – Simple Past Tense Posts

You did great! If you’re interested in practicing what you’ve learned in this lesson, consider joining the Deutschlerner Club—an interactive online course that covers the basics of the German language from A1 through A2. Additionally, weekly bonus materials are provided for every lesson posted on YouTube. You can even try several lessons for free to see if it suits your learning style. If you’re ready to dive into the world of irregular verbs in the Präteritum tense, click here and I’ll see you there. Bis dann (Until then). Tschüss (Goodbye)!

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