Simple Past with Irregular Verbs

Hallo, Deutschlerner! In our previous grammar lesson, we talked about when to use the Präteritum tense and how to form it with regular verbs. Today, we’re diving into the mysterious world of irregular verbs in the Präteritum tense. 

das Präteritum: Mastering German's Irregular Simple Past Verbs - A2/B1 German Grammar

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Perfekt vs Präteritum Reminder

As a quick reminder, both the Perfekt and Präteritum tenses talk about past events, but the Perfekt tense says, “This is done!” while Präteritum claims, “This was happening.” Although, in reality, Germans often opt for Perfekt in conversation and Präteritum in writing or storytelling. Now, let’s crack the irregular code.

The Basics of Irregular Verbs in the Präteritum Tense

The basics of irregular verbs in the Präteritum tense are similar to the basics of the regular verbs. The ich and er, sie, es forms of the verbs don’t get an ending and the other forms simply take the same endings they did in the present tense. The downside is that the stem for each verb is weird. There are some patterns, which we will talk about in a bit, but for the most part, you simply have to memorize each irregular verb as you come across it with this tense. 

Let’s start with a very common verb: gehen. The stem of this verb in the Präteritum tense is “ging”. You could use it in the following sentences: 

Ich ging die Straße entlang.I went along the street. 
Du gingst damals gerne in die Stadt.You liked going into the city back then. 
Der Prinz ging ein bisschen weiter.The prince went a bit further. 
1958 gingen wir ins Kino um Angriff der 20-Meter-Frau zu sehen.In 1958 we went to the movie theater in order to see Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. 
Ihr gingt gemeinsam zum Konzert.You went to the concert together. 
Meine Freunde gingen zur Party.My friends went to the party. 

So you see we have the base form of the verb “ging” and then we add endings. Ich and er, sie, es don’t get endings. Du requires -st. Wir -en, ihr -t, sie, Sie -en. Let’s try it with the verb helfen. The stem of this one becomes “half”. 

helfento help
ich halfI helped 
du halfstyou helped
er, sie, es halfhe, she, it helped 
wir halfenwe helped 
ihr halftyou helped
sie, Sie halfenthey, you helped 

Practice Exercise #1

Now it is your turn. How would you conjugate the verb “geben”? I’ll give you a hint, the base form is “gab”. Click to the answers to unblur them.

gebento give
ich gabI gave 
du gabstyou gave
er, sie, es gabhe, she, it gave 
wir gabenwe gave 
ihr gabtyou gave
sie, Sie gabenthey, you gave 

Verbs that End with S or ß

If a German verb’s Präteritum base form has an S or ß it needs an E between the base form and the endings for du and ihr. You can see this in the verb “lesen”, which becomes “las” in the Präteritum tense. Here is the full conjugation. 

lesento read
ich lasI read 
du lasestyou read
er, sie, es lashe, she, it read 
wir lasenwe read 
ihr lasetyou read
sie, Sie lasenthey, you read 

My student’s favorite verb in this tense is usually essen. The Präteritum version is aß. The conjugation of it is: 

essento eat
ich aßI ate 
du aßestyou ate
er, sie, es aßhe, she, it ate 
wir aßenwe ate 
ihr aßetyou ate
sie, Sie aßenthey, you ate 

Practice Exercise #2

Now you try it with the verb sitzen. The base form is “saß”. Click the answers to unblur them.

sitzento sit
ich saßI sat 
du saßestyou sat
er, sie, es saßhe, she, it sat 
wir saßenwe sat 
ihr saßetyou sat
sie, Sie saßenthey, you sat 

Verbs that End with D or T

Similar to what happens in the Präsens tense D & T require the extra E, too. Take the verb “finden” as an example. The base form is “fand”. 

findento find
ich fandI found 
du fandestyou found
er, sie, es fandhe, she, it found 
wir fandenwe found 
ihr fandetyou found
sie, Sie fandenthey, you found 

Another example would be the verb “tun”, which becomes “tat” in the Präteritum tense. 

tunto do
ich tatI did 
du tatestyou did
er, sie, es tathe, she, it did 
wir tatenwe did 
ihr tatetyou did
sie, Sie tatenthey, you did 

Practice Exercise #3

Now you try it out with the verb “verstehen”, which becomes “verstand” in the Präteritum tense. Click the answers to unblur them.

verstehento understand
ich verstandI understood 
du verstandestyou understood
er, sie, es verstandhe, she, it understood 
wir verstandenwe understood 
ihr verstandetyou understood
sie, Sie verstandenthey, you understood 

Weak Irregular Verbs?

There is a category of verbs in the Präteritum tense that some teachers call “weak irregular verbs”. They do this, because there is a stem change, but the verb still ends with -te, which makes it look and act like a regular verb. I don’t use this explanation, but I wanted you to be aware that it exists, in case you read someone else’s explanation online and you are wondering what is going on. An example of this is the verb “bringen”, which is “brachte” in the Präteritum. This makes the full conjugation: 

bringento bring
ich brachteI brought 
du brachtestyou brought
er, sie, es brachtehe, she, it brought 
wir brachtenwe brought 
ihr brachtetyou brought
sie, Sie brachtenthey, you brought 

As you can see, if you just start by knowing that “bringen” becomes “brachte” in the Präteritum tense, you don’t need to classify them in a new category of verb, as the endings (-st for du, -en for wir and the 2 sie’s and -t for ihr) are the same as all of the other irregular verbs. In fact, those are the same endings we use for regular verbs too, if you just think of the base form of a regular verb as whatever the usual stem is plus -te. 

What’s Wrong with Teaching Weak Irregular Verbs?

My complaint with the idea of weak irregular verbs is that it complicates things more than is needed. If a verb is regular, lose the -en at the end and add -te followed by the conjugation ending, if needed. If a verb is irregular, memorize the base form and add a conjugation ending, if needed. Making students learn that some verbs have a stem change and a -te at the end is just unnecessary memorization. 

To prove to me that you think it is super easy to conjugate verbs like this, too, conjugate the verb “denken”, which becomes “dachte” in this tense. Click the answers to unblur them.

denkento think
ich dachteI thought 
du dachtestyou thought
er, sie, es dachtehe, she, it thought 
wir dachtenwe thought 
ihr dachtetyou thought
sie, Sie dachtenthey, you thought 

Patterns of Irregular Verbs

Now, I know what you are thinking, because it is the same reaction I get from my students every year that I teach this. How in the world do you know what a verb is going to change into with this tense? It seems so arbitrary. Well, unfortunately, the short answer is that you are just going to have to memorize them. The good news is that there are patterns that verbs follow. You may have already noticed some of them as we went through the examples.

When you take a step back and view the verb in the three main parts (infinitive, Präteritum, and Perfekt), you can see these patterns.

IE-EI-EI (The Old MacDonald Pattern)

Some verbs change from EI in the infinitive to IE in the Präteritum and Perfekt forms. For example: 

bleibenbliebgebliebento stay, remain
entscheidenentschiedentschiedento decide
leihenliehgeliehento loan, lend
scheinenschiengeschienento shine
schreienschriegeschriento scream
schreibenschriebgeschriebento write
steigenstieggestiegento climb

E-A-O Pattern

Some verbs have an E in the infinitive, an A in the Präteritum and an O in the Perfekt. For example: 

brechenbrachgebrochento break
helfenhalfgeholfento help
nehmennahmgenommento take
sprechensprachgesprochento speak
sterbenstarbgestorbento die
treffentrafgetroffento meet

You may notice another trend with those verbs. All of them also have a stem change in the Präsens, namely from E to I: brechen – bricht, helfen – hilft, nehmen – nimmt, sprechen – spricht, sterben – stirbt, treffen – trifft. 

There are quite a few other patterns that verbs follow, so instead of listing them all out in this lesson, I’m just going to direct you to this lesson about irregular verbs in the past tenses of German. The best lesson I have made about this is from 2021, but it was so perfectly crafted, that recreating it would be a disservice to the original lesson. 

Example Story in the Präteritum Tense

Obviously the lesson for today so far is lacking in examples, so let’s try out a story that mixes irregular and regular verbs in the Präteritum tense. 

In einem kleinen Dorf lebten freundliche Menschen.In a little village lived friendly people.
Eines Tages entschieden sich einige von ihnen für ein Abenteuer.One day some of them decided to go for an adventure.
Ein junger Mann namens Timo führte die Gruppe.A young man named Timo lead the group.
Gemeinsam gingen sie den ganzen Tag durch den Wald.Together they went through the forest the entire day.
Timo erzählte Geschichten, und die anderen hörten zu.Timo told stories and the others listened.
Am Nachmittag trafen sie nette Leute aus einem anderen Dorf.In the afternoon they met people from another village.
Sie lachten, sangen und machten sogar ein Lagerfeuer.They laughed, sang and even made a camp fire.
In der Nacht hörten sie Tiere im Wald, aber das störte sie nicht.In the night they heard animals in the forest, but that didn’t bother them.
Sie fühlten sich sicher und genossen die Zeit.They felt safe and enjoyed their time.
Nach der Reise kehrten sie ins Dorf zurück.After the trip, they went back to the village.
Timo erzählte die Geschichte, und alle lauschten gespannt.Timo told the story and all listened intently.
Das Dorf hatte eine aufregende Zeit erlebt, und die Erinnerungen wurden zu spannenden Geschichten, die man sich noch lange erzählte.The village had an thrilling time and memories became exciting stories, which are still told today.

If you’re eager to polish the skills you learned in this lesson, consider joining my Deutschlerner Club. It will take you through the A1 and A2 levels of German and will have you speaking with natives in no time. If you’re ready for the next adventure, click the links below to take a deep dive into the other lessons in this series about the Präteritum tense.

Präteritum – Simple Past Tense Posts

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