German tenses in use: Präteritum

Posted on 14. Dec, 2011 by in Language

The Präteritum is equivalent to the English Simple Past tense, so to speak. But usually, the Präteritum is not used in everyday language in German. It is rather used as a literary language. Germans commonly opt for the Perfekt in their speech in order to refer to the past – which will be discussed in my upcoming post. Nevertheless, let’s have a closer look to the Präteritum, as it is important to know how you form sentences in the Präteritum with the verbs haben (to have) and sein (to be).

I often compare the Präteritum with the English Simple Past tense, as the sentence formation for both tenses are similar in the two languages, and because both tenses refer to completed actions of the past.

Examples:

Ich trank eine Tasse Kaffee. – I drank a cup of coffee.

Ich aß einen Apfel. – I ate an apple.

Ich sang ein Lied. – I sang a song.

Ich ging Einkaufen. – I went shopping.

Just like in English you need to know a particular past form of the verb, which is called imperfect form for German verbs. German imperfect verb forms can either be regular (weak verbs) or irregular (strong verbs). Additionally, you need to conjugate the imperfect verb form according to person and number.

It would go beyond the scope of this post to list several imperfect verb forms but, at least, I would like to discuss the two German verbs that are commonly used in the Präteritum. These are the verbs ‘haben’ (to have) and ‘sein’ (to be).

Just like in English, the German verbs haben and sein can be both full verbs and auxiliary verbs. You use these verbs with the Präteritum when you want to say what you possessed or have possessed something and when you want to say where you were or have been to.

 

1. Ich hatte einmal einen Hund. – I once had a dog.

2. Ich hatte heute Morgen keine Zeit. – I didn’t have time this morning. (lit. I had no time this morning.)

3. Ich war gestern im Kino. – I was at the movies yesterday.

4. Sie war vergangene Woche bei einer Freundin. – She was at a friend’s place last week.

5. Ich war schon zweimal in Deutschland. – I have been twice to Germany.

6. Ich war noch nie in der Schweiz. – I have never been to Switzerland.

 

Here are the conjugated imperfect verb forms of the German verbs haben und sein, which may help you to form further sentences.

 

haben = to have (hatten-had)

Singular Plural
1st person ich hatte(I had) wir hatten(we had)
2nd person du hattest / Sie hatten(you had) ihr hattet / Sie hatten(you had)
3rd person er/sie/es hatte(he/she/it had) sie hatten(they had)

 

sein = to be (war-was/were)

Singular Plural
1st person ich war(I was) wir waren(we were)
2nd person du warst / Sie waren(you were) ihr wart / Sie waren(you were)
3rd person er/sie/es war(he/she/it was) sie waren(they were)

 

In conclusion, Germans hardly use the Präteritum in their speech. The only two verbs that are commonly used in this tense are: haben (to have) and sein (to be).

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About Sandra

Hello everybody! I studied English and American Studies, Communication Science, and Political Science at the University of Greifswald. Since I have been learning English as a second language myself for almost 20 years now I know how difficult it is to learn a language other than your native one. Thus, I am always willing to keep my explanations about German grammar comprehensible and short. Further, I am inclined to encourage you to speak German in every situation. Regards, Sandra

10 Responses to “German tenses in use: Präteritum”

  1. Daniel Drawe 15 December 2011 at 5:24 am #

    Why do you continue to use the s-set when in Germany, they no longer use it, but write the double s (ss)? Example: Strasse Catch up with the times!

  2. Sev 15 December 2011 at 6:26 am #

    thank U ;) it was very helpful. looking forward to the other post bout German tenses;)

  3. Sev 15 December 2011 at 6:26 am #

    posts* ;p

  4. Jans 15 December 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    @Daniel Drawe, thank you for you remark, but it misses the point completely regarding the post about the Präteritum. BTW, there should be a period (.) after Strasse on your note. That’s how preposterous it can be!
    All the best!

  5. Jans 15 December 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    @Sandra Rösner, thank you for your posts and taking the time to teach us something! They are very useful!
    All the best!

  6. Sandra Rösner 15 December 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    Hello Daniel, the letter ß is still used in German. So, it’s a misinformation that it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s true that there are new spelling rules, but they do not expel the ß completely. The ß illustrates a sharp s-sound after long vowels. For example, “daß” (that) used to be written with an ß. According to the new spelling rules it has to be spelled “dass” now because the a-vowel is a short sound. Additionally, according to that rule the word “street” has to be spelled Straße in German. You can often read ‘Strasse’ on street signs but that is incorrect spelling. Further examples: the German word “Masse” means “mass” in English. Here you pronounce a short a-sound and sharp s- sound. There is a similar German word “Maße”, which means “measures” or “measurements” in German. Here you have to pronounce the a-sound as a long vowel. In Summary, “ss” is a sharp s-sound after short vowels and “ß” is a sharp s-sound after long vowels.

  7. Sandra Rösner 15 December 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    Thank you :)

  8. Sandra Rösner 15 December 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    Daniel, in addition: German “Ass” is English “ace”, and German “aß” is English “ate”. You can check that in any dictionary. Last but not least, I think in Austria or Switzerland they do not use the ‘ß’ anymore. I’m sorry, but I don’t know which of these two country it exactly is.

  9. sunny 2 June 2014 at 7:47 pm #

    until now there are still ‘ß’ on the street in german and everywhere…. thanks to sandra, this blog is very useful.!


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