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.
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)
|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)
|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).