German Preterite Tense: Grammar, Verbs & Conjugation

Instructor: Sandra Salajic

Sandra has a master's degree in teaching German. She has taught middle and high school German, and worked on different on- and offline courses with kids and adults.

In this lesson, we will take a look at the German preterite tense. We'll see when to use it and how to form it for regular, irregular and other special verbs.

The Preterite Tense

Hänsel und Gretel saßen um das Feuer, und als der Mittag kam, aß jedes sein Stücklein Brot. (Hansel and Gretel sat by the fire and when afternoon came, they each ate their piece of bread.)

If you want to read a part of the story of Hansel and Gretel, or if you are reading the latest news in the papers, chances are that you will stumble upon the German Präteritum (preterite, imperfect or simple past tense). It's a simple tense that refers to events that happened in the past, which means that it is not made of multiple parts and will only change the endings of the verbs to change the meaning.

In this lesson, we will learn how to build the preterite tense and when and how to use it.

Using the Preterite Tense

In the English language, you will carefully choose between the different past tenses to show the exact time in the past you are talking about. In German, the preterite and perfect tense are interchangeable in their meaning but will be used in different situations.

While the perfect tense is the preferred language when speaking, the preterite is used in written texts, like newspapers, magazines, stories and fairy tales. It is rarely used in spoken language as it sounds a little too formal.

Making the Preterite Tense

As we already mentioned, this is a simple tense, which means that only the endings on the verb change. Let's take a look at the endings for the preterite tense for regular verbs:

Pronoun Ending
ich -te
du -test
er, sie, es -te
wir -ten
ihr -tet
sie -ten
Sie -ten

For example:

  • Sie machte Brot. (She made bread.)
  • Er kochte das Mittagessen. (He cooked the lunch.)
  • Sie kauften das Haus. (They bought the house.)

Translation: She played with the dog.

There are also a lot of irregular verbs, who will also have a stem change in the preterite tense. Let's take a look at for example the verb gehen (to go):

Pronoun Preterite
ich ging
du gingst
er, sie, es ging
wir gingen
ihr gingt
sie gingen
Sie gingen

As you can see in the verb gehen, the letter e changed into i, but this will not always be the same. There are many different stem changes that can appear, for example: sehen - sah (see - saw), fahren - fuhr (drive - drove), schreiben - schrieb (write - wrote) or essen - aß (eat - ate).

Translation: We ate the cake.

The best and easiest way to know the preterite form of an irregular verb in German is to learn it together when learning the verb.

Special Verbs

Although the preterite tense is mostly reserved for written language, there are some verbs that prefer this tense for the past form, whether spoken or written. Let's see which verbs fit this case and how they form the preterite tense.

Auxiliary Verbs

The auxiliary verbs haben (to have) and sein (to be), prefer the preterite tense for the past. Let's see what that looks like in the table below:

Pronoun Preterite of haben Preterite of sein
ich hatte war
du hattest warst
er, sie, es hatte war
wir hatten waren
ihr hattet wart
sie hatten waren
Sie hatten waren

For example:

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