German Preterite vs. Perfect Tense

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.

What are the differences and similarities between two German past tenses - the preterite and the perfect? In this lesson, we'll learn the characteristics of these two tenses and how to make and use them in different situations.

German Past Tenses

If you want to talk about the party last weekend, your vacation this summer or the school you attended when you were young, you will have to use the past tense.

In the German language, the two most used past tenses are the Präteritum (preterite or simple past tense) and the Perfekt (perfect or present perfect tense). So what is the difference between them, and when do you use each one?

In this lesson, we will learn how to build these two tenses, when and how to use them and the best way to implement these tenses in your speaking and writing.

Building the Tenses

The first main difference is visible when building these tenses. While the preterite tense is a simple tense made only of one part, the perfect tense is a compound tense made of two parts. Let's take a quick look at the building blocks of these tenses and freshen up your knowledge about how to make them.

Preterite Tense

As we already mentioned, the preterite is a simple tense, meaning it consists only of one part - the verb with the correct endings attached. Let's see which endings the preterite uses for regular verbs, using the verb machen (to make):

Pronoun Conjugation
ich machte
du machtest
er, sie, es machte
wir machten
ihr machtet
sie machten
Sie machten

As you can see from the table, the endings for the preterite for regular verbs are -te, -test, -te, -ten, -tet, -ten and are attached to the stem of the verb.

Irregular verbs have a stem change in the preterite and no endings or shorter endings. The best practice is to learn the preterite of irregular verbs by heart.

Let's take a look at a few example sentences with the preterite:

  • Ich machte die Tür auf. (I opened the door.)
  • Er nahm die Zeitung. (He took the newspapers.) -irregular verb
  • Wir gingen ins Kino. (We went to the movies.) -irregular verb

Perfect Tense

The perfect tense is a compound tense that consist of two parts, the conjugated auxiliary verb haben (to have) or sein (to be) and the participle II (ge + stem of the verb + ending -t for regular verbs and -en for irregular verbs).

Using the verb machen again, we wold conjugate to the perfect tense as follows:

Pronoun Perfect Conjugation
ich habe gemacht
du hast gemacht
er, sie, es hat gemacht
wir haben gemacht
ihr habt gemacht
sie haben gemacht
Sie haben gemacht

Let's see what the perfect tense looks like with another verb, kochen (to cook):

Pronoun Conjugation
ich habe gekocht
du hast gekocht
er, sie, es hat gekocht
wir haben gekocht
ihr habt gekocht
sie haben gekocht
Sie haben gekocht

Here are some example sentences with the perfect tense:

  • Wir haben das Mittagessen gekocht. (We cooked the lunch.)
  • Habt ihr das Haus gekauft? (Did you buy the house?)
  • Meine Freunde sind nach Berlin gegangen. (My friends went to Berlin.) -irregular verbs

Translation: I bought a new car.
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Writing vs. Speaking

Besides the difference in complexity and building of the tenses, the biggest difference is in usage. Unlike in the English language, where you decide on the tense depending on how far away in the past something happened or how it correlates to other events in the past or present, these two German past tenses are used depending on whether you are writing or speaking.

The preterite tense is used for formal written texts, like newspapers and magazines, but also fairy tales and stories. Using it in spoken German can sound a little too formal.

The perfect tense is used in everyday speech, informal conversations with family and friends and is generally always preferred for spoken language.

Besides that, the two tenses have the same meaning and are interchangeable.

Translation: Snow White grew up and became more and more pretty.
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