In this post you’ll find all you need to know about how to form and use the German imperfect tense or, in German, das Präteritum or das Imperfekt.
The imperfect is one of the three tenses used to talk about the past in German. The others are the perfect and the pluperfect (the “past in the past”). In English, the German imperfective tense is also sometimes called the simple past. Like the present tense, it’s made up simply of one word. The perfect and the pluperfect in contrast, are compound tenses made up of an auxiliary (haben or sein) and a past participle.
German and English past tenses are not so different
As we’ll see, there are some marked differences in how the imperfect and perfect tenses are used in German and English. First, though, a welcome surprise. There are lots of similarities in how these past tenses are formed in both lingos. That’s because German and English developed from a common Germanic ancestor language.
In English we say:
“I live in Stuttgart” (simple present/Präsens).
“I have lived in Stuttgart” (perfect/Perfekt made up of “have” the auxiliary or, in German, Hilfsverb – helping verb- and “lived”, here the past participle).
I lived in Stuttgart (simple past or imperfect/Imperfekt or Präteritum).
In English, to form the imperfect, we usually add -ed to the verb stem:
I live > I lived
She paints > She painted
In German the default marker for das Präteritum isn’t “-ed”, it’s -“te”.
This is added on to the infinitive stem of the verb.
To find the stem, you usually strip of the final -en. So sagen > sag + ENDING (but watch out for the two verbs sein and tun and verbs ending in -ern and -eln like wandern and handeln)
Forms of the German imperfect or simple past tense
Weak verbs in the imperfect tense
Once you’ve got back to the infinitive stem, there’s nothing more to add on for the ich, er, es and (singular) sie forms.
The other “person” endings (du and plurals) are added to this ending just the same as in the present (but with no doubling up of the “e” before the -en plural ending):
If the stem of the verb ends in -t, -d, -n, -m, then you have to add a linking “e” to make pronunciation easier by “oiling the works”.
ich erwarte > ich erwartete
du öffnest > du öffnetest
wir arbeiten > wir arbeiteten etc.
It’s the same if the stem ends in a consonant (except “r”) plus -d or -t:
er atmet > er atmete
sie warten > sie warteten
The simple past or imperfect forms of German strong verbs
English has its “stong” verbs, the stems of which often change a little in the imperfect.
I have > I had
I give > I gave
With German strong verbs in the imperfective, it’s basically the same. The stem change is key. For the ich and er/es/sie (singular) forms, that’s it.
For all the other “person” forms you add the same endings as in the regular verbs, without the “imperfective” -te.
Ich gebe > ich gab (no ending for ich/er/sie/es, remember).
wir geben > wir gaben
It’s as if you don’t need the -te to flag the imperfect because the stem change already tells you that the verb is in the imperfect, just like “I haded” or “I sunged” would be an unnecessary doubling up of information.
There are patterns to the stem changes of German strong verbs but how can you identify whether a verb is strong or weak?
It’s just one of the things you have to learn.
There are over two hundred strong verbs in German and in English. Fortunately, in both languages, many of them are low-frequency or even rather archaic.
At the beginning, focus on the 40 or so most frequent strong verbs and take heart! The more German you read and listen to, the more you’ll develop a “feel” as well.
Mixed verbs in the imperfect
We just saw that strong verbs are confident enough cookies not to feel the need to “double up” on their imperfectiveness. There’s a small group of German “mixed verbs” which do form their imperfect forms by combining a stem change and the -te marker (plus the usual imperfective endings for wir/ihr/Sie/sie). For example –
ich weiß > ich wusste
wir wissen > wir wussten
er denkt > er dachten
How to use the German imperfect tense
When it comes to usage of the imperfect, we can be thankful that we’re English speakers learning German and not the other way round.
Take “ich lernte”. That could be translated as “I learned”, “I was learning” or “I did learn” depending on the context.
The the rules in English for when we use the simple past “I learned” and the present perfect “I have learned” are often rigid.
In German, the choice of the imperfect or the prefect is not a matter of grammatical rules but of style.
So, as a learner, you could use either form and be technically correct.
When it comes to sounding natural, though, things are a bit more complicated.
There are no hard-and-fast rules. What there is are clear tendencies as to when natives choose the imperfective and when the perfect.
The imperfect tense in spoken German
In conversation, you’ll mainly hear the perfect:
“wir haben gegeben” (not, usually, “wir gaben”).
That said, there are regional differences in the spoken language and the imperfect is used in the north more than in the south.
Hold on a minute, though!
Even in casual speech, natives prefer to use the imperfective of “sein”, “haben”, “werden” and “wissen” even in utterances otherwise peppered with the perfective forms.
The same is true of the six “modal verbs“ (verbs expressing mood, ability, obligations…): können, müssen, mögen, dürfen, wollen, sollen.
“Er kann” becomes “Er konnte” (much more common than “er hat gekonnt”); “ich will” becomes “ich wollte” (much more common than “ich habe gewollt”) and so on…
The imperfective as the tense of “narration”
A common use of the imperfect is to narrate a series of events. This is mainly in written fiction and non fiction (for example, fairy tales or a history book). If you were narrating in informal writing (like a letter to a relative) you’d use the perfect much more).
Aside from the common imperfective verbs we’ve just noted, that means that the second person forms like “du gingst” are very rare in speech and would often sound unusual to the native ear.
After all, you don’t often narrate to somebody what they were doing. Unless you’re Udo Jürgens, that is.
The “elegant” imperfect tense
The German Präteritum or imperfect is also common in other formal written contexts such as newspaper reports and in formal style lectures as it is felt to sound more elegant.
The imperfect and the “Konjunktiv II” verb form
As an upper beginner or lower intermediate learner, then, you need to get lots of practice using the imperfect of haben and sein, wollen, werden and the modal verbs. Otherwise, the Präteritum is something you just need to recognise passively.
Then, what you’ve just learned about how to form the imperfective tense will help you very soon with something else. As an intermediate German learner when you come to learn the Konjunktiv II (past subjunctive) verb forms. They’re used to express polite requests and conditionality.
It’s the imperfect stem, usually just with a tweak to the vowel sound (adding an “Umlaut”) that you use as the stem when expressing conditional ideas in the German “subjunctive” (Konjunktiv II):
ich hatte > ich hätte
ich konnten > wir könnten etc.
But that’s a whole other topic…..
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If you’re an upper beginner in German you’ve probably come across the imperfect tense a little, but you’re probably not familiar with all the forms and usages we’ve explored in this article.
You’re a way of feeling comfortable recognising and using them all.
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