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Past Tense

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Just like the English present tense, the past tense has three forms:

habitual                                            I spoke German.
incomplete or progressive
                I was speaking German.
                                           I did speak German.

Like the German present tense, the German past tense has only one form that is translated into any of the three forms in English:

Ich sprach Deutsch.            I spoke German.   I was speaking German.   I did speak German.

The German past tense is used primarily as a written form, although it exists in the spoken language. The present perfect tense is more commonly used in the spoken language to express a past-tense idea.

Regular verbs

The past-tense conjugation of regular verbs consists of the stem of the infinitive attached to the suffix -te with the appropriate conjugational ending. Notice that the third-person singular (er, sie, es = he, she, it) is illustrated here by the pronoun er. The third-person plural sie (they) and Sie (you formal) are illustrated by the pronoun sie. When singular sie cannot be differentiated from plural sie, they will be identified as sie s. and sie pl. respectively.

                                 kaufen (buy)              reisen (travel)               bestellen (order)
ich                            kaufte                         reiste                             bestellte
du                            kauftest                      reistest                           bestelltest
er                             kaufte                         reiste                              bestellte
wir                          kauften                       reisten                            bestellten
ihr                           kauftet                        reistet                             bestelltet
sie                           kauften                       reisten                            bestellten

If a verb stem ends in -t or -d, an -e is added before the conjugational ending.

                              arbeiten (work)                      enden (end)
ich                        arbeitete                                  endete
du                        arbeitetest                                endetest
er                         arbeitete                                   endete
wir                      arbeiteten                                 endeten
ihr                       arbeitetet                                  endetet
sie                       arbeiteten                                 endeten

Irregular verbs

German irregular verbs do what many English irregular verbs do: they form the past tense not by a suffix but by a vowel or stem change. Look at how the German and English infinitives change to the irregular past tense:

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German irregular past                       English irregular past

kommen       kam                                     come      came
singen           sang                                    sing        sang
sprechen       sprach                                 speak       spoke

When you know the irregular past-tense stem, you are ready to place the appropriate conjugational endings on the stem. The irregular past tense of most verbs does not require the -te suffix.

                             springen (jump)                      rufen (call)                  fliegen (fly)
ich                        sprang                                     rief                              flog
du                        sprangst                                   riefst                           flogst
er                         sprang                                      rief                              flog
wir                      sprangen                                   riefen                          flogen
ihr                       sprangt                                      rieft                             flogt
sie                       sprangen                                    riefen                          flogen

Notice that the first- and third-person singular (ich, er, sie, es) do not require an ending in the irregular past tense.

The following is a list of commonly used irregular verbs with their past-tense formations:

infinitive                              past tense

bleiben                                blieb                              stayed
essen                                   aß                                   ate
fahren                                 fuhr                                traveled
fallen                                  fiel                                  fell
geben                                 gab                                 gave
gehen                                 ging                               went
helfen                                 half                               helped
laufen                                 lief                                ran
lesen                                   las                                read
nehmen                              nahm                           took
schlafen                              schlief                          slept
schlagen                             schlug                          hit
schreiben                           schrieb                         wrote
stehen                                 stand                           stood

tragen                                trug                             wore, carried

It is important to look specifically at haben, sein, and werden, because they play an important role in the formation of other tenses as well as have a function when they stand alone. Their irregular past-tense conjugations are:

                              haben (have)                sein (be)                 werden (become)
ich                         hatte                             war                        wurde
du                         hattest                          warst                      wurdest
er                          hatte                             war                         wurde
wir                       hatten                           waren                      wurden
ihr                        hattet                            wart                        wurdet
sie                         hatten                          waren                      wurden

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Some irregular verbs require the suffix -te. They not only make a vowel change in the stem, but they also require a suffix with the appropriate conjugational endings.

                               senden (send)                  nennen (name)                rennen (run)
ich                          sandte                             nannte                             rannte
du                          sandtest                           nanntest                          ranntest
er                           sandte                              nannte                             rannte
wir                        sandten                            nannten                           rannten
ihr                         sandtet                             nanntet                            ranntet
sie                         sandten                             nannten                           rannten

Other irregular verbs that follow this pattern are:
brennen                  (brannte)                 burn
bringen                  (brachte)                  bring
denken                   (dachte)                   think
kennen                   (kannte)                   know, be acquainted
wenden                  (wandte)                  turn
wissen                    (wusste)                   know

Modal auxiliaries

The modal auxiliaries look, for the most part, as if they are formed like regular verbs. But they do not have an umlaut in the past tense, even if the infinitive has an umlaut.

                      dürfen (may)             können (can)              mögen (like, may)
ich               durfte                          konnte                         mochte
du               durftest                        konntest                      mochtest
er                durfte                           konnte                         mochte
wir             durften                         konnten                       mochten
ihr              durftet                          konntet                        mochtet
sie              durften                         konnten                        mochten

                    müssen (must)              sollen (should)           wollen (want)
ich              musste                           sollte                           wollte
du              m
usstest                         solltest                        wolltest
er               musste                            sollte                           wollte
wir            mussten                          sollten                         wollten
ihr             musstet                           solltet                          wolltet
sie             mussten                          sollten                          wollten

As with all verb conjugations, the third-person singular conjugation is used with all singular noun subjects of sentences, as well as with wer, was, and man. The third-person plural conjugation is used with all plural noun subjects.

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