The Preterite in German (Präteritum)

The preterite is only used regularly in written German (For example: In novels or stories), although is it more common in northern Germany than in the south.


Use of the "Präteritum"

For an action in the past, there are basically 2 options in German, the "Präteritum" and the Perfekt. The "Präteritum" is used:

  • With auxiliary verbs ( sein, haben, werden) and with modal verbs: (können, ...)
  • In the written language, especially in newspapers and books
  • It is more common in northern Germany.

Regular conjugation

It is formed in the following way for regular verbs:

ichleb-teI lived
duleb-te-styou lived
er/sie/esleb-tehe/she/it lived
wirleb-te-nwe lived
ihrleb-te-tyou lived
sieleb-te-nthey lived

Adding "–e-" between the stem and the ending

Just like with the present indicative, if the verb stem ends in:

  • "-d", "-t" as is the case with "schaden" (to damage).
  • Strong consonant + "-n" or "–m" as is the case with "eröffnen", "rechnen".

An "–e-" is addd between the stem and the ending.

icharbeit-e-teI worked
duarbeit-e-te-styou worked
er/sie/esarbeit-e-tehe/she/it worked
wirarbeit-e-te-nwe worked
ihrarbeit-e-te-tyou worked
siearbeit-e-te-nthey worked


Er lebte in Spanien
He lived in Spain

Sie malte das Bild
She painted the picture

Irregular conjugation

Many verbs are irregular and they do not follow the rule that was explained previously. As an example, we can look at the verb sehen (to see) where the "Präteritum" is conjugated like this:

ichsahI saw
dusah-styou saw
er/sie/essahhe/she/it saw
wirsah-enwe saw
ihrsah-tyou saw
siesah-enthey saw

Endings are the same for regular or irregular verbs, what changes is the stem when the Präteritum is formed.

This link shows the most important German irregular verbs and their corresponding "Präteritum".

The passive voice

The structure of the passive voice in the "Präteritum" consists of:

[wurden, (werden in the Präteritum)] + Partizip II

If the clause in the active voice is:

He read a book
Er las ein Buch

The equivalent clause in the passive voice would be:

A book was read by him
Ein Buch wurde von ihm gelesen

More information about the passive voice

Audiovisual Complement

For this lesson, we’ve chosen a precious Christmas song “Stille Nacht” (Christmas Eve), interpreted by the spectacular Greek artist Nana Mouscouri.