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The past tense ( Latin praeteritum 'das passed by' ), also first past or Austrian past , is a tense of the verb used to designate past events and situations. The German forms “I ran, you laughed” or “es rained” are examples of verbs in the past tense. In the written language, it is the main narrative form in novels and reports.

In the spoken language, the past tense is mostly only used for the verbs “have”, “to be”, “know”, “hot”, “find” (in the sense of “feel”), “think” and the modal verbs , otherwise through replaces the perfect perfect , which is uncommon in most of the former verbs. This applies in particular to the dialects and the everyday language in the southern half of the German-speaking area; In Swiss German , the past tense is even completely absent (see Upper German past tense shrinkage ).

The term imperfect (literally: unfinished [e past]) was also used for this form, especially in older German grammars ; This term comes from the grammar of Latin and the Romance languages , but is actually not suitable for the past tense of German because the synthetically formed past tense here - unlike in the Romance languages ​​- does not specifically designate an "unfinished past". Therefore, the term past tense is preferred in German grammar today .

Language history

Linguistically, the imperfect is the past tense that is formed by the present stem (as in Latin and still today the imparfait in French) and is thus characterized as imperfect , in contrast to the two other verbal forms that can have a past meaning, the aorist and the perfect , for which there are separate tense stems for each verb in the Indo-European languages. The older Indo-European languages have this threefold aspect differentiation of the past tenses ( tempora praeterita ), but it has been lost in many newer languages. In terms of linguistic history, the past tense in Germanic arose from the coincidence of aorist and old perfect forms - which have nothing to do with the perfect of today's German grammar - which is why the past tense is an appropriate designation for this reason.

If there is only a past tense in a language , one should speak of a past tense rather than a past tense, because this verb form must then designate both the completed and the unfinished as well as the indefinite, which in the case of an aspect differentiation in the past to the verb forms perfect , Past tense and aorist would be functionally distributed. Nevertheless z. B. in the past tense of the Pali spoken of an aorist, although this term is no longer justified after the loss of perfect / imperfect.

Formation of the past tense in the German language

Weak and strong verbs are conjugated differently .

-Te is added to the verb stem of weak verbs , followed by the respective personal ending . The 1st and 3rd person singular are always the same. Verbs whose stem ends in t, d or a plosive sound or fricative + n / m have an e in front of the ending, e.g. B. breathe, open, dry.

Strong verbs experience a sound change. The stem vowel is exchanged (so-called ablaut ), sometimes the following consonant also changes . The endings (word endings ) are nevertheless added according to the same rules, similar to weak verbs.


conjugation weak weak strong strong
verb laugh talk drive to take
I laughs e talking e drove took
you laughs est talks est drove st took st
he she it laughs e talking e drove took
we laughs en talking s drove s took en
her laughs et talking et drove t took t
she laughs en talking s drove s took en


Some irregular verbs , which are mainly less frequent , have a tendency to be formed regularly in all tenses. For a number of verbs, this process is completed at the level of the standard language:

  • Before: The dog boll.
  • Today: the dog barked.

Sometimes both the weak form (hang - hung) and the strong inflection (hang - hung) can be used for verbs :

  • Otto hung the fur hat on the hook, then the hat hung there all summer.
  • The flash startled him and she was frightened .

In these cases with a difference in meaning, the intransitive , strong verb is usually the basic form and the transitive is a causative derived from it , which is generally weakly inflected. Example: I fell (intransitive, strong) and derived from this the causative I fell = I made something fall (transitive, weak). In other cases the meanings are completely different, most of which are historically different verbs that have become homonymous . Examples include grinding with the Präteritumsformen cut / dragged: "He cut (sharpened) knife," but "the enemies dragged (destroyed) the wall" or " dragged (moved) the bristling dog to the vet." Another example is moved: "What made (caused) him to grab that the stone moved (was in motion)?"

In other cases, however, there is no difference in meaning:

  • "He called and sucked on the tube" (but only, "He sucked dust" or more frequently "He [dust] sucked "); "A voice rang or echoed through the darkness"; "She milked or milked the cow".


In non-literary texts such as B. Reports, the past tense expresses actions and processes that were completed in the past and have no direct relation to the present. If there is a reference to the present, on the other hand, the perfect is used. Example: In an autobiography we find the sentence "I studied German studies in Munich", which expresses an earlier action or the scope of a story told. You will not find this sentence in an application because the reference to the present is important, even if the process was a long time ago. It is therefore used perfect: "I studied German in Munich."

In literary texts, especially novels, the narrative tense used is the past tense, but here it expresses the present within the narrated story. There is no perfect tense in the narrative - unless the novel is written in the present tense. The past is expressed with the past perfect .

In the spoken language there are differences between the north and the south of the German-speaking area. As early as the 16th century, the perfect prevailed against the past tense in Upper German ( Upper German preterite shrinkage ). An important reason for this was that due to the omission of -e at the end of the word, the weak past tense forms coincided with the 1st or 3rd person singular of the present tense, e.g. B. makes (s) - makes . However, in Upper German, with the exception of Swiss German , where there is no past tense at all, the past tense forms of sein and the modal verbs , which are phonetically clearly different from the present tense of the 1st or 3rd person, have also remained alive in the spoken language .

In the Low German language area as well as in Central German , the past tense is still used. In connection with the mass media, however, the perfect has been spreading in non-dialectal colloquial language in northern Germany since the middle of the 20th century, which is accompanied by a simultaneous decline in traditional dialects in these regions.

Web links

Wiktionary: past tense  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ In the past - page at Duden (accessed on: June 2, 2013)
  2. Angelika Holl: On the conflict between weak and strong verbs in the language of the present . Master's thesis, Vienna 2009. p. 68.