Use of the German Präteritum

(The imperfect or preterite in German grammar)

Table of contents – Präteritum

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Using the Präteritum
  2. Regional differences
  3. Further explanations and exercises

What is the Präteritum? When and how is it used?

The Präteritum (preterite) belongs to the German verb tenses (in German: Tempus) and expresses the past. Especially learners of German often call this tense Imperfekt, probably resulting from the denominations of the tenses in other languages (such as Spanish, where it is called Pretérito Imperfecto). However, these imperfect tenses may have a somewhat different meaning and thus cannot be equated with the German Präteritum. The fundamental characteristic of the Präteritum is that events, processes, actions, etc., are finished; that is, they are considered completed. It is regularly used in context together with other tenses, above all the Perfekt or the Plusquamperfekt.

The Präteritum is formed from one word, so it is a single-part tense.

In particular, it appears in the following cases:

  • Most often, it is employed in written language. It is, therefore, a characteristic of narratives, and literature in general:
    • „Damals hatte mein Onkel noch einen Hund, den er Bello nannte. Wir Kinder spielten oft mit ihm, wenn wir bei meinem Onkel zu Besuch waren.“ (In those days, my uncle still had a dog, which he called Bello. We often played with it as children when we visited my uncle.)
      • portrayal from a novel
    • „Es war einmal eine hübsche Prinzessin, welche in einem Schloss wohnte.“ (Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who lived in a castle.)
      • Fairy tales are also in the Präteritum.
  • In addition, the Präteritum represents a typical feature of news and headlines:
    • „Gestern in den Morgenstunden rollte ein führerloses Auto einen Abhang herab und krachte in einen Baum. Es gab keine Verletzten. Die Polizei sperrte ringsherum alles ab.“ (Yesterday in the morning hours, a driverless car rolled down a slope and crashed into a tree. No one was injured. The police cordoned off everything around.)
  • Some specific verbs are generally utilised in the Präteritum rather than the Perfekt in both written and spoken language. The verbs ‘geben’ and ‘haben’ belong to this group, for example:
    • „Heute morgen gab es bei uns in der Firma einen netten Sektempfang.“ (This morning, there was a nice champagne reception at our company.)
    • „Wir hatten am Samstag richtig viel Spaß auf der Feier.“ (We really had a lot of fun at the party on Saturday.)

Regional differences in usage

Apart from the specific rules of use above, the Präteritum has a regional peculiarity: It is used much more often in the north of Germany than in the south. Nevertheless, compared to other past tenses (such as the Perfekt), the meaning does not differ.

Further explanations relating to the topic ‘Präteritum/Imperfekt’

The following explanations refer to the ‘Use of the Präteritum/preterite (past tense) in German grammar’ and may be helpful as well: