Präteritum and Perfekt: Why do Germans need two past tenses and when do they both get used? What are the exceptions? How are Präteritum and Perfekt formed in German? Let’s get to grips with the intricacies of using the past tense in German and practice with examples.

The difference between Präteritum and Perfekt

First of all, you should know that these forms of the past tense differ from each other functionally.

Perfekt is mostly used in spoken language, dialogues, and business and friendly correspondence in emails and messengers. In other words, it is the past spoken tense.

Präteritum is the past tense for writing and texts. It is usually used in works of fiction, newspaper articles and books, stories and monologues about past events when the event or action is in no way related to the present moment.

For example, all fairy tales in German begin with the words: es lebte einmal… (lived once… or lived-was…), but in oral speech it is better not to use such expressions.

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Exceptions in the German language are common, no rule is without them, and they are present in our topic today as well. It is important to remember that the verbs haben (to have), sein (to be), all modal verbs and the verb wissen (to know) are used in the Präteritum form and in spoken language. In the Perfekt, on the other hand, these verbs are hardly ever used. Consider the example:

Peter musste gestern abfahren instead of Peter hat gestern abfahren müssen. (Peter was supposed to leave yesterday.)
Ich war in Berlin instead of Ich bin in Berlin gewesen. (I was in Berlin).

The sentence Ich bin in Berlin gewesen is grammatically correct, but in modern German this usage is very rare, a native speaker will always say: Ich war in Berlin.

Special Uses of Präteritum and Perfekt

  • If the Präteritum form has many similar sounds following one another and is thus difficult to pronounce, the Perfekt is used in writing:

Du hast geschossen instead of du schossest. (You shot).
Ihr habt gebadet instead of ihr badetet. (You bathed).

Agree that the phrases du schossest and ihr badetet are somewhat difficult to pronounce, which is why it would be more appropriate to use them in Perfekt.

  • Also, if a sentence uses adverbs of time, such as schon, oft, immer, noch, nie, etc., it is preferable to use the Perfekt in both spoken and written language.

Er hat das Buch schon gelesen instead of Er las schon das Buch. (He has already read the book).

This is because the Perfekt is the past perfect tense (that is, it characterizes an action that has already been done).

Pay attention to the fact that the Präteritum gives speech a literary, more lofty, and sometimes even abstruse style. For this reason, this tense should not be abused in colloquial speech. Its inappropriate use adds a certain pompousness to the speech, and native speakers may perceive you negatively.

Formation of Präteritum and Perfekt

Now let us consider how the tenses we have already mentioned are formed.

Formation of Präteritum

The Präteritum is formed quite simply. In the case of simple (or regular) verbs, this is done by adding the suffix -te to the base of the verb:

machen – machte (to do), lachen – lachte (to laugh), arbeiten – arbeitete (to work), and so on

But there are also irregular verbs whose past tense must always be learned by heart! You can find a table of strong verbs on our website and in any German dictionary or textbook in the last pages. For example:

fahren – fuhr (not fahrte – drive), laufen – lief (run), lesen – las (read), sehen – sah (see)

Formation of Perfekt

The Perfekt form is formed a little more complicated. It consists of two parts: the auxiliary verb haben or sein in the conjugated form and the past participle Partizip 2. Simplified, we can write it down to ourselves as a formula: haben/sein + Partizip II = Perfekt

Most often, of course, it is the verbs with the auxiliary verb haben that are found in the past tense.

Therefore, it is most important to remember the basic rule in which cases the auxiliary verb sein is used:

  • With verbs of movement from one point to another (gehen (to go), fahren (to drive), laufen (to run), fliegen (to fly), schwimmen (to swim), etc.). For example:
    • Mein Kollege ist nach Köln geflogen. – My colleague flew to Cologne.
  • With verbs of change of state (geboren (to be born), sterben (to die), einschlafen (to fall asleep), aufwachen (to wake up)). For example:
    • Sein Vater ist im 1965 geboren. – His father was born in 1965.
    • Ich bin ziemlich spät eingeschlafen. – I fell asleep rather late.
  • With the verbs sein, werden and exclusionary verbs such as bleiben, passieren, begegnen. For example:
    • Er ist gestern zu Hause geblieben. – He stayed at home yesterday.
    • Was ist mit dir passiert? – What happened to you?


  • Some verbs of movement can be used with both the auxiliary verb sein and with haben. Compare the two cases:

Sie hat heute eine Stunde im Schwimmbad geschwommen. – Today she swam in the pool for an hour.
Die Sportler sind bis zum anderen Ufer geschwommen.
– The athletes swam to the other shore.

In the first case it is possible to use haben, because there is movement on the spot. But in the second example, there is movement from the starting point to the goal, that is, there is movement in space. Another example:

Die Eltern haben den ganzen Abend zusammen getanzt. – The parents danced together all evening.
Die Jugendlichen sind bis ans Ende des Zimmers getanzt. – The young people danced to the end of the room.

In the second example, we again have an endpoint of movement, which is why we use the auxiliary verb sein.

  • If the verb of motion or change of state has an object of action in Akkusativ, that is, it is a transitive verb, it will form a Perfekt with the auxiliary verb haben necessarily:

Sie haben mit dem Auto das ganze Land befahren. – They have traveled all over the country by car.

  • Reflexive verbs also have an object when the action is directed at the speaker himself, so they will also form a Perfekt with the verb haben:

Er hat sich wunderbar erholt. – He had a great rest.

To avoid mistakes when choosing an auxiliary verb, remember that, according to the general norm, verbs like stehen (stand), liegen (lie), sitzen (sit) marking the status quo, as well as their mirror transitive verbs stellen (put), legen (lay), setzen (sit), should be used in Perfekt only with the auxiliary verb haben.

Präteritum and Perfekt exercises

Now try an exercise on the topic on your own. You will find the answers below.

Insert the verb in brackets in the correct tense form, adding a suitable auxiliary verb if necessary:

1) Gestern ____ ich bei meiner Oma (sein).
2) Ich ____ ihr im Garten helfen (wollen).
3) Vorher ____ Oma einen kleinen Garten (haben).
4) Ich ____ Blumen giessen und alte alte Äste schneiden (müssen).
5) Am Mittag ____ ich fertig (sein).
6) Dann ____ wir mit Oma zusammen Tee ____ (trinken).
7) Oma ____ mich herzlich ____ (bedanken).
8) Danach ____ ich mit dem Bus nach Hause ____. (fahren).

Answers below!

ANSWERS: 1) war 2) wollte 3) hatte 4) musste 5) war 6) haben/ getrunken 7) hat/bedankt 8) bin/gefahren

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