You Are Here: Past vs. Present Tense

To learn more about the two past tenses in German, see the following pages.

We'll start with the so-called "simple past" because it's simple. Actually, it's called "simple" because it's a one-word tense (hatte, ging, sprach, machte) and isn't a compound tense like the present perfect (hat gehabt, ist gegangen, habe gesprochen, haben gemacht). To be precise and technical, the Imperfekt or "narrative past" tense refers to a past event that is not yet fully completed (Latin perfect), but I have never seen how this applies to its actual use in German in any practical way. However, it is sometimes useful to think of the "narrative past" as being used to describe a series of connected events in the past, i.e., a narrative. This is in contrast to the present perfect described below, which (technically) is used to describe isolated events in the past.

Used less in conversation and more in print/writing, the simple past, narrative past, or imperfect tense is often described as the more "formal" of the two basic past tenses in German and it is found primarily in books and newspapers.

Therefore, with a few important exceptions, for the average learner it is more important to recognize and be able to read the simple past than to use it. (Such exceptions include helping verbs such as haben, sein, werden, the modal verbs, and few others, whose simple past tense forms are often used in conversation as well as written German.)

So if you’re writing in the past tense, you can say something like this…

Because the present perfect or conversational past is used in spoken German, it is important to learn how this tense is formed and used. However, just as the simple past is not used exclusively in print/writing, neither is the present perfect used only for spoken German. The present perfect (and past perfect) is also used in newspapers and books, but not as often as the simple past. Most grammar books tell you that the German present perfect is used to indicate that "something is finished at the time of speaking" or that a completed past event has results that "continue into the present." That can be useful to know, but it is more important to recognize some of the major differences in the way the present perfect is used in German and English.

Simple Past Tense Exercises - GrammarBank

Walk is present tense but should be past to maintain consistency within the time frame (yesterday); rode is past, referring to an action completed before the current time frame.

Simple Past Tense Regular Exercise – GrammarBank

Choosing between past and present tense isn’t necessarily an either/or choice. You could use both!

Logically, it shouldn’t feel that way. The past, by definition, is over and done with, so scenes written in the past tense shouldn’t feel like they’re happening right now. But they do.

The Past Simple Tense - Ginger Software

The past tense, paradoxically, feels more natural, more rooted in the “here and now” than the present tense. In other words, when we’re lost in a scene written in the past tense, it feels like the action is happening right here, right now, right in front of our eyes.


Writing Advice…Past Tense or Present Tense

On the other hand, if you want to say, "I have lived/have been living in Munich for ten years," you can't use the perfect tense (or any past tense) because you're talking about an event in the present (you are still living in Munich). So German uses the present tense (with schon seit) in this situation: "Ich wohne schon seit zehn Jahren in München," literally "I live since ten years in Munich." (A sentence structure that Germans sometimes mistakenly use when going from German to English!)

Past tense – the drawbacks. The events of the story are over: the reader knows it, and knows that the narrator, at least, probably didn’t die.

Began is past tense, referring to an action completed before the current time frame; had reached is past perfect, referring to action from a time frame before that of another past event (the action of reaching was completed before the action of beginning.)

Past Perfect Tense is used to express two types of actions which occurred or completed in the past

It is not always easy (or especially helpful) to try to distinguish perfect and/or progressive tenses from simple ones in isolation, for example, the difference between simple past progressive ("She was eating an apple") and present perfect progressive ("She has been eating an apple"). Distinguishing these sentences in isolation is possible, but the differences between them make clear sense only in the context of other sentences since the time-distinctions suggested by different tenses are relative to the time frame implied by the verb tenses in surrounding sentences or clauses.

Past Perfect Tense - with Examples - STUDY RESOURCES

But like I’ve said (and as I’ll continue to say), if you have no good reason to use the present tense, if it doesn’t add something to the story you are telling, then stick with the past tense.