Easy Learning German

The imperfect tense - Easy Learning Grammar German

What is the imperfect tense?
The imperfect tense is one of the verb tenses used to talk about the past, especially in descriptions, and to say what used to happen, for example, It was sunny at the weekend; I used to walk to school.

1 Using the imperfect tense

  • The German imperfect tense is used:
  • to describe actions in the past which the speaker feels have no link with the present
Er kam zu spät, um teilnehmen zu können.He arrived too late to take part.
  • to describe what things were like and how people felt in the past
Ich war ganz traurig, als sie wegging.I was very sad when she left.
Damals gab es ein großes Problem mit Drogen.There was a big problem with drugs at that time.
  • to say what used to happen or what you used to do regularly in the past
Wir machten jeden Tag einen Spaziergang.We used to go for a walk every day.
Samstags spielte ich Tennis.I used to play tennis on Saturdays.
  • Note that if you want to talk about an event or action that took place and was completed in the past, you normally use the perfect tense in German conversation. The imperfect tense is normally used in written German.
Was hast du heute gemacht?What have you done today?
  • When using seit or seitdem to describe something that had happened or had been true at a point in the past, the imperfect is used in German, where in English a verb form with had is used.
Sie war seit ihrer Heirat als Lehrerin beschäftigt.She had been working as a teacher since her marriage.
TipRemember that you NEVER use the verb sein to translate was or were in forms like was raining or were looking and so on. You change the German verb ending instead.

2 Forming the imperfect tense of weak verbs

  • To form the imperfect tense of weak verbs, you use the same stem of the verb as for the present tense. Then you add the correct ending, depending on whether you are referring to ich, du, er, sie, es, wir, ihr, sie or Sie.
PronounEndingAdd to Stem, e.g. spiel-Meanings
ich-teich spielteI played
I was playing
du-testdu spieltestyou played
you were playing
er
sie
es
-teer spielte
sie spielte
es spielte
he/she/it played
he/she/it was playing
wir-tenwir spieltenwe played
we were playing
ihr-tetihr spieltetyou (plural) played
you were playing
sie

Sie
-tensie spielten
Sie spielten
they played
they were playing
you (polite) played
you were playing
Sie holte ihn jeden Tag von der Arbeit ab.She picked him up from work every day.
Normalerweise machte ich nach dem Abendessen meine Hausaufgaben.I usually did my homework after dinner.
  • As with the present tense, some weak verbs change their spellings slightly when they are used in the imperfect tense.
  • If the stem ends in -d, -t, -m or -n an extra -e is added before the usual imperfect endings to make pronunciation easier.
PronounEndingAdd to Stem, e.g. arbeit-Meanings
ich-eteich arbeiteteI worked
I was working
du-etestdu arbeitetestyou worked
you were working
er
sie
es
-eteer arbeitete
sie arbeitete
es arbeitete
he/she/it worked
he/she/it was working
wir-etenwir arbeitetenwe worked
we were working
ihr-etetihr arbeitetetyou (plural) worked
you were working
sie

Sie
-eten

-eten
sie arbeiteten

Sie arbeit
eten
they worked
they were working
you (polite) worked
you (polite) were working
Sie arbeitete übers Wochenende.She was working over the weekend.
Ihr arbeitetet ganz schön viel.You worked a lot.
  • If the -m or -n has one of the consonants l, r or h in front of it, the -e is not added as shown in the du, er, sie and es, and ihr forms below.
PronounEndingAdd to Stem, e.g. lern-Meanings
du-testdu lerntestyou learned
you were learning
er
sie
es
-teer lernte
sie lernte
es lernte
he/she/it learned
he/she/it was learning
ihr-tetihr lerntetyou (plural) learned
you were learning
Sie lernte alles ganz schnell.She learned everything very quickly.

3 Forming the imperfect tense of strong verbs

  • The main difference between strong verbs and weak verbs in the imperfect is that strong verbs have a vowel change and take a different set of endings. For example, let’s compare sagen and rufen:
InfinitiveMeaningPresentImperfect
Weaksagento sayer sagter sagte
Strongrufento shouter rufter rief
  • To form the imperfect tense of strong verbs you add the following endings to the stem, which undergoes a vowel change.
PronounEndingAdd to Stem, e.g. rief-Meanings
ichich riefI shouted
I was shouting
du-stdu riefstyou shouted
you were shouting
er
sie
es
er rief
sie rief
es rief
he/she/it shouted
he/she/it was shouting
wir-enwir riefenwe shouted
we were shouting
ihr-tihr rieftyou (plural) shouted
you were shouting
sie

Sie
-ensie riefen

Sie riefen
they shouted
they were shouting
you (polite) shouted
you were shouting
Sie rief mich immer freitags an.She always called me on Friday.
Sie liefen die Straße entlang.They ran along the street.
Als Kind sangst du viel.You used to sing a lot as a child.
  • As in other tenses, the verb sein is a very irregular strong verb since the imperfect forms seem to have no relation to the infinitive form of the verb:
    ich war, du warst, er/sie/es war, wir waren, ihr wart, sie/Sie waren.

4 Forming the imperfect tense of mixed verbs

  • The imperfect tense of mixed verbs is formed by adding the weak verb endings to a stem whose vowel has been changed as for a strong verb.
PronounEndingAdd to Stem, e.g. kann-Meanings
ich-teich kannteI knew
du-testdu kanntestyou knew
er
sie
es
-teer kannte
sie kanntees kannte
he/she/it knew
wir-tenwir kanntenwe knew
ihr-tetihr kanntetyou (plural) knew
sie

Sie
-tensie kannten
Sie kannten
they knew

you (polite) knew
Er kannte die Stadt nicht.He didn’t know the town.
  • Bringen (meaning to bring) and denken (meaning to think) have a vowel AND a consonant change in their imperfect forms
bringen (to bring)denken (to think)
ich brachteich dachte
du brachtestdu dachtest
er/sie/es brachteer/sie/es dachte
wir brachtenwir dachten
ihr brachtetihr dachtet
sie/Sie brachtensie/Sie dachten
  • Note that the imperfect tense of the most important strong, weak and mixed verbs is shown in the Verb Tables.
Key points
  • The imperfect tense is generally used for things that happened regularly or for descriptions in the past, especially in written German.
  • The imperfect of weak verbs is formed using the same stem of the verb as for the present tense + these endings: -te, -test, -te, -ten, -tet, -ten.
  • If the stem of a weak verb ends in -d, -t, -m or -n an extra -e is added before the usual imperfect endings to make pronunciation easier. If the -m or -n has one of the consonants l, r or h in front of it, the -e is not added.
  • The imperfect tense of strong verbs is formed by adding the following endings to the stem, which undergoes a vowel change: -, -st, -, -en, -t, -en.
  • The imperfect tense of mixed verbs is formed by adding the weak verb endings to a stem whose vowel has been changed as for a strong verb. The verbs bringen and denken also have a consonant change.

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