Learning to Use the Simple Past and Future Tenses in German
written by: Peter Boysen
• edited by: Rebecca Scudder
• updated: 6/24/2015
The future and the simple past -- simple extensions from the present tense. We cover how to conjugate simple past and future verbs.
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Let's Start Easy: The Future Tense in German
The future tense in German is formed almost identically to the future tense in English. There is a helping verb in German (werden) that functions just like "will" does in English. The only difference is that the action verb goes to the end of the clause. For example, if you meet someone at a nightclub and promise to call her (or him) the next day, you would say, "I'll call you tomorrow!" In German, the verb "to call" is anrufen. (Also, "tomorrow" is morgen.) In German, it would look like this:
Ich werde dich morgen anrufen.
If you talk to someone from Germany who is relatively new to English, she may say things like "I am to the store going," instead of "I'm going to the store." The reason for this is that, in the future tense and all of the perfect tenses, the action verb goes to the end of the clause.
But more about that later. You'll need to memorize the conjugation of werden.
1st person singular (I): ich werde
2nd person singular (you): du wirst
3rd person singular (he, she, it): er wird
1st person plural (we): wirwerden
2nd person plural (you all): ihr werdet
3rd person plural (they): sie werden
2nd person formal (you, to an elder or someone in a position of authority): Sie werden
So, to recap -- to write in the future tense, use the correct form of werden as your helping verb, and use the infinitive form, at the end of the clause, for the action verb.
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Now, to the Simple Past in German
The simple past is formed the same way in German as it is in English, in normal sentence construction. With weak (regular) verbs, the formation of the past, or preterite (Präteritum or Vergangenheit in German) just means you need to learn a slightly different set of endings. The verb machen (to make) is a weak verb that follows the regular conjugation. You will notice that there's an extra "t" in the middle of each verb form, when compared to the present tense:
1st person singular (I): ich machte
2nd person singular (you): du machtest
3rd person singular (he, she, it): es machte
1st person plural (we): wir machten
2nd person plural (you all): ihr machtet
3rd person plural (they): sie machten
2nd person formal: Sie machten
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Simple Past for the Irregular Verbs
If you look at a list of the strong German verbs, you will generally see three columns. These are the infinitive, preterite, and past participle forms. The preterite form is the one we're looking for here. The form that you see in the preterite column is for the first-person and third-person singular forms of that verb, in the simple past. For example, the verb essen means "to eat." If you look at a strong verb list, you'll see that the preterite form is aß. Here is how you would conjugate this form. The endings that we're adding to the other forms will work for any irregular preterite form you would find on that list.
1st person singular (I): ich aß
2nd person singular (you): du aßtest
3rd person singular (he, she, it): sie aß
1st person plural (we): wir aßten
2nd person plural (you all): ihr aßtet
3rd person plural (they): sie aßten
2nd person formal: Sie aßten
In normal sentence construction, the simple past looks very much the same in German as it does in English. If you want to say, "We ate pizza yesterday," note that the word order can be virtually the same in German: "Wir aßten Pizza gestern."