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Verbs: imperfect tense

Tenses show when something happens – the past, present or the future. The imperfect tense is a past tense.

Imperfect tense

The imperfect tense is sometimes used to talk about the past. The most common form of the past tense is the perfect tense. However, there are some verbs which are almost always used in the imperfect, for example:

  • ‘Es war gut’ -> It was good.

Sein and haben

Sein is almost always used in the imperfect instead of the perfect tense.

Sein – to be

Pronoun Imperfect Meaning
ich /er/sie/es/man war I/he/she/it/one was
du warst You were (singular, informal)
wir/sie waren We/they were
ihr wart You (plural) were

Haben – to have

Pronoun Imperfect Meaning
ich /er/sie/es/man hatte I/he/she/it/one had
du hattest You had(singular, informal)
wir/sie hatten We/they had
ihr hattet You (plural) had

Example sentences

  • Als ich klein war, hatte ich blonde Haare -> When I was little, I had blonde hair.
  • Wir hatten keine Probleme mit dem Hausaufgaben -> We had no problems with the homework.
  • Ich habe ‘Up’ im Kino gesehen. Das war super -> I saw ‘Up’ at the cinema. It was great.
  • Im Sommer waren wir in Amerika -> In the summer, we were in America.

There was/there were

Es gibt (present tense) means ‘there is/there are’. This is almost always used in the imperfect instead of the perfect tense. In the imperfect tense, it’s es gab.

Examples

  • Als ich jünger war, gab es einen Spielplatz im Dorf -> When I was younger, there was a play park in the village.
  • Es gab gestern viele Touristen im Museum -> There were lots of tourists in the museum yesterday.

Modal verbs in the past

The other very common ones are the modal verbs (Wollen, sollen, müssen, mögen, dürfen, können). To use a modal verb, select one you want and the put an infinitive at the end, eg Wollen. Ich will Fußball spielen -> I want to play football.

The imperfect follows the same structure: pick the correct form and put the infinitive at the end, eg Ich wollte Fußball spielen -> I wanted to play football.

The endings follow this structure:

Structure of endings

Pronoun Ending
ich/er/sie/es e
du est
wir/sie en
ihr et

Modal verbs are especially useful for talking about what you were allowed/had to do during work experience:

  • Ich musste Kaffee kochen -> I had to make the coffee.
  • Ich durfte Autos reparieren -> I was allowed to repair cars.
  • Ich durfte keine Telefonanrufe beantworten -> I was not allowed to answer any phone calls.
  • Ich sollte von 9 bis 5 arbeiten -> I was supposed to work from 9 till 5.

Forming the imperfect – Higher

  1. Start with the stem of a verb.
  2. Take the infinitive (eg kochen)
  3. Remove the –en (kochen). The stem is left (kochen).
  4. Then add the correct imperfect ending

Haben – to have

Pronoun Imperfect Meaning
ich kochte I cooked
du kochtest You cooked (singular, informal)
er/sie/es/man kochte He/she/it/one cooked
wir/sie kochten We/they cooked
ihr kochtet You (plural) cooked
wir/sie kochten We/they cooked

Some of the most common weak/regular verbs in the imperfect are:

  • Spielen (play)
  • Machen (do)
  • Lernen (learn)
  • Kaufen (buy)
  • Lieben (love)
  • Sagen (say)

Examples

  • Sie lernten Französisch in der Schule -> They learnt French in school.
  • Meine Schwester kaufte eine neue Hose -> My sister bought a new pair of trousers.

How to form the imperfect – common (strong) verbs

Common strong verbs in the imperfect – notice how the endings are the same as above, but the stem changes:

Imperfect stems

Infinitive Imperfect Meaning ich/er/sie/es form du form wir/sie form
denken dachten Thought dachte dachtest dachten
fahren fuhren Went/travelled fuhr fuhrst fuhren
gehen gingen Went ging gingst gingen
sprechen sprachen Spoke sprach sprachst sprachen
finden fanden Found fand fandest fanden

Examples:

  • Ich ging in die Stadt -> I went into town.
  • Es wurde schnell dunkel -> It got (became) dark quickly.
  • Wir sprachen mit dem Lehrer -> We talked to the teacher.

To find the correct forms of other strong verbs, look them up in a verb table.

Common mistakes made by English speakers

  • Using the imperfect too often (the perfect tense is more common).
  • Not checking whether a verb is irregular or not.

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