When to use simple past in German

I know that Germans generally avoid using the simple past, so I'm wondering when to use it at all to sound as natural as possible. Should I never ever use it? Should I randomly choose to say "Ich ging" about 5% of the time instead of "Ich bin gegangen"?

April 7, 2016


In most cases, you would use the Perfekt in the spoken language, although there are some verbs that are more often used with the Präteritum, such as:

  • auxiliaries (sein, haben, werden)
  • modals (wollen, können, etc.)

There are also a handful of others such as aussehen, wissen, and even some that may use the Präteritum depending on the situation; for example, was hast du gefunden? but wie fandest du den Film?, or ich habe meiner Schwester das Buch gegeben but es gab viele Probleme.

In the written language, the Präteritum is preferred, but the Perfekt may be used as well.

April 7, 2016

In spoken language you'd usually use Perfekt and Plusquamperfekt.

Ich habe dies und jenes erledigt. Ich bin gegangen.

Ich bin ins Kino gegangen. Davor hatte ich mir eine Karte gekauft.

Imperfekt can be used for actions that happened in the past and aren't connected to the present (in spoken language)

Goethe lebte im 18. Jahrhundert. Die Dinosaurier lebten vor Millionen Jahren. Meine Großmutter ging zur Klosterschule.

But I think where I live most people would use Perfekt here as well.

April 7, 2016

There are two main tenses for referring to past events: the present perfect tense and the simple past tense. The present perfect tense is mostly used for the spoken German. The simple past is mainly used in written German. In grammar books the simple past is often referred to as Präteritum or the Imperfekt

April 7, 2016

When you tell a story that is set in the past, e.g. a fairy tale, fable or narration of a historic event.

April 7, 2016
Learn German in just 5 minutes a day. For free.