To have (“haben“) and to be (“sein“) are two of the most commonly used verbs in German. Today you’ll learn how to form the past simple (“Präteritum“) of “haben” and “sein“.
What you need to know about the German words “haben” and “sein“
Before getting into how to form the past simple (also known as ‘simple past’) of those two verbs, let’s recap the most important information about them.
Firstly, “haben” means “to have” and “sein” means “to be”.
If you’re feeling a bit rusty, why not remind yourself about how to conjugate the verb “sein” in German?
Conjugating “haben” in the present tense
In case you don’t know yet how to conjugate “haben” in the present tense, familiarise yourself with the table below before moving on to learning about the simple past.
“Haben” is a regular verb and thus follows the general rules of verb conjugation.
|ich habe||I have|
|du hast||you have|
|er/sie/es hat||he/she/it has|
|wir haben||we have|
|ihr habt||you all have|
|sie haben||they have|
“Haben” is not only used to indicate possession but (depending on the context), this verb can also indicate that something happened, for example a meeting.
Here’s how “haben” could be used in the present tense:
Ich habe eine Katze.
I have a cat.
Martha hat Fieber.
Martha’s got a fever.
If you’re translating from English, “haben” replaces the English “to have” and vice versa, at least in most cases.
However, there are some exceptions where “haben” in German does not translate to “to have” in English. Here are some examples:
Ich habe Angst.
I am scared.
Ich habe Hunger.
Ich habe Durst.
The simple past of German “sein“
If you’d like to make a statement about something that was true in the past but is no longer so, you can use the simple past. The simple past is commonly used in conversational German.
Here’s how you conjugate “sein” in the simple past:
|ich war||I was|
|du warst||you were|
|er/sie/es war||he/she/it was|
|wir waren||we were|
|ihr wart||you all were|
|sie waren||they were|
Notice that some of the endings of the simple past forms of “sein“ correlate with the rule for conjugating German verbs in the present tense: “-st” functions as the ending for the second person singular, and “-en” is the ending for the first and third person plural.
Based on the table above, can you try and translate the following simple sentences into German?
- Last year I was eighteen years old.
- Yesterday you were grumpy.
- My grandparents were good people.
- We were friends.
- You (all) were at school on Monday.
- My dog was always very excited to see me.
The simple past of “haben” in German
If you’d like to express that you had something in the past that you no longer possess, you use the simple past of “haben“.
|ich hatte||I had|
|du hattest||you had|
|er/sie/es hatte||he/she/it had|
|wir hatten||we had|
|ihr hattet||you all had|
|sie hatten||they had|
Note that the simple past is used when you’re referring to any event in the past, no matter how long ago it was.
Gestern hatte die Laufgruppe ein Treffen.
Yesterday there was a meet-up of the running group.
Vor 2000 Jahren hatten viele Menschen noch keine Rechte.
2000 years ago, many people did not have any rights yet.
Ihr hattet letztes Jahr viel Spaß zusammen.
Last year you guys had a lot of fun together.
Top tip for studying German: Listen to German news!
My top tip for improving your German listening skills and getting a feel for the sound of the language is to listen to German news. News anchors usually make a point of speaking slowly, clearly, and quite formally (which is easier to understand for beginners than informal German). They also have neutral accents.
You can download a news app from a German news channel and listen whenever you feel like it. Listening to German news doesn’t have to take away time from your day since you can do it while you’re doing house chores, or even while you’re trying to fall asleep.
And the bonus of this is that you’ll also get a glimpse into what’s happening in Germany at the moment.
If you’re not a fan of listening to the news, there’s a range of other German podcasts you can listen to.