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The preterite (also praeterite, in American English also preterit, simple past, or past historic) is the grammatical tense expressing actions which took place in the past.

Preterites in Germanic languagesEdit

EnglishEdit

English's preterite — usually called its simple past or, somewhat loosely, its past-tense form — is generally formed by adding -ed or -d to the verb's plain form (bare infinitive), sometimes with some spelling modifications:

  • He planted corn and oats.
  • They studied grammar.

A number of verbs form their preterites irregularly, often by changing an interior vowel:

  • She went to the cinema.
  • I ate breakfast late this morning.
  • He ran to the store.

Interrogative and negative clauses do not use their main verb's preterites; rather, if their declarative or positive counterpart does not use any auxiliary or modal verb, then the auxiliary verb did (the preterite of do) is inserted and the main verb appears in its plain form:

  • Did he plant corn and oats?
  • She did not go to the cinema.

GermanEdit

In German, the Präteritum is used for past actions. (Older grammar books sometimes call it the "imperfect", an unsuitable borrowing from Latin terminology.) In South Germany, Austria and Switzerland, it is mostly used solely in writing, for example in stories. Use in speech is regarded as snobbish and thus very uncommon. South German dialects, such as the Bavarian dialect, as well as Yiddish, have no preterite, but only perfect constructs.

In certain regions, a few specific verbs are used in the preterite, for instance the modal verbs and the verbs haben (have) and sein (be).

  • Es gab einmal ein kleines Mädchen, das Rotkäppchen hieß. (There was once a small girl who was called Little Red Riding Hood.)

In speech and informal writing, the Perfekt is used (eg, Ich habe dies und das gesagt. (I said this and that)).

However, in the colloquial language of North Germany, there is still a very important difference between the preterite and the perfect, and both tenses are consequently very common. The preterite is used for past actions when the focus is on the action, whilst the present perfect is used for past actions when the focus is on the present state of the subject as a result of a previous action. This corresponds to the English usage of the preterite and the present perfect.

  • Preterite: "Heute früh kam mein Freund." (my friend came early in the morning, and he's being talked about strictly in the past)
  • Perfect: "Heute früh ist mein Freund gekommen." (my friend came early in the morning, but he's being talked about in the present)

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