Using the past simple tense (e.g. He worked) is something German speakers generally have problems with. In my experience, there are two main reasons for this.

The first is that the German past simple tense (e.g. Er arbeitete) is generally only used in special situations. You’ll see it used in literature, for example, but the perfect tense (e.g. Er hat gearbeitet – He has worked) is normally preferred in spoken German. When communicating in English, Germans often think which past tense they use is a question of personal choice but this is not the case.

Yesterday, for example, is a period of time that is over – it started and finished in the past. Whenever we use the word yesterday in our sentence, we automatically have to use the past simple tense. He worked yesterday is therefore correct and he has worked yesterday is not. In the minds of German speakers however, both of these sound ok and that causes them problems when speaking English.

The second reason is the unusual structure. When making negatives and questions, we generally use did or didn’t in combination with the basic form of the verb (e.g. He didn’t work and Did he work?). A common mistake that English learners often make is the double use of the past form to make He didn’t worked or Did he worked? Some try to get around this by ignoring did and didn’t completely to make structures like He worked not and Worked he?, something which sounds like Shakespearian English to most native English speakers.

To make things even more complicated, English – like German – has many irregular verbs. These can take a long time to learn and, at the beginning at least, it’s easy to make the mistake of saying He speaked instead of He spoke. My past forms quiz includes some of the most commonly used – you can use it to learn or train your English as many times as you like!

So, you can’t avoid it. The chances are that you already knew the theory; all you have to do is put it into practice!

Do you often make mistakes when using the past simple tense?

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