Guten Morgen Grammar: Simple Past my Ars…t

Picture with Franz Kafka's metamorphosis

One of my beloved regular readers requested a lesson on using the simple past in everyday conversation, so hold on to your jimjams because HERE WE GO.

First things first: let’s decide on our terminology. Lots of people call this tense the ‘past historic’, presumably alluding to the ‘passé historique’ in French whose sole purpose is to create lingering acidic hatred in secondary schoolkids. I don’t really think this name is very helpful as it just sounds poncey and doesn’t enlighten us at all about what the tense is actually doing. Others call it the ‘imperfect past tense’, which is a terrible idea because this tense doesn’t suggest any ‘imperfect’ meaning, as we’ll see in a second. The other name for this tense is the ‘simple past’, and that’s my preferred nomenclature because it says it like it is: this is a form of the past tense which is simpler than the other form (“ich habe gesehen”) because it only uses one word rather than two (“ich sah”).

So what’s the main difference between the simple past and the non-simple past (usually called the present perfect)? In terms of meaning, none at all. A past-tense sentence written in the present perfect means exactly the same as a past-tense sentence written in the simple past:

Ich habe ihm meine Telefonnummer gegeben.

Ich gab ihm meine Telefonnummer.

Both of these sentences mean ‘I gave him my phone number’. There is no difference in meaning; they are the same sentence to all intents and purposes. The present perfect is formed with a present-tense form of ‘haben’ or ‘sein’ plus a past-participle, which is why we call it the ‘present perfect’ in the first place, while the simple past is just formed with one word which, in all its simple and unified glory, encapsulates the whole idea of past-ness by itself.

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Are you going to Maker Faire / Circuits, lathes, lawnmowers and twine

creepy robot
Oh god he’s looking at me. Guys, he’s looking at me. Guys? Hey, has anyone seen Dr Lanning recently??

The craft community has a great many factions. Of course, you always start off with the hordes of grandmas knitting and stitching lovely things for people who can’t wait to wear them ironically outside a pulled-pork food truck somewhere. Then there are the cutesy crafters who insist on making things covered with emblems of cupcakes and owls, and pretend to ‘upcycle’ by using brand-new mason jars for non-jar-related purposes, and fashion cozies for everything and anything which actually manages to stay at a completely acceptable temperature by itself. There are the grunge-crafters, who like old pallets (a coffee table!) and worn-out jeans (a hammock for onions!) and enjoy making wallets and even wedding dresses out of duct tape. There are crafters who become craftsmen, making glorious leatherwares or carpentry which sell for thousands of pounds. There are the nerdcore crafters, whose hearts are lifted by the sight of the triforce and who still have their embroidered ‘The cake is a lie’ and Doge cushion covers proudly adorning their sofas. There are thousands of us, in our different schools of craftery – a spectrum of makers, gluing and burnishing and felting all across the globe.

And yet there seems only to be one kind of publication on the newsstands for crafters. They are called mind-shrivellingly uninspiring titles like ‘Country Craftz’ or ‘You can craft it!’, with some blonde smiling bint on the cover, showing off a cheeky nautical-themed bathroom door decoration, or an Easter card with a garish felted chick. They feature projects where you ruin perfectly good wine glasses by pointlessly gluing rhinestones onto them, or you ‘make’ a set of wedding invitations by sticking pre-bought decorations onto pre-made card bases from SimplyStylin(R) card supplies (full catalogue overleaf!). They use gnarly cursive fonts or pathetic faux handwritten text which looks like Comic Sans’ leprotic cousin. And they are saturated with oestrogen, bloated with ads and sponsored articles, monuments to trashy writing. Such uninspiring fodder for legions of the inspired.

Thankfully, the internet exists, and it is now full of joyfully mental craft blogs for every different kind of crafter. But the big mummy and daddy of them all are Make:zine and Craft:zine, two online and (I believe subsequently) print publications which have quality, well-curate content. I started out reading Craft:zine’s online blog every single day when I was younger, but gradually started to lose interest as the posts became less about awesome DIY crafting tips and more about new iterations of utterly needless cozies. At that point I found myself drifting towards Make:zine, which is more focused towards DIY tech, amateur circuitry and other such fascinating homespun hacks (my favourite, which I will always remember, was a guy who had built an automatic catfood bowl built to only open for certain cats, founded on the mechanism of an old computer CD tray). Not long after that they completely buggered up their web design such that browsing the site these days is like trying to read a book where the back 200 pages are stuck together and the front 50 pages have been torn out and thrown around by an angry gibbon. But that never stopped me longing to go to their Maker Faire convention, where makers and techers of the world get together to show off their shizz. And then, this weekend, for the first time, it came to Berlin.

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Arise, Sir Flance-alot

Berliner crayfish
“This city drives me cray-cray” ……Oh god everyone I’m sorry for that

Alright, first of all let’s get the admin out of the way. There hasn’t been much content on GMB of late, mostly because I’ve been working my guts out on the Glossarama, partly because I’ve been trying my best to write decent chunks of text about funerals and scrap car removal, and most recently because my exciting amazing journey into a whole new vocation hit a brick wall when my course was cancelled. Just called off, sacked off, just as I was hitting my stride, my career trajectory resembling the flight pattern of one of those paper planes you make when you’re 12 years old which flies four feet and then takes an abrupt right angle turn towards the ground and bends its nose on the linoleum. So suddenly I find myself freelancing full-time, patching my days together out of disparate projects and attempts to teach myself the remainder of basic web development.

It’s difficult to know what to say about that, really. One of my vows to myself which I made when starting this blog was that it would never become a journal or a self-pity party, so it would be inappropriate to say much at all. At any rate, just mentioning it risks me erupting into a spluttering outburst of impotent rage. And yes, here it comes, duck and cover everyone!

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Guten Morgen Grammar: Weak masculine nouns, and other life truths reflected in grammar

Cartoon of Affe and Furst, both weak masculine nouns
Der Affe and Der Furst. Both weak. Pathetic, really.

You guys: first of all, I am sorry for the delay in posts at the moment. As I’ll explain in an upcoming entry, life has taken an unfortunate u-turn and I haven’t had much time to blog. But more importantly, this post has been a long time coming because I have been working on a very special present for all of you. At the end of this post. Now you just HAVE to read on.

Today in Guten Morgen Grammar we’re going to talk about a special kind of noun in German which tends to catch a lot of people out. You see, in German, there are a fairly large number of masculine nouns which are described as weak masculine nouns. That’s right: even German, as an inanimate concept, knows that men are weak and it’s all about the chicas. That’s why it’s such a brilliant language and you should learn it.

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Guten Morgen Grammar: Let’s talk about bzw

Cartoon about german abbreviations

Boy howdy, German loves abbreviations. Particularly in emails and official municipal writings, the writing is peppered with odd little fragments like bzw and usw and z.B….omg, it’s like fml, seriously wtf. ANYWAY, enough whimsy. Let’s look at some of the most popular ones, and how to use them properly.



Stands for: und so weiter – etcetera

This is probably the easiest one to use – just throw it in there wherever you would use etc in English, for example at the end of a list or extended description. Just remember that with usw you don’t put a full-stop/period after it unless it’s at the end of a sentence.

Wir verkaufen Computer, Lautsprecher, Küchengeräte usw.

Bitte bringt Ihre Unterlagen, Reisepass usw mit.

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SEO (and white gazpacho)

Cucumber soup
Awkwardly shoehorning in more recipes by reader request!

When I applied for funding for the course I am now doing, I was assigned a contact person at the Arbeitsagentur who sent me a very long form to fill in (we’re talking ‘Please use additional pages for your answer if required’-long here, people). I diligently filled in the form extolling the countless virtues in learning programming, particularly for someone who graduated in two subjects which are about as much use in Germany as an MSc in Surfboard Repair. I also diligently found and printed out a minimum of ten job ads which were asking for the skills I would be learning in the course, and I sent all that in in a large manila envelope. Shortly after, Frau Vogt informed me that, since I had once in my previous job been tossed the nominal title of ‘Office Manager’ alongside my other job roles as a vague acknowledgement that I knew how to fix the office internet, I was now considered experienced enough to pursue a career in office administration and would therefore not be receiving any funding. I protested that office administration is not a career but rather a chronic disease, but she refused to give in on the subject and signed off the phone call with the brusque icy-coldness of the entirety of German bureaucracy. So, being both pissed off and stupid, I decided to do the damn course anyway and try to pay the rent by working freelance in my spare time.

My newest ‘client’ (which sounds so wrong – I feel like it’s not right to have ‘clients’ without also having several pinstripe suits) is a company which develops websites for small businesses who can’t figure out how to use Squarespace. People like plumbers, plasterers or sticky bun shops come to this company wanting a website, the company build a template and come to me wanting a bunch of wordy bits to go inside it. Easy pees. Except for it’s really not as easy pees as it sounds. Because of SEO.

For anyone not familiar with the idea, SEO is Search Engine Optimisation and it is essentially the practice of designing your website in such a way that search engines (you know, like Yahoo and Altavista and Bing) naturally happen upon your site as one of the first when someone searches for a specific thing. In the beginning days of the internet that was as simple as doing stuff like shoving some invisible text on your website somewhere that said ‘boobs xxx sexy porn money’ and hoping that all the randy creeps on the Internet might get distracted from their raunch-hunt and click on your bookshop website when it pops up during a search for red-hot babes. The search engines (you know, like AOL search and Ask Jeeves) soon got wise to that and started building ever more complex code into their search mechanisms to make sure that all the content on your website was of a consistent theme (i.e. no more click-baiting by hiding references to vaginas in your restaurant menu), and that the search results brought up the websites which would be most helpful to the searchers, not the companies, when the ‘Go!’ button is clicked.

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How to cycle in the districts of Berlin – a beginner’s guide

Pictured: cycling fun on Friedrichstrasse.
Pictured: cycling fun on Friedrichstrasse.


Prenzlauer Berg

Maintain a steady speed of no more than 2 miles per hour, but ensure that you remain in a low enough gear that your legs are a frantic blur. You must equip your bicycle with at least one of the following:

a) a small child, strapped to a plastic chair, bolted to the back of the bike.

b) a small child, eating a disintegrating banana, sealed inside a wheeled plastic cubicle attached to the back of the bike.

Ideally, you would have both.


Acceptable styles of bike include: ones with huge, thick wheels like an all-terrain vehicle; tiny BMX’s with axle pegs; ancient road bikes composed entirely of rust; recumbent trikes. Make sure to cycle exclusively on the pavement, and travel in erratic S-shaped paths rather than a straight line. You may only keep a maximum of one hand on the handlebars at any one time – the other hand must be kept free to hold a 0.5 litre bottle of beer. Reflectors are not required for anyone in possession of EU-standard certified dreadlocks.


Unfortunately, in order to cycle in Kreuzberg it is necessary to be an old man wearing brown trousers. However, once you have completed the step of becoming an old man wearing brown trousers, cycling in Kreuzberg is easy and enjoyable. Simply roll along the cycle path at a speed slightly slower than walking. Ensure to stick your knees out to the sides as you pedal.

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School vs. Grown-up-school

wall with graffiti saying schule
School is cool, but Schule is cooler


School – Some kids sneak out now and then during the day for a crafty fag.

Grown-up school – Some people go out now and then during the day for a crafty fag. No sneaking is required. Also, it’s less ‘now and then’ and more ‘every damn hour’. Also, the teacher tends to join them.


School – The kids get into tight social cliques who spend all their time together and bitch about other people in the breaks.

Grown-up school – The people get into tight social cliques who spend all their time together and bitch about other people in the breaks. But they also quite enjoy drinking coffee while they do it.


School – The naughty ones sit at the back and piss about, gradually eroding the teacher’s nerve and will to live.

Grown-up school – The naughty ones sit at the back and piss about, gradually eroding the teacher’s nerve and will to live. At the end of the module they write a strongly-worded complaint about the teacher being incompetent.

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Legs that won’t quit

I bike berlin sticker
My rear mudguard is one of the few things that has escaped unscathed.


Last week on Wednesday, I was hit by a bus. Thankfully not to the extent that I was pulverised; the coachdriver was turned right without checking to see if anyone was going across the side-road, so he was going fairly slowly, but I still ended up fully underneath the belly of his massive motor with my arms and legs painfully tangled among the sprockets of my bike. Some wonderful people taking signatures for the Rote Nasen immediately pulled me and my bike out from under the bus and gave me a red nose to cheer me up once the police had been and gone and the driver had skulked off guiltily into the distance.

The following Thursday, after I had celebrated a full week with no bicycle-related accidents, my victory was cut short when a speeding Hell’s Angel rocketed past me at a changing light and scalped my elbow with his handlebar-mirror. He turned and swore loudly at me as he drove away, and in general it was a pretty high-octane end to a boring schoolday, although I hadn’t been doing anything wrong at all.

Then, on the Friday morning, my thigh put a pretty impressive dent into some twonk’s car bonnet when he lurched gaily out of his driveway at such a speed that he wouldn’t have been able to see Godzilla coming at him, let alone a trundling cyclist. This was actual agony, not to mention the gall of the driver, who leapt out of his car and starting spluttering ‘Why did you-?! Why didn’t you-?! You should have-?!’ before realising that he didn’t really have anything to blame me for. I haven’t even my mum about this one yet because I don’t want her to worry – sorry mum! – but at any rate, I really hope that it’s one of those things where lightning doesn’t usually strike twice but if it strikes three or more times in a fortnight then lightning will leave you alone entirely for the rest of your life. Fingers crossed!

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Guten Morgen Grammar: Conjunctions part 2 – Fly away, little verb

Cartoon about subordinating conjunctions


In Part 1 we took a look at co-ordinating conjunctions and what I call ‘mixed conjunctions’. As I mentioned, these conjunctions could also be seen as ‘easy’ and ‘medium’ conjunctions, like difficulty levels in Guitar Hero: for ‘easy’ you play with just three fingers, for ‘medium’ you play with four, and for ‘hard’ you have to play chords with your forehead while solving physics equations that flash up on the screen…or something, I haven’t played that game in a while. Anyway – now it’s time for us to dive into the ‘hard’ conjunctions: subordinating conjunctions.

Don’t panic, though. Subordinating conjunctions sound a lot scarier than they actually are; once you’re used to the way they work, it’s dead simple. First of all, let’s get acquainted with all the most common ones which you’re going to need in your Germanical toolbelt:
weil – because
obwohl – although
dass – that (i.e. ‘he said that you’re an ass’)
da – because, as
bevor – before
nachdem – after
ob – whether
als ob – as if
damit – so that
wenn – if, when, whenever
als – when (used for past events – we’ll come back to these last two later. Click here to spring straight to that section.)

As you can probably tell, these are some super-useful words right here, so you definitely want to learn all of these off by heart, no question. Tattoo them on your love handles if you need to, just as long as you learn them and learn ’em good.

Word order with subordinating conjunctions

Let’s build a complex sentence out of two clauses using a subordinating conjunction.

Ich spiele gern Fußball.
I like playing football.

Ich bin gut darin.
I’m good at it. (n.b. useful to remember that in German you are good ‘in’ something rather than good ‘at’ something)

First things first: when you’re using a subordinating conjunction to join up the clauses, you need to pop in a comma at the end of the first clause:

displaying the importance of the comma at the end of the first clauseSlightly exaggerated here, but you get my drift. Then, after the comma, comes the conjunction. Here we’ll use ‘weil’ – ‘I like playing foolball because I’m good at it.’ And this is what happens:

Ich spiele gern Fussball. Ich bin gut darin. Ich spiele gern Fussball, weil ich gut darin bin.

The subordinating conjunction boots the verb in the second clause all the way to the end of the clause. Here are some more examples of this happening:

Sie gießt ihre Pflanzen. Sie verlässt das Haus.

Sie gießt ihre Pflanzen, bevor sie das Haus verlässt.


Ich nehme an der Demo teil. Ich habe nichts gegen Atomenergie.

Ich nehme an der Demo teil, obwohl ich nichts gegen Atomenergie habe.


See? Dead easy. The verb always goes to the end of the clause. If you’re working with a clause which contains more than one verb or a past participle, the rule still applies – the active verb (i.e. the one which is being carried out by the subject and is conjugated) still goes to the end of the clause:

Wir haben uns nicht wohl gefühlt, nachdem wir eine ganze Flasche Gin getrunken haben. (past tense)

Sie liest sein Tagebuch, damit sie seine Gefühle besser verstehen kann. (modal verb)

But the fun doesn’t stop there. We can also begin a sentence with a subordinating conjunction, which is often helpful for emphasis or slight changes in the way you want to express your message:

Ich spiele gern Golf. Ich bin nicht gut darin. Obwohl ich nicht gut darin bin, spiele ich gern Golf.

See how the subordinating conjunction still sends the verb to the end of the clause? And take a look at the second clause: see how the verb comes at the very start, right after the comma? That’s because the whole first clause has now taken first position, and so what absolutely must follow is the verb, which always wants to be in second position. Generally, grammacologists tend to simplify this whole idea down to the much more catchy ‘Verb comma verb rule’: when you start your sentence with a subordinating conjunction, the verbs hang on either side of the comma separating the clauses. The clause containing the subordinating conjunction doesn’t change, in essence; all we’re changing is where it stands in relation to the other clause.

Examples of conjunctions at the beginning and in the middle of a sentence.

The last example shows how the different structures allow us to change the meaning and expression of what we’re saying – namely that the first option in this instance sounds even more bitchy than the second.

So what’s the deal with wenn and als?

As you may have noticed in the vocab list above, wenn and als can both mean ‘when’, but they have weird and different meanings. Let’s break it down:


Wenn means ‘if’ and also ‘when’, also in the sense of ‘whenever’ (i.e. a recurring or conditional incident); for example, I would use ‘wenn’ in all of the following sentences:

If he comes home before me hopefully he will do the dishes.

She has an emotional breakdown whenever she hears One Direction.

When I get my Master’s degree I’ll have much better job opportunities.

When her dog sees her, he always runs straight to the door to say hello.

(Bonus points: translate these sentences into German and email me your answers!)


Als also means ‘when’, but ONLY in the context of past happenings; if it helps, you can think of it as the ‘once upon a time’ conjunction. Any time you are recounting something that has already happened, whether it was yesterday or three years ago, you need to use als. I would use als in sentences like this:

When I went to the shops on Tuesday I tripped over a chihuahua.

She called the vet immediately when she saw her sick hamster.

When we got to know him last year he had blue hair.

I read a lot of books when I took the train to work.


See how, in that last example, the ‘als’ is actually really useful because it very often carries over the idea of ‘used to’, which has no direct translation in German – in English the sentence feels more comfortable as ‘I read a lot of books when I used to take the train to work’ but in German you don’t need that ‘used to take’ flimflam as long as you’ve got als in there doing the heavy lifting.

(Bonus points for these four sentences too! Email your answers to ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin[dot]com!)


I’m sure it’s obvious from this lesson how useful and important subordinating conjunctions are, even though they require a bit more elbow grease than the other conjunctions. If you learn all this by heart you’ll be a great step further towards feeling comfortable with German word order, and with the language in general.