The Past Tense

Dinosaur
Forming the past tense in Polish is relatively easy compared to English. In English we have to deal with the simple past, past continuous, past perfect and past perfect continuous. In Polish, there’s only one past tense, and information about whether an action is completed or is in progress is instead expressed using aspect.
 

Aspect

 
Polish verbs have two aspects, imperfective and perfective.

The imperfective form of the verb is used to talk about the present, or actions that were or will be in progress, i.e. I am writing, I was writing, I will be writing.

The perfective form of the verb is used to talk about actions that were or will be completed, i.e. I wrote, I will write.

Perfective verbs don’t exist in the present tense, so you might not have come across them at all. They are formed often by adding a prefix to the imperfective form, but can also be formed by changing the stem of the imperfective. And some perfective verbs look very different to their imperfective forms. It’s best to learn both forms of a verb separately and there are good books for this purpose, such as 301 Polish Verbs which presents the two side by side and in all their forms. Here are some examples using common verbs:
 

Imperfective Perfective
buy kupować kupić
cook gotować ugotować
drink pić wypić
eat jeść zjeść
go (by vehicle, once) jechać pojechać
help pomagać pomóc
listen słuchać posłuchać
read czytać przeczytać
say mówić powiedzieć
see widzieć zobaczyć
write pisać napisać

 

Forming the Past Tense

 
The past tense is formed by adding a series of endings to the stem of the verb. These are the familiar singular (I, You, He/She) and plural (We, You (pl), They) forms, but with one quirk – there are two different sets of plural forms depending on whether you are referring to a group containing at least one man, or a group not containing a man (i.e. a group of women, children or things). Here’s an example with pić:
 
Aspect
 
So the verb form in the sentence wypili za dużo (they drank too much) gives you three pieces of information – the drinking took place in the past (past tense), is now finished (perfective), and was completed by a group containing at least one man (masculine 3rd person plural).

The vast majority of verbs in the past tense are formed simply by adding the endings above to the stem of the verb.
There are, as always, a couple of exceptions:

Verbs ending in follow the pattern below, with the e changing into an a in all forms apart from the masculine personal plural:
 
chcieć
 
Also, verbs ending in ść, c or źć including the two common verbs below, have more unique stem changes that it’s best to learn, though the endings are reassuringly still the same:
 
Irregular Past Tense
 

Pronunciation

mouth
 
It’s worth noting that while the stress on words in Polish is usually on the penultimate syllable, for the plural forms above it’s on the third-to-last syllable instead, i.e. the endings in bold are all unstressed.
 

Quiz

 

 



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