14 Past Tense

• • • Easy Croatian: 24 Present Tense

• • • Review: Present Tense

Croatian forms the past tense using present forms of verb "to be" (säm, si, je...) and something similar to an adjective, called past participle (abbreviated to "past part." or "p. p."). Such sentences are actually very similar to "X is Y". Because adjectives have to agree with subjects of such sentences, form of the adjective — well, participle — changes according to gender of subject:

Ja säm rekäo. "I said." (a male speaker)
Ja säm rekla. "I said." (a female speaker)

This poses a small problem when translating to and from Croatian. As with other such sentences, personal pronouns are normally omitted:

Rekäo säm. Rekla säm.

Recall that the present forms of verb "to be" (säm, si, je...) must be at the second place in a sentence.

Now, how are those "past participles" formed? First, their scheme of endings is as follows:

m    n    f    

Other cases (if used) conform to the normal pattern. Actually, all forms conform to the normal adjective pattern except the nom. m.

While there's more than one way to express past in English ("I watched", "I have watched", "I was watching"...) there's only one past tense in Croatian used in every day communication. It simply means what was, what happened.

Verbs with Easy Past

Let's review the present classes and see how past participles are formed:

pres. classaii
1st sg. im-a-m misl-i-m trč-i-m
3rd pl. im-a-ju misl-e trč-e
past classaia
past m im-a-o misl-i-o trč-a-o
past f im-a-la misl-i-la trč-a-la

OK, a- and i-verbs are trivial: they retain their -a- or -i- from the present.

But about the third column? There's a group of verbs, including the verb trčim "run" that have an -i- in present, but -a- in past (and some other forms that are based on the past part.). They behave as i-verbs in present, but like a-verbs in past! That's why there's a row for the 'present class' and a row for the 'past class' in the table. I gave such verbs them a simple name: i/a-verbs (present/past). That's really another class.

Verbs with Less Easy Past

Now, let's check the other three verb classes we know from the present tense, all having characteristic -e- in the present tense:

pres. classn0j
1st sg. bri-n-em pi--jem tres--em kup-uj-em oček-uj-em
3rd pl. bri-n-u pi--ju tres--u kup-uj-u oček-uj-u
past classn0oviv
past m bri-nu-o pi--o tres--äo kup-ova-o oček-iva-o
past f bri-nu-la pi--la tres--la kup-ova-la oček-iva-la

This is more complicated. If a verb has suffix -n-, it changes to -nu- in the past; it's the property of the suffix, so I still call such verbs n-verbs.

A complication arises in the 0-verbs: if their root (e.g. tres) ends on a consonant, they get an a inserted in sg.m past part., but not in other forms. (I marked it as ä to emphasize that it's an a that is lost in other forms, but it's normally written and pronounced as any a).

The last two columns are also a problem, it's dealt with below. But an important fact first:

Past participle forms

All forms of past part., except the sg.m, are alike sg.f, and sg.f can usually be derived from sg.m.

For example, for the following verb (it means "grow") going from sg.m to sg.f is difficult, but all other forms are alike sg.f:

m    n    f    

Verbs Switching from i to a

I have already shown one of them in the first table (trčim). There's no other option but to memorize them: how else would you know that učim is a regular i-verb, but trčim is an i/a-verb?. Luckily, there are not too many such verbs. Therefore, for such verbs I will list both present and the past part. m. The frequent ones are (listed as 1st pers. sg. present, past part. sg. m):

bjëžim, bjëžao "run away"    
brojim, brojao "count"
držim, držao "hold"
klečim, klečao "kneel"
ležim, ležao "lie, recline"
trčim, trčao "run"
vrištim, vrištao "scream"
zviždim, zviždao "whistle"

Since they are simple to learn, so I'm introducing them as soon as possible. For plain i-verbs, it's enough to show the present tense:

pušim "smoke (cigarette)"    
radim "work"    
sjëdim "sit"    

So the past forms will be listed in this work only if they don't follow the simplest rules, that is, for verbs that don't belong to a-, i-, or n-verbs, and for 0-verbs that don't behave like pijem and tresem.

Verbs like kupujem and očekujem

Unfortunately, there's a rather large group of verbs where past part. cannot be guessed. They all have -uj-em in the present, but some of them get -ova- and others -iva- in the past part. Even worse, there are couple of plain 0-verbs (e.g. čujem) that have -ujem in present but behave like normal 0-verbs (e.g. pijem), so their past. part sg. m is čuo!

Again, there's no other option but to memorize past part. forms, so for such verbs I will list both the present and the past. For example:

ispitujem, ispitivao "examine"    
potpisujem, potpisivao "sign"
surađujem, surađivao "co-operate"
uključujem, uključivao "include; switch on"

Otherwise, since they are actually similar in many aspects, I will call them j/v-verbs: they include both j/iv and j/ov-verbs and some other classes I will explain a bit later...

Verbs with Difficult Past

There's another class of verbs does not fit to easy patterns described above. It a number of important verbs, and there's no other option but to memorize them. The class uses a peculiar pattern: in present, they have an -em, but in the past there's always an -a- that never disappears. I'll name it ’j/a-verbs for reasons that will become obvious a bit later. I will illustrate the class with the following useful verbs:

diš-em, dis-a-o "breathe"
dršć-em, drht-a-o "shiver"   
grij-em, grij-a-o "heat"
laž-em, lag-a-o "lie"
mič-em, mic-a-o "move"
piš-em, pis-a-o "write"
puš-em, puh-a-o "blow"
skač-em, skak-a-o "jump"    
smij-em, smij-a-o se "laugh"
šeć-em, šet-a-o "stroll, walk"
vež-em, vez-a-o "tie"
vič-em, vik-a-o "yell"

The major feature is a complex change of consonants: final consonants in roots in present are almost always different from ones in the past! You can regard them "irregular" if it makes life easier for you, but really they are not, since the alternation of consonants is not random, other verbs in this class have same consonant alternations as one of verbs I listed.

Here are few examples of their use:

Vjëtar puše. "Wind blows."
Vjëtar je puhao. "Wind was blowing."
Šećem. "I am walking."
Šetala säm. "I was walking." (female speaking)
Ivan skače. "Ivan is jumping."
Ivan je skakao. "Ivan was jumping."
Ana piše pismo. "Ana is writing a letter."
Ana je pisala pismo. "Ana was writing a letter."

Even More Complicated Verbs

There are other verb classes that are a bit harder to put into past participle form; one instance is jedem "eat", having past part. jeo. About them, a bit later. Then, there are verbs like zovem "call" where the past part. is unexpectedly zvao, and believe it or not — even weirder verbs.

In verb lists, I will list the past part. m form for all such verbs, and past part. f if there's some additional problem, e.g.:

ponašam se "behave" (plain a-verb)    
pušim "smoke" (plain i-verb)
tonem "sink" (plain n-verb)
čujem "hear" (plain 0-verb)
jedem, jeo "eat"
pušem, puhao "blow"
perem, prao "wash"
zovem, zvao "call"
rastem, rastäo, rasla "grow"

For verbs like rastem, where past part. f is unexpectedly ras-la (other forms of past part. also lack the -t-, it got lost), I will list all forms you need to remember.

I will explain such verbs in a greater detail in 31 Weird Verbs. But you can just use them by remembering both present and the past part.

For the plain a-, i-, n- and 0-verbs, I will list only the 1st sg. present, as above.

Irregular Past Participles

Several verbs have irregular past participles (everything so far was kind of 'regular'):

hoću (irr.), htio, htjëla "want"
idem, išäo, išla "go"
säm (irr.), bio "be"

The verb säm has unexpectedly bio as its past part. m, but otherwise behaves as any other verb, its past follows the usual pattern:

Žedän säm. "I am thirsty." (male speaking)
Bio säm žedän. "I was thirsty." (male speaking)
Bila säm žedna. "I was thirsty." (female speaking)

Words bio, bila behave as any other past participles, only säm, si, je... have special placing rules and must be at the second place in a sentence.

Verbs with Obligatory se

Verbs that must use the word se in the present must use it in the past as well. The word se in the second place in a sentence, but after any short forms of verb säm. For instance:

Ana i Ivan su se smijali. "Ana and Ivan were laughing."
Ja säm se smijao. "I was laughing." (male speaking)
Smijao säm se. (the same meaning)

However, in the 3rd pers. sg. the short form of verb "to be" (je) is virtually always left out if there's a se:

Ana se smijala. "Ana was laughing."
Smijao se. "He was laughing."

For more details, check 30 Reflexive Pronoun.

Use with Adverbs

Adverbs are normally placed before the past part., when pronouns are omitted, adverbs often go to the first position:

Ana je često kuhala. "Ana cooked often."

With the past tense, the following adverbs are often used to indicate a relative measure when the described action or state occurred:

davno"a long time ago"
nekad"some time ago" (means "sometimes" with the present tense)
malo prijë"just, moments ago"

For example:

Davno säm igrao nogomet. "I played football a long time ago."
Ivan je malo prije čitao knjigu. "Ivan was reading a book moments ago."

Also, there are two adverbs that indicate how long the action was happening:

dugo"for a long time"
kratko"for a short time"

For example:

Kratko säm igrao nogomet. "I played football for a short time."

Some Notes on Use

I stated that forms -o, -la, -lo, etc. are actually adjectives. Are they used just as ordinary adjectives, before nouns? Yes, but only a few, from some intransitive (having no objects) verbs. For instance:

Drvo je palo. "(A) tree fell."
Palo drvo leži u šumi. "(A) fallen tree is lying in the forest."

However, a great majority of past participles are not used as adjectives, but only to form past tense. When used to form the past tense, the resulting construct is really not the same as "X is A"; to illustrate this, let's compare spavala (from spavam "sleep") and gladna:

Ja säm spavala. "I was sleeping."
Ja säm gladna. "I am hungry."
Ja säm gladna i žedna. "I am hungry and thirsty."

However, this is impossible:

Ja sam spavala i žedna. (don't try to construct this!)

A more detailed overview of all verb types can be found in the Summary of Verb Forms.


JavaScript must be enabled. You don't have to use my special notation (e.g. ë) in answers, normal spelling will do as well. Letter case is ignored.

Insert auxiliary verbs and past participles to from proper sentences in Croatian (Ana and Ivana are women; Ivan and Goran are men):

Ana . "Ana was cooking."
Ivan i Goran . "Ivan and Goran were running."
. "You (guys) were laughing."
Ivana i Ana . "Ivana and Ana were drinking."

Fill in appropriate adverbs:

Ivan je čitao knjigu. "Ivan was reading a book for a long time."
Ivan je igrao nogomet. "Ivan played football long time ago."


Updated 2014-09-28 v. 0.4


Alex said...

What makes "Ja sam spavala i žedna" wrong? Is it because the two things are not related or that žedna is an adjective while spavala is a past verb?

Daniel N. said...

Yes, mixing adjectives and past participles does not work.

You can say however:

Ja sam pila i jela "I was drinking and eating."

narukio2000 said...

Could you make a few example sentences using the examples you supplied in each chart?

Daniel N. said...

By chart you mean table with verb forms?

narukio2000 said...

Yes. If you would please :)

narukio2000 said...

Wouldn't you use the perfect verb form of the word(if any) and then attach past tense endings? or am i able to just use the imp. per and attach past tense ending or is it standard that i use the perfect verb form?

Daniel N. said...

I don't understand your question, can you give me an example?

narukio2000 said...

wouldn't you use the "perfective" form of a verb for making past tense?
I think this example might work.

čitam (impf.) / pro-čitam (perf.) "read"

then take the "perf" and make it into past tense

Daniel N. said...

Yes, but you can make past tense of ANY verb, be it perf. or impf. Normally, if you want to emphasize what you have accomplished, you would use a perf. verb:

Pročitao sam Rat i Mir. "I have read War and Peace" (the whole book)

But if you want do emphasize what you were doing, without telling if you finished it or not, you would use an impf. verb:

Čitao sam Rat i mir. "I was reading War and Peace." (that's what you have been doing, you spent some time on it, you were not washing dishes etc..)

This is similar to English difference "I did" -- "I was doing".

For instance, if you want to say how long you spent doing something, you would normally use impf. verbs:

Čitao sam Rat i mir tri tjedna. "I was reading War and Peace for three weeks"

Remember, the difference is accomplishment -- process/action.

Jeziknik said...

The book I'm using to help learn Croatian (Assimil Croatian With Ease) gives the example sentence "To me područje agronomije oduvijek jako zanimalo." To my eyes, this is missing a "je" somewhere. There was also an example along the lines of "Slavio se jedan rođendan." which again seems to be missing a "je". Are these correct? If so, what are the rules for omitting the auxiliary verb?

Daniel N. said...

Hi, you're right. I would say "To me je područje"... or even "To područje agronomije me je"... but it seems that some speakers leave out "je". It's for instance common to leave out "je" in titles of newspaper articles.

But when the "se" is present, it's common to leave out "je". So I would say "vratio se" (he came back) instead of "vratio se je" although the second sentence is techically not incorrect. Only "je" is left out, it's uncommon to leave out any other verbs.

I would advice you to visit my other blog, easy-croatian.blogspot.com, as it has an associated Facebook page and is generally much better (I don't maintain this blog at the time) has sound clips from native speakers, and then you can post your questions on Facebook.

Good luck with Croatian! lp Daniel

Jeziknik said...

That's very helpful! I see that this is explained in the past tense section of your new blog. Thank you so much.

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