Preterite-present verb

Preterite-present verb

:"Following the convention in historical linguistics, this article marks unattested reconstructed words with an asterisk."

The so-called preterite-present verbs are a small group of anomalous verbs in the Germanic languages in which the present tense shows the form of the strong preterite.


The reflex of the Proto-Indo-European perfect aspect in Germanic, as in a number of other Indo-European daughters (e.g. Latin; see below), is generally a past tense (the Germanic strong preterite). The perfect of Indo-European originally signified a current state of being rather than any particular tense; in the sense that the preterite-present verbs are non-past and still largely signify current states (temporalized as present tense), they constitute a partial retention of the originally non-past perfect of Indo-European. For example, Proto-Indo-European *"woida" originally meant "I see, I am a witness", a meaning which developed in Greek "oida" and Vedic "veda", as well as in Gothic "wait" to the meaning "I know". The original semantic notion of "seeing" is preserved in the Latin perfect (past tense!) "vd" 'I saw.'

Preterite-presents in Proto-Germanic

The known verbs in Proto-Germanic (PGmc):



The present tense has the form of a vocalic (strong) preterite, with vowel-alternation between singular and plural. A new weak preterite is formed with a dental suffix. The root shape of the preterite (in zero-grade) serves as the basis for the infinitive and past passive participle, thus Gothic inf. "witan" and past participle "witans"; this contrasts with all other Germanic verb types in which the basis for those forms is the present stem.

Personal endings

For the most part, the personal endings of the strong preterite are used for the present tense. In fact, in West Germanic the endings of the present tense of preterite-present verbs represent the original IE perfect endings better than that subgroup's strong preterite verbs do: the expected PGmc strong preterite 2 sg. form ending in "-t" was retained rather than replaced by the endings "-e" or "-i" elsewhere adopted for strong preterites in West Germanic.

The endings of the preterite (except for *"kunnana") are the same as the endings of the first weak class.

ubsequent developments

In modern English, preterite-present verbs are identifiable by the absence of an -s suffix on the 3rd person singular present tense form. Compare. for instance, "he can" with "he sings" (pret. "he sang"); the present paradigm of "can" is thus parallel with the past tense of a strong verb. In modern German there is also an ablaut shift between singular "ich kann" (I can) and plural "wir können" (we can). In the older stages of the Germanic languages (Old English, Middle High German) the past tense of strong verbs also showed different ablaut grades in singular and plural.

Many of the preterite-present verbs function as modal verbs (auxiliaries which are followed by a bare infinitive, without "to") and indeed most of the traditional modal verbs are preterite-presents. Examples are English "must" and "shall/should", German "dürfen" (may), "sollen" (ought), "mögen" (like), and "müssen" (must). The early history of "will" (German "wollen") is more complicated, as it goes back to an Indo-European optative, but the result in the modern languages is likewise a preterite-present paradigm.

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