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Czas Przeszły - Forming the Past Tense Singular in Polish

When it comes to tenses English really does present a bit of a pickle for students, particularly when you compare it to other languages - Polish being one - where the tense system is ostensibly much simpler

Polish Past Singular

In English we achieve the past tense and a multitude of other tenses, each of which can be used in their own way to express past actions. The simplest way to express past actions in English is, quite aptly, called the 'past simple' tense and it is achieved by altering the ending (walk -> walked [simple past]) or sometimes, the stem (run -> ran [irregular simple past verbs]) of a present tense verb.

Here we will look at the ways in which past actions can be expressed like they are in the past simple tense in Polish, with particular attention to what stem and ending changes commonly occur in Polish verbs as they change tense.

Forming the Past Tense Singular

Unlike in the present tense, where verbs are separated in a to a variety of classes, each with their own ending rules when it comes to conjugation, the past tense is of universal application and the rules apply to verbs in each class. This is because the past tense singular is formed from the infinitive verb's stem, and the only distinction that occurs in relation to infinitive endings in the past tense, is between verbs that end in a sibilant sound + a consonant (-sc, -zc, or -c) and ones that end with a vowel + the ending -ć.

Let's take a look at how the first, second and third singular endings are constructed for verbs of the first type: ending with sibilant sound + a consonant (-sc, -zc, or -c). Notice that for some there are different endings for female and male subjects ([f] indicates feminine subject):

First Person: -łem/-łam[f]

Móc (To be able to): Mogłem/Mogłam[f] (I could)

Second Person: -łeś/-łaś[f]

Mogłeś/Mogłaś[f] (You could)

Third Person: -ł/-ła[f]/-ło [neuter ending]

Mogł (he could), Mogła[f] (she could), Mogło[n] (it could)

Here are the past tense endings for the verbs of the second type, which all end in a vowel + -c.

First Person: -łem/-łam[f]

Pamiętać (to remember): Pamiętałem/Pamiętałam[f] (I remembered)

Second Person: -łeś/-łaś[f]

Pamiętałeś/Pamiętałaś[f] (You remembered)

Third Person: -ł/-ła[f]/-ło [neuter ending]

Pamiętał (he remembered), Pamiętała[f] (she remembered), Pamiętało[n] (it remembered)

If we look at the example provided for each of these types of verbs, it's easy to see how in the first instance (verbs ending in sibilant + -sc, -zc, or -c), the past tense is formed from a stem which resembles the first person present tense stem very closely, and in the second instance (verbs ending in a vowel + -c), the first and second person past tense is formed from the third person past tense stem, which in turn is formed by removing the infinitive ending -c, in favour of . In essence, the past tense endings are identical, but the stem from which they form the past tense meaning changes according to the ending of the infinitive verb.

As far as the second instance of verbs (those ending in a vowel + -c) is concerned, there are a number of rules which come into play depending on which vowel precedes the final consonant of the verb's infinitive form. I will outline them below and provide an example, which is by far the best way to learn conjugations of this type.

Firstly, those verbs which end with -ąć change -ą- to -ę-, except when the speaker is male:

Wziąć (to take): wzięła (she took) / wziął (he took).

Verbs which end with -eć change -e- to -a- in all singular forms:

Mieć (to have): miałem/miałam [f] (I had).

There are also a group of irregular verbs, which change in entirely different ways in the past tense, and should be learned separately, as exceptions to the rules.