According to the Duden and dict.cc, the use of the verb zwangsversteigern in the simple past tense is uncommon:

zwangsversteigern | -, zwangsversteigert [nur als Infinitiv und Partizip Perfekt gebräuchlich]| = to put up for compulsory sale

Dict.cc and the Leo's Dictionary have the following entries for the verb voreinstellen:

Dict.cc: voreinstellen |-/voreinstellte, voreingestellt| = to preset

The Leo's Dictionary: etw. (Akk.) voreinstellen |-, voreingestellt| = to preset sth.

From the above two entries I assume that the use of the simple past tense with the verb voreinstellen is also uncommon.

My first question: What is so special about the two verbs that the use of the simple past tense with them is uncommon?

My second question: What are some other German verbs that are not commonly used in the simple past tense?

2 Answers 2


The answer to the first question is simply: they are not special, they are common. Most verbs in German do not occur in preterite outside of written (i.e. newspapers or literature) texts. In the case of zwangsversteigern, the most common usage is passive because you are more interested in the thing that is being auctioned rather than the auctioneer. Since all forms of passive use the past participle, it is most common. Similarly for voreinstellen where the usage is typically about what has been preset, not who is presetting it.

This leads us directly to the answer to the second question which is: depending on the regional variant you speak.

  • In Austrian (according to a few comments and answers by Hubert Schölnast) no verbs are used in simple past in spoken language.

  • In Bavaria, only sein and wollen form spoken preterite forms, the former more frequently than the latter.

  • In northern variants of German, there is a greater number of verbs. This question already deals with the issue for northern Germany.

  • With regard to your phrase "they are not special, they are common": The two verbs I've listed are special in that dict.cc has a dash instead of a simple past form. That's quite a rarity for dict.cc. I probably have no less than 10000 verbs in my word list, and only zwangsversteigern and voreinstellen have "officially" no simple past form. So, in my opinion, they do not simply belong to the group of verbs that normally occur in preterite solely in written language. As I understand, these two verbs hardly ever occur in preterite even in written language. Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 21:23
  • @EugeneStr. I wouldn’t count dict.cc ‘official’ even in the broadest of senses. Zwangsversteigerte is the preterite form of zwangsversteigern, no question asked. I’m not quite sold on the preterite of voreinstellen which could be stellte vorein (potentially with a space) or voreinstellte. I’ll check with the dictionaries I have here.
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 21:40
  • Neither my (small) Duden nor my Bünting list voreinstellen. The latter lists zwangsvollstrecken and agrees that it is only commonly used in infinitive and past participle forms. Ickler’s ‘Normale deutsche Rechtschreibung’ doesn’t include conjugation. So yes, the dictionaries agree. However, as my first paragraph states this has semantic reasons, not really grammatical ones.
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 21:48
  • According to verbformen.de, the Präteritum of "voreinstellen" is "stellte vorein" (verbformen.de/konjugation/voreinstellen.htm). Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 21:56
  • The same words are used in past tense in Austrian spoken language as in Bavarian, i.e "sein" and to some extent also "wollen"
    – Beta
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 7:04

The thing about words such as zwangsversteigern or voreinstellen is not that they are uncommon in the preterite, but that they are uncommon in any finite forms. Preterite forms such as *‌ich zwangsversteigerte or *‌ich stellte vorein are equally uncommon as present tense forms such as *‌ich zwangsversteigere or *‌ich stelle vorein. The only forms that are common are the non-finite forms: The infinitive zwangsversteigern/voreinstellen and the past participle zwangsversteigert/voreingestellt.

There are other words that are even more restricted, e.g. ungeboren – there is no infinitive *‌ungebären, let alone any finite forms such as *‌ich ungebäre or *‌ich ungebar. And this brings us closer to what might be the answer to the question: The reason why all these words cannot be used as full-fledged verbs is that they did not start out as verbs, but as some other word class.

The prefix un- is not verbal prefix, but a typical nominal prefix, used on adjectives (e.g. unschön, unvorsichtig) and substantives (e.g. Unglaube, Untier). The word ungeboren is not a verbal, but an adjectival composition. While gebären is undoubtedly a verb, the past participle is the verbal form that behaves like an adjective. So you start from a verb (gebären), transform it into an adjective (the past participle geboren), and then apply adjectival operations to it (adding the adjectival prefix un-): The result no longer is a verb, but a plain adjective.

The cases of zwangsversteigern and voreinstellen are similar. You start with a verb versteigern/einstellen, transform it into a substantive Versteigerung/Einstellung, apply some substantival operations Zwangsversteigerung/Voreinstellung, and then almost transform it back into a verb, but not all the way: While we can use the non-finite forms zwangsversteigern/voreinstellen and zwangsversteigert/voreingestellt, the finite forms cannot be used.

  • The problem with 'voreinstellen' is definitely double-prefixation (as discussed in Hubert Haider 2010, The Syntax of German): prefixes have to be stranded when the finite form moves to the second position of the clause, but stranding isn't possible with double prefixes. Therefore, double-prefixed verbs can still appear in their finite form as long as they remain in sentence-final position: Als sie gerade den Computer voreinstellte, geschah etwas Unerwartetes.
    – aslakr
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 19:11

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