24 Past Tense

The past tense is completely different than the present tense in Croatian. First, it’s always formed from two words, the past form of the verb and present of the verb biti (je² +) be. The past form varies according to the gender of the subject and whether it’s singular or plural.

The endings of the past form (also known as past participle, or l-participle) are not too complicated:

gender past past pl.
fem. -la -le
neut. -lo -la
masc. -o -li

For example, here are the past forms the verb čitati read:

gender past past pl.
fem. čitala čitale
neut. čitalo čitala
masc. čitao čitali

(I have dropped the underline on the first vowel, since it’s only important for the present tense anyway.)

Again, there’s no difference between the two masculine genders. Even better, the past forms are simply created by adding their endings to a verb after the -ti is removed. It works for many verbs with ‘irregular’ presents as well – their past is perfectly regular. It holds even for the verb biti (je² +) be:

verbpast-f past-m
biti (je² +) be bila bio
pisati (piše) write pisala pisao
piti (pije) drink pila pio
plesati (pleše) dance plesala plesao
slati (šalje) send slala slao
trčati (trči) run trčala trčao

Also, for almost all verbs, past forms are stressed on the same syllable as the infinitive, e.g. izgledatiizgleda-la.

Past forms are similar to adjectives, and for few verbs, they can be used as true adjectives: then they get case endings, etc.

How to use it? Well, you take the right past form and the right form of the present of biti (je² +) be (keeping in mind that it should go to the second position):

Ana je plesala. Ana was dancing.

Ivan je čitao knjigu. Ivan was reading a book.

You can use personal pronouns as subjects, but it’s common not to use them:

Spavali smo u hotelu. We were sleeping in a hotel.

There’s nothing special about the verb biti (je² +) be in the past – its past is formed as for any other verb:

Ana je bila gladna. Ana was hungry.

Even if you are talking in the 1st or 2nd person, you must respect the gender of the subject (as with adjectives, the principle is identical):

Spavala sam. I was sleeping. (I = female)

Spavao sam. I was sleeping. (I = male)

Bila sam umorna. I was tired. (I = female)

Bio sam umoran. I was tired. (I = male)

Bili smo umorni. We were tired. (we = males/mixed)

Since the past form indicates gender of the subject, even if pronouns are omitted in the 3rd person, we know the subject gender:

Spavala je. She was sleeping.

Spavao je. He was sleeping.

If there are personal pronouns in A, G or DL that require the second position, of course they somehow clash with forms of the verb biti (je² +) be that require the same position. The rule is that present forms of the verb biti come first, except in the 3rd person, where je² comes last in the chain of second-position contenders:

Čekao sam ga. I was waiting for him. (I = male)

Čekala si ga. You were waiting for him. (you = female)

Čekala ga je. She was waiting for him.

If there’s a particle se², it behaves like other pronouns in A (me², ga², etc.). There’s a special rule: if je² (pres-3 of biti) would come after se², it’s almost always left out:

Bojao sam se. I was afraid.

Goran se je bojao. Goran was afraid.

Goran se bojao. (this form is usually used)

The verb je² – when used to form the past tense – is sometimes left out in newspaper headlines, on billboards, etc.

You have to be careful with the impersonal use of verbs. That’s whenever English uses “dummy” it, but also in impressions. From now on, I will mark all impersonal verbs in the present tense with a small circle (°):

Hladno je°. It’s cold.

Pada°. (colloq.) It’s falling. (rain or snow)

Hladno mi je°. I’m cold. (lit. ‘It’s cold to me.’)

Drago nam je°. We’re glad. (lit. ‘It’s dear to us.’)

Dosta mu je°. He had enough.

All such sentences in the past tense always use neuter singular past forms:

Bilo je hladno. It was cold.

Padalo je. (colloq.) It was falling. (rain or snow)

Bilo mi je hladno. I was cold. (lit. ‘It was cold to me.’)

Bilo nam je drago. We were glad. (lit. ‘It was dear to us.’)

Bilo mu je dosta. He has had enough.

Now you see why I have marked impersonal verbs in present tense with a °: it reminds you that you have to use the neuter singular in the past tense – a form that ends in -o. Of course, this is just a reminder I’ve invented for this work, nobody else uses it. Please don’t use it when you write Croatian words and sentences!

I repeat: impersonal sentences have no subjects. There have no nouns or pronouns in the nominative case. The last sentence translates literally as ‘it was enough to him’. They are always in neuter singular in the past tense. As there’s no subject, the past form defaults to its neutral, kind of genderless form.

The following sentences at the first glance look impersonal too, but they aren’t:

Ponoć je. It’s midnight. (lit. ‘Midnight is.’)

Jutro je. It’s morning. (lit. ‘Morning is.’)

While English sentences are impersonal, Croatian ones aren’t: in these sentences, subjects are ponoć f midnight and jutro morning, so in the past tense, past forms will get gender of subjects:

Bila je ponoć. It was midnight. (lit. ‘Midnight was.’)

Bilo je jutro. It was morning. (lit. ‘Morning was.’)

Alternatively, you can regard hladno adj. cold, etc. as subjects in the first group of sentences. When adverbs are subjects, verbs are in the neuter singular in the past. However, sometimes it’s not obvious whether a sentence is impersonal or not. For example, colloq. pada isn’t merely shortened pada kiša, even when it’s obvious that it’s raining: the verb behaves differently in the past tense:

1 Pjeva. (She) is singing.Pjevala je.

2 Pada°.It’s falling.’ → Padalo je.

In the sentence #1, I took, as an example, that we know from the context that it refers to a female person – so we use the feminine forms in the past. In the sentence #2, even if we know from the context that the rain is falling, we still use the neuter in the past, and not feminine, despite kiša rain being feminine.

Another likely unexpected behavior is for sentences of the form ovo je..., to je... + noun. In such sentences, the subject isn’t to, but the noun, so the past tense adjusts to its gender:

To je mačka. It’s a cat.

  → To je bila mačka. It was a cat.

To je problem. That’s a problem.

  → To je bio problem. That was a problem.

To negate sentences in the past tense, just use the negative forms of present tense of biti (that is, nisam, nisi, nije, etc.):

Ana nije bila gladna. Ana wasn’t hungry.

Nisam spavao. I wasn’t sleeping. (I = male)

Nije nam bilo dosadno. We weren’t bored.

As usual, forms nisam and so on are not restricted to the second position and are commonly found right before the past form.

A special case is the negative existential construction. While it uses impersonal nema in the present tense, in the past tense, impersonal nije bilo is used:

Nema° piva. There’s no beer.

  → Nije bilo piva. There was no beer.

Nema° ih. They aren’t here/there.

  → Nije ih bilo. They weren’t here/there.

There are useful adverbs of time often used with verbs in the past tense:

davno a long time ago
jučer yesterday ®
malo prije moments ago
nedavno recently
nekad(a) some time ago
ranije earlier

The adverb nedavno means that some action or state happened at a recent period; the adverb odnedavno means start something started at a recent moment (and might still be ongoing).

For example:

Ivan je jučer bio u kinu. Ivan was at the cinema yesterday.

Sadly, some verbs are irregular even in the past tense; this includes all verbs having infinitives ending in -ći and most with inf. in -sti. Therefore, when such verbs are listed, they will have past-m forms listed as well after their pres-3:

jesti (jede, jeo) eat
plesti (plete, pleo) knit

(I will list the past-m and not e.g. past-f simply due to tradition of listing verb forms, and because you will find past-m’s listed in printed and online dictionaries.) The past-f is listed if it cannot be regularly obtained from the past-m; luckily, all other past forms can always be deduced from the past-f. That’s how most verbs in -ći are listed:

ići (ide, išao, išla) go
peći (peče, pekao, pekla) bake
vući (vuče, vukao, vukla) pull

Some verbs with infinitives in -sti have a bit specific past-f form as well:

gristi (grize, grizao, grizla) bite
rasti (raste, rastao, rasla) grow

Verbs like vidjeti see – actually, all verbs ending in -jeti, including razumjeti understand – always have the following forms in the past:

inf past-m past-f
see vidjeti vidio vidjela
understand razumjeti razumio razumjela

For instance:

Vidio sam Anu. I saw Ana. (I = male)

Vidjela sam Anu. I saw Ana. (I = female)

Razumio sam ga. I understood him. (I = male)

Nisu nas razumjeli. They didn’t understand us.

This is yet another instance where past forms are more regular then the present tense. I will normally list the past forms for such verbs too, but sometimes I omit them and write just ... to make the text more compact.

The forms shown above are Standard Croatian. In the colloquial use, many people pronounce past-m forms that end in -ao (e.g. čekao, išao, and so on) with only -o (that is, čeko, išo, etc.). You will hear such forms, and see them spelled sometimes with an apostrophe (i.e. ček’o, iš’o).

In many regions, especially in smaller towns and villages, there are other forms of past-m, e.g. ending in just -l; for more information, check A8 Dialects.

Once in a while, you’ll see and hear another past tense, the aorist tense®. It’s most common used in the first person, and its forms are just one word; for instance, the 1st person aorist form is usually obtained by replacing the infinitive -ti with -h, e.g. vidjeh I saw. For a fuller description, see 99 Aorist Tense and Other Marginal Features.

For a full discussion of various verb types, check A3 Verbs.

® Instead of jučer, a slightly shortened juče is used in Serbia and Bosnia.

The aorist tense is much more common in Bosnia and Serbia.

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5 Easy Croatian: 24 Past Tense The past tense is completely different than the present tense in Croatian. First, it’s always formed from two words, the past form of the v...

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