How does past tense work in Croatian?

Past tense in Croatian

In contrast to other languages (e.g. English and German), in Croatian there is only one past tense form used in everyday communication.

The past tense in Croatian is based on gender, which can be confusing at first, however once you’ve learnt and understood the rules, using the past tense is pretty simple.

Verbs in the past tense

Each verb used in past tense is made of two words: one is always the present tense of the verb “to be” (biti) and the other, which is called the past participle, is derived from whichever verb you want to use.

Here is a quick reminder on how to conjugate verb “to be”:

PersonPronounVerb form PersonPronounVerb form
1st/Sing ja sam 1st/Plur mi smo
2nd/Sing ti si 2nd/Plur Vi/vi ste
3rd/Sing on/ona/ono je 3rd/Plur oni/one/ona su

Examples of past tense:

kuhati – to cook Marko je kuhao – Marko cooked
je – verb “to be” (3rd person singular)
kuhao – past participle (masculine, singular)

spavati – to sleep Ivan je spavao – Ivan slept
je – verb “to be” (3rd person singular)
spavao – past participle (masculine, singular)

How is the past participle formed?

Although at first it appears more complicated, in some ways the past tense in Croatian is easier to use than the present tense.

Croatian verbs fall into seven different conjugation categories. The differences in conjugation are more apparent – and require more thought – in the present tense. In the past tense (if you choose to ignore the grammatical rules taking place in the background) for most verbs you can simply remove the suffix –ti from the infinitive form of the verb and add the gender-related suffix to create the past participle.

In Croatian, adjectives alway have to agree with the subject of the sentence in terms of gender, for example: (Ana je lijepa – Ana is beautiful / Marko je pametan – Marko is smart). The past participle works the same way:

Marko je mislio – Marko thought
Ja sam mislio – I thought

Ana je mislila – Ana thought
Ja sam mislila – I thought


All that is necessary is to learn the following gender-related endings:

masculine feminine neuter
Nominative Singular –o –la –lo
Nominative Plural –li –le –la

Examples: Forming sentences in the past tense

How can we say “Ana slept” in Croatian?

Ana is the subject and the verb is “spavati”.
First we need the verb “to be” in the third person (“Ana je ...”) and then a past participle with the suffix for feminine, singular form (spava - ti spava + la).

Ana slept Ana je spavala


To say “We cooked”, the process is the same:

We (“mi”) is the subject and the verb is “kuhati”.
First we need the verb “to be” in the first person plural (“Mi smo ...”) and then a past participle with the suffix for masculine, plural form (kuha - ti kuha + li).

We cooked Mi smo kuhali


What about if you want to say “I learnt Croatian?”

I (“ja”) is the subject and the verb is “učiti”.
First we need the verb “to be” in the first person singular (“Ja sam…”) and then a past participle. If you're male, you will use the suffix for masculine, singular form (učiti - ti uči + o) and if you’re female, you will use the suffix for feminine, singular form (učiti - ti uči + la).

I learnt Croatian Ja sam učio hrvatski
I learnt Croatian Ja sam učila hrvatski


Exceptions to the rules

Of course, there are always a few exceptions, for example:

  • Verbs which end with –jeti and – sti have a different ending for masculine form:
    Examples:
    htjeti – to want On je htio – He wanted / Ona je htjela – She wanted
    gorjeti – to burn On je gorio – He burnt / Ona je gorjela – She burnt
    pasti – to fall On je pao – He fell / Ona je pala – She fell
    sjesti – to sit On je sjeo – He sat / Ona je sjela – She sat
  • Verbs with end in –ći
    Examples:
    ići – to go On je išao – He went / Ona je išla – She went
    naći – to find On je našao – He found / Ona je našla – She found
    reći – to say On je rekao – He said / Ona je rekla – She said


Omitting personal pronouns

In everyday speech, Croatians often omit personal pronouns in the past tense. When doing so, it's important to remember that the verb “to be” should always be in the second position.

This means that to say “you slept” you can either say ti si spavao or spavao si. The second option generally sounds nicer and is used more commonly.

Ja sam bila u kinu or Bila sam u kinu – I was in the cinema
Mi smo kupili kruh or Kupili smo kruh – We bought bread
Oni su jeli pizzu or Jeli su pizzu – They ate pizza

Exercise: How would say the following in the past tense?

Ana ran Answer Ana je trčala

Ivo sang Answer Ivo je pjevao

Ana and Ivo sang Answer Ana i Ivo su pjevali

We watched television Answer Mi smo gledali TV / Gledali smo TV

They went to the cinema Answer Oni su išli u kino / Išli su u kino

I was hungry Answer Ja sam bila gladna / Bila sam gladna

You played football (plural) Answer Vi ste igrali nogomet / Igrali ste nogomet

Željka wanted some juice Answer Željka je htjela sok

I studied Answer Ja sam učio / Učio sam

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