Conjugating -a Verbs in the Past Tense

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by Siggi
A toy train.

Conjugating -a verbs in the past tense isn’t terribly difficult – in fact it’s very similar to conjugating them in the present tense, just with different endings.

If you’re wondering how you can tell which verbs are -a verbs, check out my Overview of the Icelandic Verb Categories. If you haven’t already learned to conjugate -a verbs in the present tense, you might want to check that out first.

Now, let’s make conjugating -a verbs in the past tense a little easier! 

How to Conjugate -a Verbs in the Past Tense

  1. Just add the appropriate ending.
  2. There’s no step 2. I’m just afraid people won’t read these articles if it looks as simple as a one-step process.

Notice that unlike the present tense, we do not remove the infinitive -a first. This is because it’s actually part of the stem; it’s not an ending.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “he said not to remove the -a, but it’s gone in the plural!” In fact, it’s not gone: it’s changed to a u. This is due to a u-shift in the unstressed syllable: the u in the ending (-ðum, -ðuð, -ðu) affects the infinitive a and turns it into u.

An Alternative Way to Think About It

If the idea of a u-shift in an unstressed syllable absolutely breaks your brain, then you CAN think about this differently.

If you remove the infinitive -a, you can just memorise a system of endings without concern for the u-shift. This fits less elegantly into the overall verb system, but it works.


Just like in the present tense, we need to keep an eye out for an a in the stem of the verb. The plural endings include u, so we may need to apply u-shift there. The gist of how u-shift works is this:

a before u changes to ö

Or, to put it more visually,

a_u –> ö_u

Here’s what that looks like when you apply it to -a verbs in the past tense.

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