In this post I’m going to talk about a mistake that I’ve probably made in Japanese 1,000 times. I don’t know why, but I always keep messing this one up, even though it’s a simple, avoidable mistake:

The difference between 忘れた (wasureta) and 忘れてた (wasureteta).

Honestly, there’s an inexhaustible list of Japanese phrases that I continually mess up. But, whatever. There’s no point in worrying about making mistakes.

When I Make This Mistake

Before I get into the difference between these two forms of the verb 忘れる (wasureru / “to forget”), I think it might help to explain exactly when I tend to make this mistake.

Sometimes, in life, we forget things that we have no business forgetting. Small things, big things. And, well, I’m an expert at this.

For example, let’s say I go to the store with Rei (my gf).

Our plan is to buy 3 things:

  • beer (ビール / biiru)
  • chicken (チキン / chikin)
  • paper towels (キッチンペーパー / kicchin peepaa (I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is yes: Japanese people call paper towels “kitchen paper”).

So we get to the store, and I go for the chicken first. I would grab the beer first, but I’d like it to stay as cold as possible.

Then, once we’ve gotten the chicken, I’m like, Hey, there’s the beer! And so I put that in our basket. Then I notice some butter-soy-sauce popcorn (the most delicious popcorn in the world), and of course I put that in the basket, too.

I’m stoked. Our shopping mission is complete. Then, the following conversation ensues:

ニコ:よし、行こうか?
Niko: Yoshi, ikou ka?
Niko: Okay, ready to go?

レイ:キッチンペーパーは?
Rei: Kicchin peepaa wa?
Rei: What about the paper towels?

ニコ:あ!忘れてた!
Niko: A! Wasureteta!
Niko: Ah! I [almost] forgot.

レイ:うそでしょう?
Rei: Uso deshou?
Rei: You’re kidding. / Seriously?

This kind of situation has happened more times than I can count. And about half of those times I make the following mistake:

Instead of saying 忘れてた (wasureteta), I say 忘れた (wasureta).

The Difference Between 忘れた and 忘れてた

In the example above, I am expressing that I had [almost] forgotten something, but just now I remembered what that was.

In English, we can get away by saying “I [almost] forgot.” Or, “I’d totally forgotten.”

I think somewhere in my brain I’m still thinking in English way more than I should be, because “I forgot” = 「忘れた」. But that would mean that I still don’t remember.

It actually makes a lot of sense if you think about how 忘れてた is the past progressive tense (ah, grammar!) of 忘れる (“to forget”).

Instead of 忘れてた (wasuretetabecoming “I was forgetting,” which is also technically acceptable as a translation, this would probably become the past perfect tense in English: “I had forgotten.” Literally: “I was in a state of not remembering, but now I’m not.”

[As a small side note, 忘れてた (wasureteta) is a conversational abbreviation of the past progressive 忘れていた (wasurete ita).]

To reiterate, if I said 忘れた (wasureta), then it would mean that I forgot, and I still don’t remember. But Rei just reminded me of the paper towels, so obviously I remember now.

It’s a really easy mistake to make, but the nuance of the two words are quite different.

忘れた VS 忘れてた Cheat Sheet

忘れた (wasureta)

I forgot [and still don’t/can’t remember].

忘れてた (wasureteta)

I almost forgot [but now I remember]. / I had forgotten [but now I remember].

I hope I didn’t make that way more confusing than it needs to be. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section!

Good luck with your studies, everyone,

Niko

p.s. Free Japanese boss-status learning:

Niko

Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Portland, Oregon! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is tricky-tikki-tavi. But we're in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!

Niko

p.s. If you like my articles, you may very well love my daily lessons.