The Perfekt tense is the first past tense German students need to learn as it is the most common past tense in spoken German. We use it in conversations to discuss events that normally happened fairly recently. In this blog post, I will explain how we form and use the tense.
Before I explain how the Perfekt is formed, let me say a few words about its use.
The present perfect in English differs from the Perfekt tense in German in that the latter doesn’t communicate actions in the past that continue into the present. Instead, actions in the Perfekt tense are completed. To communicate ongoing actions, we use the present tense in German.
Ich wohne seit 15 Jahren in Großbritannien
(I have been living in the UK for 15 years).
Translating the Perfekt tense and Präteritum tense into English usually involves the use of the simple past. However, while the Präteritum is used in formal and mostly written texts for actions in the more distant past that are presented in a narrative context (such as stories newspaper articles, reports), the Perfekt tense is used in informal conversations for relatively recent events that are finished at the time of speaking. So the Präteritum can be considered as the narrative past, while the Perfekt tense is the conversational past.
However, German native speakers are not always careful in making this distinction and sometimes mix the two tenses indiscriminately. Even German teachers can sometimes be faulted with this. Look at what I found in a German textbook about Mozart.
"Von 1772 bis 1777 lebte Mozart in Salzburg. (...) Nach dem Tod seiner Mutter 1778 in Paris ist Mozart 1781 nach Wien umgezogen".
Both sentences should be written in the preterite tense.
For “haben”, “sein”, all of the modal verbs, and set phrases like "es gibt", the Präteritum is the standard past tense to use, even though they technically do have a Perfekt form. In the examples below, the Perfekt form is put in brackets to indicate that we don't normally use it. It’s easiest to understand why we make such exceptions with the modal verbs as the Perfekt tense would need three verbs (haben/sein+ past participle of the modal verb+ infinitive of the main verb).
sein — war (ist gewesen)
haben — hatte (hat gehabt)
können — konnte (hat gekonnt)
sollen — sollte (hat gesollt)
wollen — wollte (hat gewollt)
müssen — musste (hat gemusst)
dürfen — durfte (hat gedurft)
mögen — mochte (hat gemocht)
es gibt- es gab (es hat gegeben)
Let's finally look at how the Perfekt is formed.
To form the Perfekt tense, we use an auxiliary verb and a participle. We normally use "haben" as our auxiliary verb, unless the main verb implies a change of position (movement from one place to another) or condition. If it does, we use "sein". Examples of change of position verbs would be "fahren", "gehen", "fliegen", whereas "aufwachen", "einschlafen", "geboren", "sterben" imply a change of state.
As far as the main verb is concerned, we need to distinguish between regular, irregular, separable, and non-separable verbs. Here is how we form their participles.
1) Regular verbs (ge+stem+t/et)
The sign of the Perfekt tense is “ge” added as a prefix to the verb. Regular verbs don’t have a stem change and end on t, unless the stem of the verb already ends on a “d” or “t, then the ending is “et”.
spielen ➡️ gespielt
Ich habe gestern Tennis gespielt.
arbeiten ➡️ gearbeitet
Letzte Woche hat sie nicht gearbeitet.
machen ➡️ gemacht
Hast du deine Hausaufgaben gemacht?
2) Irregular verbs (ge+stem+en)
Irregular verbs still have the “ge” at the start, but by definition their stem normally (but not always) changes. So certain stem changes need to be learned. Below you find common patterns. To understand these patterns, you always need to focus on the second and third person singular stem in the present tense and then learn how it changes in the past.
a) When verbs have an "ä" in the second and third person singular, the umlaut usually gets dropped (ä ➡️ a)
fahren ➡️ gefahren
Ich bin zum Supermarkt gefahren.
laufen ➡️ gelaufen
Ich bin im Park gelaufen.
schlafen ➡️ geschlafen
Er hat nicht gut geschlafen.
b) When an "e" is followed by an "i" they tend to swap around (ei ➡️ ie)
schreiben ➡️ geschrieben
Sie hat mir eine E-Mail geschrieben.
bleiben ➡️ geblieben (exceptionally, bleiben takes sein rather than haben)
Wir sind zu Hause geblieben.
steigen ➡️ gestiegen
Er ist auf den Baum gestiegen.
Be careful with this pattern, however, as there are plenty of verbs that have "ei" in the stem but don't change because they are regular verbs. For example "heißen".
c) When an "i" is followed by an "e" it often becomes an "o" (ie ➡️ o)
fliegen ➡️ geflogen
Ich bin nach Athen geflogen.
schwimmen ➡️ geschwommen
Ich bin in der Ägäis geschwommen.
schließen ➡️ geschlossen.
Sie hat die Tür geschlossen.
d) When an "i" is in the regular stem it often becomes a "u" (i ➡️ u)
finden ➡️ gefunden
Er hat die Adresse im Internet gefunden.
singen ➡️ gesungen
Sie hat in der Dusche gesungen.
trinken ➡️ getrunken
Wir haben letztes Wochenende Wein getrunken.
e) However, with an "i" in the irregular stem, it often becomes an "e" (i ➡️ e)
lesen ➡️ gelesen
Habt ihr schon ein deutsches Buch gelesen?
essen ➡️ gegessen
Ich habe noch nicht zu Mittag gegessen.
geben ➡️ gegeben
Sie hat ihm einen Stift gegeben.
f) Some verbs with an "e" in the regular stem, take an “a” in the Perfekt (e ➡️ a)
gehen ➡️ gegangen
Seid ihr am Wochenende in den Park gegangen?
stehen ➡️ gestanden
Habt ihr in Stau gestanden?
3) Mixed verbs (ge+ stem change+ t/et)
Mixed verbs are special because they do end on “t”, even though their stem changes. So they combine regular with irregular elements and need to be learned as exceptions.
denken ➡️ gedacht
Er hat an seine Hausaufgaben gedacht.
bringen ➡️ gebracht
Er hat ihr einen Stift gebracht.
wissen ➡️ gewusst
Sie haben gewusst, dass Deutsch keine einfache Sprache ist.
4) Separable verbs (prefix+ge+ stem+t/et/en)
While most separable verbs are irregular, there are some regular separable verbs that must be learned.
ankommen ➡️ angekommen
Bist du in Lissabon angekommen?
fernsehen ➡️ ferngesehen
Wir haben gestern ferngesehen.
aufhören ➡️ aufgehört
Sie hat vor vielen Jahren mir dem Rauchen aufgehört.
5) Non-separable ("no ge" verbs)
Verbs that begin with any of the following six prefixes or end on -ieren don‘t have a “ge” in the Perfekt.
be- bezahlen ➡️ bezahlt
ent- entscheiden ➡️ entschieden
er- erklären ➡️ erklärt
ge- gehören ➡️ gehört
ver- verstehen ➡️ verstanden
zer- zerstören ➡️ zerstört
-ieren studieren ➡️ studiert
Those are the rules and patterns one needs to learn. There is obviously quite a lot to take in. So when I cover this topic with students, I first do exercises with them practising the haben-sein distinction and then turn to exercises on both auxiliaries and participles so that they pick up the Perfekt form of the most common 60 verbs in German. From there on, it usually becomes fairly intuitive. So give this a lot of practice.
One question I get asked a lot is how to figure out whether a verb is regular or irregular. There are two rules of thumb. The first is to consider the conjugation of the verb in the present tense. If there is a stem change in the singular, it is not only an irregular verb in the present tense but often also irregular in the past.
e.g. fahren- er/sie/es fährt- gefahren
However, there are exceptions, such as the verb “gehen”, which is regular in the present tense but irregular in the past. So my second rule of thumb is to consider the English language. If there is a stem change in English from present to past, it is a strong indication that the verb may be irregular in German as well.
e.g. go-went - gehen- gegangen
Again, there are exceptions, such as
buy- bought - kaufen- gekauft.
So in situations where both rules of thumb let you down, you just have to memorise whether or not the verb is irregular.
If you’re interested to learn more common phrases in German, just follow the link to our German language blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte". There we also have posts on false friends in German and English, how to say busy in German, give you tips on how to avoid the most common mistakes in German and how to quickly improve your German, you learn about the conjugation of German verbs in the present tense, we give you an explanation of the future tense in German, reflexive verbs in German and how to use them, separable verbs and when they split,how to express preferences in German, and many other topics. We also have posts suitable language learners more generally, such as a comparison between online dictionaries like Linguee, dict.cc, dict.leo and Collins, and a review of the apps Duolingo, Memrise, Babbel, Busuu, and Quizlet. So check out our blog.