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Verbs: perfect tense

Tenses show when something happens – the past, present or the future. The perfect tense is a past tense.

Perfect tense

The perfect tense refers to an action that has happened in the past and is made up of three parts:

  • A pronoun (ich, du etc) or a noun (der Hund etc)
  • An auxiliary verb (present tense of either haben or sein)
  • A past participle (which goes at the end of the sentence)

Prounouns

Pronoun German
I Ich
You (singular) Du
He/she/it/you/one Er/sie/es/man
We wir
You (plural) ihr
They Sie
You (formal) Sie

 

You could start a sentence with a pronoun, eg ‘Ich habe Fussball gespielt‘ (I played football). You could also start it with a noun, eg ‘Der Hund hat Fussball gespielt ‘ (the dog played football). You always need one or the other.

Haben or sein

Present tense of Haben and Sein

Haben – to have

Pronoun Present tense
ich habe
du hast
er/sie/es/man hat
wir haben
ihr habt
sie/Sie haben

 

When to use Haben

  • The vast majority of past tense sentences use ‘haben‘ so if in doubt… use it too.
  • All regular past participles definitely go with haben.

Sein – to be

Pronoun Present tense
ich bin
du bist
er/sie/es/man ist
wir sind
ihr seid
sie/Sie sind

 

When to use Sein

Sentences about going from one place to another, eg went, came or travelled always use sein.

Weak and strong past participles

How to form the past participle of weak (regular) verbs:

  1. Add ‘-ge’ to the front of the infinitive, remove the ‘-en’ from the infinitive and add ‘-t’, eg spielen -> gespielt.
  2. Some need an extra ‘e’ (see examples) to make them easy to pronounce.
  3. They all go with haben.

Example use of past participle weak verbs

  • Ich habe gestern Fussball gespielt – I played football yesterday
  • Wo hast du letztes Jahr gearbeitet? – Where did you work last year?
  • Hast du deine Hausaufgaben gemacht? – Have you done your homework?
  • Meine Mutter hat oft für meine Familie leckeres Essen gekocht– My mother often cooked delicious food for my family.

Strong (irregular) past participles

Common strong (irregular) past participles:

  • Er hat zu viel gegessen -> He has eaten too much.
  • Wir sind im Sommer mit dem Flugzeug nach Spanien gefahren -> We travelled to Spain by plane in the summer.
  • Ich bin den ganzen Tag zu Hause geblieben -> I stayed at home the whole day.
  • Habt ihr die ganze Flasche Limo getrunken? -> Have you drunk the whole bottle of lemonade?
  • Der Lehrer hat mit meinem Vater gesprochen -> The teacher spoke to my father.

If you aren’t sure whether a verb is weak or strong, look it up in a verb table in a dictionary or online.

Past participles without ‘ge-‘ at the start

Some verbs don’t add a ‘ge-‘ to the front. These verbs:

  • Start with ‘ge-‘ already, eg gewinnen.
  • End with –ieren, eg studieren (apart from not starting ‘ge-‘, these ones are regular)
  • Start with an inseparable prefix such as ‘ver-‘, ‘be-‘, ‘er-‘ and ‘ent-‘.
  • studieren (to study) -> studiert (studied)
  • gewinnen (to win) -> gewonnen (won)
  • verstehen (to understand) -> verstanden (understood)

Examples

  • Er hat 10.000 Pfund gewonnen -> He has won £10,000!
  • Die freche Klasse hat absolut nichts verstanden -> The cheeky class has understood absolutely nothing.
  • Meine Freundin hat in Köln studiert -> My girlfriend studied in Cologne.

Past participles of separable verbs

Separable verbs, eg ‘phone up’, ‘shut down’ and ‘look into’ have two bits. In English, we leave them separate in the past tense (I phoned you up). In German both bits need to be put back together to make the past participle, with the ‘ge’ sandwiched in between, eg ‘Ich habe dich angerufen‘.

Using the perfect tense

Think of the structure of the perfect tense as having three elements plus optional extras. Take this sentence: Ich habe Fußball gespielt (I played football).

  1. Element one: pronoun, eg ich
  2. Element two: auxiliary verb, eg habe
  3. Optional extra bit, eg Fußball
  4. Element three: past participle, eg gespielt

If you follow this pattern, you will always end up with correct word order. All three elements must be included.

Here are some more examples of perfect tense sentences, with the pieces divided up into the three elements.

Past tense examples

Pronouns/nouns Auxiliary verbs Optional extra Past participle
Wir sind am Samstag ins Kino gegangen
Mein Freund hat eine Halskette für mich gekauft
Ich habe getanzt
Sie haben einen Film gesehen
Er ist mit dem Bus nach Bognor gefahren
  • On Saturday we went to the cinema.
  • My boyfriend bought a necklace for me.
  • I danced.
  • They watched a film.
  • He travelled to Bognor by bus.

 

Common mistakes made by English speakers

  • Forgetting to put the auxiliary verb in.
  • Not putting the past participle at the end.
  • Not learning/looking up irregular past participles.

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