German Verbs: The Present Perfect Tense

A couple runs down the street together in Berlin, Germany
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As you study the German language, you will come across the present perfect tense (Perfeckt), which is also called the compound past tense. It's used most often in conversation and there are a few rules you need to know in order to form and use it. This lesson will review those rules and is an important part of understanding German verb conjugations.

Perfekt: The Present Perfect Tense

The present perfect tense is formed by using one of three types of past participles: weak (regular), strong (irregular), and mixed. This past tense form is often referred to as the "conversational past" since it is most often used in spoken German when speaking about events in the past.

In English, we say, "We saw him yesterday." This can be expressed in German as, "Wir sahen ihn gestern." (simple past, Imperfekt) or "Wir haben ihn gestern gesehen." (present perfect, Perfekt).

The latter form is also referred to as a "compound tense" because it is formed by combining a helping verb (haben) with the past participle (gesehen). Even though the literal translation of "Wir haben ihn gestern gesehen," is "We have seen him yesterday," it would normally be expressed in English simply as, "We saw him yesterday."

Study these example German verbs with their past participle forms in the present perfect tense:

to have haben hat gehabt
to go gehen ist gegangen
to buy kaufen hat gekauft
to bring bringen hat gebracht

You should notice several things about the verbs above:

  1. Some have past participles that end in -t, while others end in -en.
  2. Some use haben (to have) as a helping verb, while others use sein (to be). Keep this in mind as we continue our review of the German present perfect.

Weak Verbs

Regular (or weak) verbs are predictable and can be "pushed around." Their past participles always end in -t and are basically the third person singular with ge- in front of it: 

to play spielen gespielt
to make machen gemacht
to say, tell sagen gesagt

The so-called -ieren verbs (fotografierenreparierenstudierenprobieren, etc.) do not add ge- to their past participles: hat fotografiert.

Strong Verbs

Irregular (or strong) verbs are unpredictable and cannot be "pushed around." They tell you what they're going to do. Their past participles end in -en and must be memorized: 

to go gehen gegangen
to speak, talk sprechen gesprochen

Although there are various patterns that their past participles follow (and they sometimes resemble similar patterns in English) it is best to simply memorize past participles such as gegessen, gesungen, geschrieben, or gefahren.

It should also be noted that there are more rules for verbs with separable and inseparable prefixes, though we won't get into that here. 

Mixed Verbs

This third category is also rather unpredictable. As with the other irregular verbs, the participles for mixed verbs need to be memorized. As their name implies, these mixed verbs mix elements of the weak and strong verbs to form their past participles. While they end in -like weak verbs, they have a stem change like strong verbs:

to bring bringen gebracht
to know kennen gekannt
to know wissen gewußt

When to Use Sein as Helping Verb

In English, the present perfect is always formed with the helping verb "have," but in German some verbs require "to be" (sein) instead. There is a rule for this condition

Verbs that are intransitive (take no direct object) and involve a change of condition or location use sein as a helping verb, rather than the more common haben. Among the few exceptions to this rule are sein itself and bleiben, both of which take sein as their helping verb.

This rule applies to only a small number of verbs and it is best to simply memorize those that typically use sein as a helping verb. One thing that will help is to remember them is that most of these are intransitive verbs which refer to motion.

  • bleiben (to stay)
  • fahren (to drive, travel)
  • fallen (to fall)
  • gehen (to go)
  • kommen (to come)
  • laufen (to run)
  • reisen (to travel)
  • sein (to be)
  • steigen (to climb)
  • sterben (to die)
  • wachsen (to grow)
  • werden (to become)


"Er ist schnell gelaufen." means "He ran fast."

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Flippo, Hyde. "German Verbs: The Present Perfect Tense." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Flippo, Hyde. (2020, August 26). German Verbs: The Present Perfect Tense. Retrieved from Flippo, Hyde. "German Verbs: The Present Perfect Tense." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).