German Verb Review 3: Present Perfect Tense

College students studying at table
Hero Images / Getty Images

German Verb Review 3

In this third part of our three-part "Verb Review" we discuss the German Perfekt (present perfect).

Here are some sample German verbs and their past participle forms in the present perfect tense (in red):

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 that in mind as we continue our review of the German present perfect below.

The Present Perfect Tense

The present perfect tense is formed by using one of three (3) types of past participles: strong(irregular), weak (regular), 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. While English says, "We saw him yesterday," German can express this 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."

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: spielen/gespielt,machen/gemachtsagen/gesagt. The so-called -ieren verbs (fotografierenreparieren,studierenprobieren, 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: gehen/gegangen,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 gegessengesungengeschrieben, or gefahren.

There are more rules for verbs with separable and inseparable prefixes. 

Mixed Verbs

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

Helping Verbs

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 (see below), but it is best to simply memorize the few verbs that usually use sein as a helping verb. (Most are intransitive verbs of motion.) These verbs include: bleiben (stay), fahren (drive, travel), fallen (fall), gehen (go),kommen (come), laufen (run), reisen (travel), sein (be), steigen (climb), sterben (die),wachsen (grow), werden (become).

Example: "Er ist schnell gelaufen." = "He ran fast."

Rule for "sein" as Helping Verb:

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.