German Verbs: Understanding the Present Perfect Tense

A Lesson in the Conversational Past Tense

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Flippo, Hyde. "German Verbs: Understanding the Present Perfect Tense." ThoughtCo, Oct. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/german-verb-present-perfect-tense-4069577. Flippo, Hyde. (2017, October 8). German Verbs: Understanding the Present Perfect Tense. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/german-verb-present-perfect-tense-4069577 Flippo, Hyde. "German Verbs: Understanding the Present Perfect Tense." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/german-verb-present-perfect-tense-4069577 (accessed October 23, 2017).
College students studying at table
Hero Images / Getty Images

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.

The Present Perfect Tense (Perfekt )

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 havehabenhat gehabt
to gogehenist gegangen
to buykaufenhat gekauft
to bringbringenhat 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 in the Perfekt

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 playspielengespielt
to makemachengemacht
to say, tellsagengesagt

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

Strong Verbs in the Perfekt

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 gogehengegangen
to speak, talksprechengesprochen

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 in the Perfekt

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 bringbringengebracht
to knowkennengekannt
to knowwissengewußt

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)

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

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Flippo, Hyde. "German Verbs: Understanding the Present Perfect Tense." ThoughtCo, Oct. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/german-verb-present-perfect-tense-4069577. Flippo, Hyde. (2017, October 8). German Verbs: Understanding the Present Perfect Tense. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/german-verb-present-perfect-tense-4069577 Flippo, Hyde. "German Verbs: Understanding the Present Perfect Tense." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/german-verb-present-perfect-tense-4069577 (accessed October 23, 2017).