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Expressing the past:


The Present Perfect Tense (part 1)



In the introduction to past tenses we have outlined the variety of possibilities to talk about the past. We have established that, in English, there are six tenses to do so (not counting the historic present tense here). In this chapter, we will narrow our view and only look at one of the tenses: the present perfect tense, in German called  'das Perfekt'.  The English present perfect tense will be our starting point.

The English present perfect tense


Consider the following:

            I have lost my keys.
            You have finished your homework.
            We have never seen this before.

We can see that the present perfect is formed by using three ingredients :

1 2 3
a subject 'to have' a verb (second particple)
I
have slept.
Peter
has read.
She
has eaten.


Forming this tense by using:

             1) a subject, e.g. 'I', 'you', 'my dog' or 'Peter', 'Paul' or 'Mary'
             2) the matching form of 'to have'
             3) the second participle of the actual verb

is not very difficult, provided you know how to conjugate 'to have' and you know the second participle of the relevant verb. While the former is trivial, the latter is not - participles are often irreguar and have to be learnt by heart.

The German present perfect tense


Taking the English tense as a starting point makes sense because the German equivalent is (to an extent) formed in the same way. The similarity is obvious if you compare the following phrases to each other:

            I have read.
            Ich habe gelesen.

            You have slept.
            Du hast geschlafen.

            We have eaten.
            Wir haben gegessen.

Here we have the same structiure as in English. We are using :

1) a subject, e.g. 'ich', 'du', 'mein Hund' or 'Peter', 'Paul' or 'Mary'
2) the matching form of 'haben'
3) the second participle of the actual verb, e.g. 'gelesen', 'gegessen', 'getrunken','gesprochen'

This is not complicated - if you can do it in English, you can do it in German. Its difficulty is reduced to the ability of conjugating 'haben' and the knowledge of the second participle of the relevant verb. Again, the former is trivial while the latter is not.

Usage and some general remarks


Before exploring the structure of the tense further, we make some more general remarks, starting with some bad news about participles: you cannot deduct them from the infinitive. Often they are irregular, so you have to learn all the forms by heart, which is a lot of work. However, there is at least some good news. Firstly, as in English but other than in French, Italian or Spanish, the participle does not change with the person or with singular/plural change. It always stays the same, which makes live easier. Secondly, you can use it to form another tense, the past perfect. To learn this is quite easy, provided you know how to form the present perfect. Thirdly, albeit participles are often irregular, you have a certain chance to guess the second participle correctly if you don't know it (It goes without saying that we hope you will learn many of them by heart, thus minimising the need of guessing, but we don't live in an ideal world and you will always come across verbs which you don't know). How to guess the participle is decribed in "The present perfect tense (part 2)".

There is more good news when it come to the usage of the present perfect in German. In English, you will use the simple past tense in certain situations and the present perfect in others. E.g., it does sound correct and native to say 'I think I have seen this film.', but you would not say 'Yesterday I have seen my mum.' Instead you would say 'Yesterday I saw my mum.' English requires the correct choice between these two tenses, and if you pick the wrong one your sentence is incorrect or, at least, sounds awkward.

In German, the situation is different in the sense that there is much more flexibilty in the choice between simple past and present perfect tense. In many cases there are even interchangeable. There are, of course, certain preferences for one of them in a given phrase, that is undenyable. However, picking the 'wrong' one is much more forgiving than in English.

This is good news for the learner in the sense that he can and should focus foremostly on learning the present perfect. In most cases it is appropriate, even if in English the simple past would have been used. In particular in spoken language - compared to written language - the present perfect is widely used.

After these more general remarks we are coming back to the structure of the tense. How is it actually formed?

How is the present perfect tense formed in German?


As outlined earlier, we have a strong congruence to English. We have (1.) a subject, followed by (2.) the auxiliary verb 'haben', followed by (3.) the second participle of the verb. So far no difference to English. Here are some examples:

1 2 3
a subject 'to have' a verb (second particple)
Ich
habe geschlafen.
I
have slept.
Peter
hat gelesen.
Peter
has read.
Sie
hat gegessen.
She
has eaten.
Sie
haben gespielt.
They
have played.
Du
hast gewonnen.
You
have won.


Up to this point, there is no difference to English. However, we will now look at two aspects which are fundamentally different:

             1) the auxliary verb
             2) the word order

Present perfect tense with 'sein'


Taking English as a starting point, one might be tempted to translate 'I have gone.' as follows:

             I have gone. >>>    Ich habe gegangen.    NO! NO! NO!

This is horribly wrong! Here is the correct translation, followed by some other ones:

            I have gone. >>>> Ich bin gegangen.
            He has flown. >>>> Er ist geflogen.
            We have traveled. >>>> Ich bin gereist.
            I have been. >>>> Ich bin gewesen.
            She has come. >>>> Sie ist gekommen.

As you see, 'haben' is not used here:

In German, a number of verbs form the present perfect with 'sein' instead of 'haben', e.g. 'gehen' or 'fliegen'.

Therefore 'I have flown' translates as 'Ich bin geflogen.' (although 'have', on its own, would translate as 'habe', 'hast', 'haben' or 'habt'.)

This is quite a difference between the two languages: While in English all verbs use 'to have' to form the present perfect tense, in German the majority of all verbs does, but the rest take 'sein'. This, of course, raises the question: How do you know?

Can you deduct from a verb if it takes 'haben' or 'sein'?

You cannot always deduct from a verb if it takes 'haben' or 'sein'. Therefore, for many verbs, you have to learn it by heart. However, there are some helpful rules which give some guidance:

All verbs take 'haben', unless they fall into one of three groups:

Group 1: Verbs that describe a motion


This rule is fairly simple and easy to apply. If a verb expresses a motion, it uses (usually) 'sein'. E.g. 'fahren', 'gehen', 'schwimmen', 'laufen', 'rennen', 'reisen' and 'fliegen'. Accordingly, we say:

Ich
bin gegangen.
Du
bist gelaufen.
Er
ist gereist.
Sie
ist geschwommen.
Ihr
seid geflogen.


Group 2: Verbs that describe a transformation


This rule refers to verbs expressing a change of state, e.g. 'schmelzen' (= to melt, which is a change of state: from solid to liquid) or 'frieren' (to freeze, change from liquid to solid). Also 'aufwachen' (to wake up, transformation from being asleep to being awake), 'einschlafen' (to fall asleep, transformation the other way around) or 'sterben' (to die, transformation from alive to dead). Accordingly, we say:

Ich
bin aufgewacht.
Du
bist eingeschlafen.
Das Wasser
ist gefroren.
Der Schnee
ist geschmolzen.
Er
ist gestorben.

Group 3: The rest


In group 3 we have all verbs which take 'sein' but do not fit in the first two categories. These verbs do not have anything in common. Therefore this group is the most difficult one to remember, a rule doesn't help you here - you just have to remember them, e.g. 'sein' itself, 'bleiben', 'starten'. Accordingly, we say:

Ich
bin gewesen.
Du
bist geblieben.
Sie
ist gestartet.
Viel
ist passiert.
Was
ist geschehen?

The decision if a verbs expresses a motion is often an obvious one, the question about transformation is sometimes less obvious. Sometimes one can argue about the categories, and it is not always possible to draw a strict line. 'Aufstehen' e.g. ( to get/stand up) - is it a motion? Or is it a transformation? From sitting or lying to standing? And whatever the answer to this maybe, shouldn't the same answer apply to 'sich setzen' (= to sit down)? Well, we say 'Ich bin aufgestanden.' and 'Ich habe mich gesetzt.'. You see, the mentioned rules are generally quite helpful, but in some cases they are not and you just have to learn by heart which auxiliary verb to use.

List of common verbs which form the present perfect tense with 'sein'.


You may find it helpful to find a list which contain all the verbs which take 'sein'. We do not attempt to give you a complete list (it would be quite a long one, and it would be questionable if it is ever complete). However, compiling an overview of some very common verbs with 'sein'is certainly helpful. Therefore, here it is:

                      abbiegen
                      abbrennen
                      abfahren
                      abhauen
                      ablaufen
                      abmagern
                      abprallen
                      abreisen
                      absaufen
                      absteigen
                      abstürzen
                      ankommen
                      anschwellen
                      ansteigen
                      auffallen
                      aufstehen
                      aufsteigen
                      auftreten
                      aufwachen
                      aufwachsen
                      ausbleiben
                      ausfallen
                      ausgehen
                      auslaufen
                      aussteigen
                      auswandern
                      ausweichen
                      begegnen
                      beitreten
                      bersten
                      bleiben
                      degenerieren
                      detonieren
                      durchfallen
                      durchgehen
                      durchsetzen
                      eignen
                      einbiegen
                      einbrechen
                      einbürgern
                      eindringen
                      einfallen
                      einfinden
                      einfliegen
                      einfließen
                      einfrieren
                      einkehren
                      einreisen
                      einschlafen
                      einsteigen
                      einstürzen
                      eintauchen
                      eintreffen
                      eintreten
                      emigrieren
                      entarten
                      entbinden
                      entblößen
                      entbrennen
                      entfliegen
                      entfliehen
                      entgleiten
                      enthalten
                      entkommen
                      entstehen
                      erfrieren
                      erlöschen
                      ermüden
                      erschallen
                      erscheinen
                      ertrinken
                      explodieren
                      fahren
                      fallen
                      fehlschlagen
                      fliegen
                      fliehen
                      fließen
                      flüchten
                      folgen
                      gebären
                      gedeihen
                      gehen
                      gelangen
                      gelingen
                      genesen
                      geschehen
                      gleiten
                      glücken
                      herumgehen
                      hinfallen
                      hüpfen
                      joggen
                      klettern
                      kommen
                      krepieren
                      kriechen
                      landen
                      laufen
                      misslingen
                      mitgehen
                      mitkommen
                      münden
                      nachgehen
                      nachkommen
                      nachstreben
                      nachstürmen
                      neigen
                      passieren
                      platzen
                      prallen
                      reifen
                      reisen
                      reiten
                      rennen
                      rutschen
                      schleichen
                      schlüpfen
                      schreiten
                      schwimmen
                      sein
                      sinken
                      sprießen
                      springen
                      starten
                      stehen
                      stehenbleiben
                      steigen
                      sterben
                      stolpern
                      strömen
                      traben
                      treten
                      umfallen
                      umgehen
                      umkehren
                      umsiedeln
                      umziehen
                      untergehen
                      untertauchen
                      verbleiben
                      verblühen
                      verbluten
                      verderben
                      verfallen
                      verhungern
                      verreisen
                      verschwinden
                      verzweifeln
                      vorgehen
                      vorkommen
                      wachsen
                      wandern
                      wegfallen
                      weggehen
                      weglaufen
                      wegrennen
                      weichen
                      werden
                      zerfallen
                      zerschellen
                      zurückfahren
                      zurückgehen
                      zurückkehren
                      zurückkommen
                      zurücklaufen
                      zurückrennen


Word order in the perfect tense


The word order in German sentences using the present perfect tense is fundamentally different from the word order in English, not because this tense as such requires a certain word order, but because the sentences contain two verbs. Having two verbs in a sentence is not per se exciting or unusual, however, the word order is affected. In this context we remind the reader of another tense, the future tense with 'werden'. In this tense we do also have two verbs, and we have (hopefully!) already learnt about the implications for the syntax.

The reader be reminded:

English verbs 'like' each other :)
Peter will fly to Rome next summer.
Peter has eaten a large pizza at the Restaurant in the city.

German verbs 'dislike' each other. :(
Peter wird im nächsten Sommer nach Rom fliegen.
Peter hat im Restaurant in der Stadt eine große Pizza gegessen.

When there are two verbs in English, they behave like a inseparable unit. Hardly any parts of the sentence will 'live' between the verbs, only occasionally a single word such as 'already' or 'soon' does. Apart from this, the verbs stick together.

When there are two verbs in German, the conjugated one is usually in the second position. The other one comes after. However, if there are any other elements in the sentence - an object, time indicators, a location or something else - all of these squeeze in between the two verbs with the result that the second verb is being driven away from the first one, usually towards the end of the sentence.

Using the present perfect (as the future tense), we do have two verbs: either 'haben' or 'sein' as auxiliary, then the actual verb of action (its second participle, to be more precise). Please compare:

    German         English    
Ich gehe.
I go.
Ich bin gegangen.
I have gone.
Ich bin ins Kino gegangen.
I have gone to the cinema.
Ich bin mit meiner Schwester Sabine ins Kino gegangen.
I have gone to the cinema with my sister Sabine.
Petra liest.
Petra is reading.
Petra hat gelesen.
Petra has read.
Petra hat das ganze Buch gelesen.
Petra has read the whole book.
Petra hat im Garten meines Bruders das ganze Buch gelesen.
Petra has read a German book in my brother's garden.

Conclusion


This was so far only a first introduction to the present perfect tense in German. Resuming, we have seen the following:

1.) The tense is formed by using an auxiliary verb and the second participle of the main verb. This does also apply to English, hence the similarity between the two languages regarding this aspect.

2.) Other than in English, the majority of all verbs use 'haben' as auxiliary verb, while some groups use 'sein' instead. These verbs fall into three groups: motion (1), (2) transformation and the rest (3).

3.) There is an auxiliary verb and the main verb. We have therefore (at least) two verbs in the sentence. The former is usually in the second place, while the latter comes at the end of the sentence. Other parts of the sentence, are placed between them.

There are more things to be considered, e.g. concerning the form of the second participle or the tense with reflexive or separable verbs. To read more you have to go to    The present perfect (part 2) .

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