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 :
||a verb (second particple)
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:
||a verb (second particple)
Up to this point, there is no difference to English.
However, we will now look at two aspects which are fundamentally
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.'
| 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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
|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 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.
This was so far only a first introduction to the present perfect tense in German. Resuming, we have seen the
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) .