I’ll be honest, I can be lazy sometimes.
And I might be guilty of sacrificing the “best” way for the “easy” way every now and then.
However, if you’re like me, I’m happy to report that sometimes the best solutions are also the easiest ones!
And when it comes to learning a language, we need all the “easy” we can get.
What if I told you there was a relatively straightforward way to give your German a quick jump-start, without doing much?
Impossible, you say? On the contrary!
The key lies in the German past participle.
By learning this one piece of German grammar, you unlock the German past tense, advanced German sentence structures and improve your vocabulary all at the same time.
German Past Participles: The Lazy German Learner’s Favorite Trick
What Is the German Past Participle?
The past participle, known as the Partizip II, is a special conjugation of a verb used in the Perfekt (present perfect tense), Passiv (passive voice) and as an adjective.
In English, we typically form the past participle by adding -ed to the end of a word, such as washed or traded (unless, of course, it’s irregular in the past participle form like eaten or broken). So as a general rule of thumb, wherever you’d use an -ed word in English, you’d use the Partizip II in German.
Because of its involvement with more difficult grammar structures, having a good understanding of the Partizip II is essential for reaching an advanced level of German proficiency.
But don’t worry, it’s not as difficult as it seems. Hopefully, this post will help you master the three uses of the Partizip II so you can really take your German speaking to the next level!
How to Construct the German Past Participle
Before we cover the three basic uses, it’s a good idea to review the basic construction of the German past participle. We cover the different types of verbs (strong, mixed and weak) extensively in this post and this post, but here’s a quick summary before moving forward:
Weak verbs are regular German verbs. To correctly conjugate them, find the stem, or Stamm, of a verb by removing the –en ending.
For example, the Stamm of machen (to do) is mach.
Once you have the Stamm, add a ge- prefix at the beginning and a –t to the end.
machen → gemacht.
Here’s another example:
kochen (to cook) → gekocht.
Strong verbs are your irregular German verbs, like essen, which often have spelling changes when conjugated.
To conjugate a strong verb, simply add ge- to the beginning of the word, apply the appropriate spelling change and leave the -en on at the end.
Sometimes there won’t be a spelling change in the Perfekt, but the strong verb conjugation rules still apply.
Essen → gegessen
Fahren (to drive/ride) → gefahren
Schließen (to close) → geschlossen
Mixed verbs are a mixture of the two types. Mixed verbs tend to be regular in the present tense, but combine the ending of a weak verb with the vowel change of a strong verb in the past tense.
wissen (to know) → gewusst
You can hear examples of all these concepts and study the past participle in more depth on FluentU.
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With all the real-life, everyday German you’ll hear on FluentU, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get used to German verb conjugations—even those tricky mixed verbs.
Now that we’ve got the basic conjugation covered, let’s move on to the three most common uses of the past participle.
3 Uses of the German Past Participle and What Makes Them Unique
1. The past participle in the Perfekt tense
When it comes to learning the past participle, the Perfekt tense is where you should start.
Germans use the Perfekt tense to describe an action that was finished in the past, virtually identically to the Präteritum, or the simple past tense.
Ich habe Brot gegessen. (I ate bread.)
Depending on the verb/action, it’ll either be paired with haben (to have) or sein (to be). Learning which verbs are paired with haben and which are paired with sein takes practice. A good rule of thumb to follow is that most verbs in the Perfekt are paired with haben, but verbs that describe a change in condition or movement will use sein.
The more you use the Perfekt, the more natural this becomes and you’ll find that you’re able to do it without much thought at all.
Other factors to remember
The Perfekt construction mirrors the English present perfect tense; both forms use an auxiliary verb and a past participle:
I have worked all week long.
However, the English sentence gives the impression that the action is ongoing (you still have work to do this week). Slightly different, Germans use the Perfekt when discussing a past event that has been completed.
So while an English speaker might be tempted to translate Ich habe Brot gegessen to “I have eaten bread,” an equally (and probably more accurate) translation would be “I ate bread.” This shows the action is completed.
- In a normal sentence construction, the past participle will always take the end position.
- Although there are a couple of different conjugation patterns for the past participle, the nice thing is that the form doesn’t change depending on the subject of the sentence. Here’s how essen (to eat) looks with different subjects:
Ich habe Brot gegessen. (I have eaten bread./I ate bread.)
Du hast Brot gegessen. (You have eaten bread./You ate bread.)
Er/sie/es hat Brot gegessen. (He/she/it has eaten bread./He/she/it ate bread.)
2. The past participle in the Passiv
The German Passiv is essentially identical to the English passive voice in that it’s used to stress an action or the recipient of an action.
In the passive voice, the subject is not completing the action (active voice). Rather, the subject is being acted on by the verb.
Let’s look at a sentence written in the active voice versus one in the passive voice:
Sam ate bread. (active)
The bread was eaten by Sam. (passive)
A sentence is in the active voice when the subject (in this case, Sam) does the action stated by the verb (ate). In the passive voice, the subject (in this case, the bread becomes the subject) is acted on by the verb (was eaten).
Other factors to remember
One important thing to note is that there are two types of Passiv in German: the Zustandspassiv (conditional passive) and the Vorgangspassiv (procedural passive).
The Zustandspassiv is constructed with sein (to be) and describes the state an object is in after an action.
Die Tür ist geschlossen. (The door is closed.)
In this case, someone has already closed the door and the action is already completed.
The Vorgangspassiv, on the other hand, is constructed with werden (to become) and is used to describe the ongoing action of an object.
Die Häuser werden gebaut. (The houses are being built.)
In this case, rather than referring to the Zustand (condition) of an object, you’re describing the process an object is undergoing.
The difference between the Zustandspassiv and Vorgangspassiv is something that you definitely need to develop a sense for. There’s no real hard and fast rule on when you’re supposed to use one or the other, and in most contexts, both will make sense.
- If you plan on reaching higher than B1 in the CEFR, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or doing well on any advanced German exam, such as the TELC exam or even the AP German exam, this is an essential skill to learn.
Typically they’ll have you restructure a passive sentence into an active sentence and vice versa, so knowing German past participles are essential to your success on these exams!
3. The past participle as an adjective
The third and final use of the past participle is as an adjective, and we do the exact same thing in English!
The past participle may be used as an adjective when the action is finished or has been completed.
a sliced apple → ein geschnittener Apfel
a painted wall → eine gestrichene Wand
Other factors to remember
You may have noticed that the ending of the past participles are slightly different. This needs a little explanation.
The biggest difference between using the past participle as an adjective in German and English is that declension is important in German.
This means that whenever you use an adjective, you have to decline the adjectives. Declension is a fancy way of saying changing the adjective ending to match the gender of the noun.
Let’s take another look at the example from above. The nouns that I used, Apfel (apple) and Wand (wall), are two different genders, which affects the endings of each adjective.
In this case, because ein Apfel is a masculine noun with an indefinite article, the adjective takes the ending –er. Eine Wand is feminine with an indefinite article, so the adjective takes the ending –e.
- If you’d like to learn more about adjective endings, you can read this article about how to get the adjective endings right every single time!
- This is something that you’ll find often on things such as cooking/food prep directions, which could come in handy if you ever decide to visit Germany and end up having to cook for yourself.
There you have it, the three most common uses for the German past participle, or Partizip II. Master these three and you’ll be amazed at how much more complete and well-rounded your language speaking abilities will be.
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