Perfectly Clear: How to Use German’s Present Perfect Tense
If you’re struggling to perfect the German present perfect tense—or if you’ve just been avoiding it altogether—fear not.
My go-to guide will get you right on track to grammatical success in the German present perfect!
It’s not something you can afford to skip. When learning a new language, it’s important to be comfortable with all of its tenses.
So if you’re dreaming of achieving German fluency, use this handy guide to brush up on one more important tense!
- What Is the Present Perfect Tense?
- How to Use German’s Present Perfect Tense
- 1. Make the Ultimate Decision: Pick the Correct Verb
- 2. Create the Past Participle (with Strong and Mixed Verbs)
- 3. Watch Out for Other Factors
- 4. Pick the “Perfect” Resource to Practice
What Is the Present Perfect Tense?
If you’re really going to nail the German present perfect, it’s vital to understand what on earth this mystery tense is!
The English present perfect tense is used to refer to an event that happened in the past but continues (or at least might continue) in the present. For example, the sentence “I have lived in London for six years” suggests that you might still be living in London.
Still confused? Take a look at these two sentences:
I ate two apples this week.
I have eaten two apples this week.
The first sentence implies that you’ve finished eating all of your apples, while the second one suggests you’re planning on eating some more.
So now that you’ve got an idea of what the tense looks like in English, let’s explore what it looks like auf Deutsch (in German).
Strictly speaking, the perfect present tense doesn’t exist in German.
The closest equivalent, however, is das Perfekt (the perfect tense).
It’s more similar to English than you think.
Both tenses use an auxiliary verb (the “have” in “I have eaten”). They also both use a past participle (such as “eaten”).
Unlike English, however, das Perfekt doesn’t signify an ongoing event. Instead, it refers to a past event or action which has been completed. It’s also the past tense that’s most commonly used in German conversations, so you need to understand it if you want to perfect your speaking skills!
How to Use German’s Present Perfect Tense
Understanding this tricky tense is the first step of mastering it, so congratulations! You’re almost there!
Now it’s time to learn how we form this tense and use it in sentences.
Fear not. It’s easier than it seems.
1. Make the Ultimate Decision: Pick the Correct Verb
Do I choose haben or sein?
To start with, you need an auxiliary verb.
In German, you either use haben (to have) or sein (to be).
You’ll be using both of these vital verbs in their present-tense forms. You’ve probably already got this down, but in case you need a little reminder, this article explains how we conjugate haben and sein in the present tense.
Generally, we use haben when forming a Perfekt sentence, but there are some cases when we use sein, like when the past participle is a verb of movement like gehen (to go) and fahren (to travel). So, if you wanted to tell someone about your recent trip to the U.S., you’d say:
“Ich bin nach Amerika gefahren“ (I went to America).
If you’re just chatting about what you did on the weekend, you’d say:
“Wir sind ins Supermarkt gegangen.” (We went to the supermarket.)
You can see that bin (am) and sind (are) both come from the verb sein, rather than haben.
The other common use of sein is to signify a change of condition. For example:
“Sie ist leztes Jahr gestorben.” (She died last year.)
Once you’ve got a grip on these two use cases, you’ve nearly nailed the haben or sein decision-making process.
There are just two pretty important exceptions to bear in mind when using the German present perfect: bleiben (to stay) and sein (to be).
What to do about bleiben and sein
Despite not signifying movement or a change of state, both bleiben and sein use sein as their auxiliary verb in the present perfect tense. For example:
“Ich bin in einem Hotel geblieben.” (I stayed in a hotel.)
“Sie ist seit gestern krank gewesen.” (She has been sick since yesterday.)
Note that both of these (slightly irritating) exceptions also have irregular past participles.
Bleiben changes to geblieben (the vowels change order, and the past participle doesn’t gain a -t or lose the -en).
Sein becomes completely unrecognizable, changing to gewesen.
This is a lot to take in at once, but kein Stress (no stress) allowed!
When you see these verbs written or in an online dictionary, they’re usually marked somehow (often with an asterisk). If you’re ever in doubt, quickly consult a dictionary and your uncertainty will be settled in no time!
If you’re still a little confused after this explanation and you’re having no luck with a dictionary, check out this helpful article that explains when to use sein in the German present perfect tense.
2. Create the Past Participle (with Strong and Mixed Verbs)
The second thing you’ll need to form a sentence in the German present perfect tense is a past participle. While there are some irregular verbs, which I’ll get to later, it’s generally pretty simple to form. All you need to do is:
1. Add ge- to the beginning of the infinitive verb.
2. Take -en off the end of the infinitive verb.
3. Replace -en with a -t.
Check out this simple example:
1. Add ge- to the beginning of the infinitive verb: kaufen → gekaufen
2. Take -en off the end of the infinitive verb: gekaufen → gekauf
3. Replace -en with a -t: gekauf → gekauft
And that’s how kaufen (to buy) becomes gekauft in das Perfekt.
“Ich habe das Kleid gekauft.” (I have bought the dress.)
From this example sentence, you can see that the auxiliary verb always goes in the second position, as is always the case with the TeKaMoLo rule (Temporal, Kausal, Modal, Lokal—the rule that governs the order of adverbial phrases in a sentence).
The only exception to this rule would be a sentence with a subordinating conjunction such as weil (because), which would send the verb to the end.
Forming the past participle with strong verbs
Luckily, forming a past participle is usually as easy as adding ge-, removing -en and adding -t. However, there are a few exceptions to this (otherwise straightforward) rule!
Strong verbs are verbs that are irregular in their past participle form. They’re bound to get on your nerves from time to time!
These irregular verbs don’t add a -t at the end, but instead keep the -en of the infinitive. Then there’s the stem change. Their stems (the part of the infinitive before the -en) also change, often by changing or rearranging the vowels.
A few common examples that you’re likely to need for everyday use include:
gehen (to go) → gegangen
finden (to find) → gefunden
schreiben (to write) → geschrieben
While you’ll ultimately have to simply memorize these annoying irregular verbs, don’t try to fit them all into your brain at once! Most German textbooks have a list of strong verbs that you can consult if you’re ever unsure.
Don’t get mixed up with mixed verbs
As the name implies, these verbs are a mix of strong and weak verbs. When turning a mixed verb into a past participle, you’ll need to change the -en of the infinitive to -t, just like you did with the regular, weak verbs. However, mixed verbs’ stems change, just like those of strong verbs.
Some common examples include:
bringen (to bring) → gebracht
wissen (to know) → gewusst
Just like strong verbs, you’ll simply have to do your best to memorize these irregular verbs, and check a dictionary if you’re not sure about the spelling!
3. Watch Out for Other Factors
Congrats—you’ve nearly nailed the German present perfect tense! You understand how to choose the correct auxiliary verb. You’ve learned how to form a past participle. You got a taste of how to work with irregular verbs in the Perfekt tense.
There are just a few more fiddly bits to bear in mind before you truly master this tense.
Keep an eye out for separable verbs
Separable verbs are a bit of a pain, but once you’ve learned the rule, you won’t be making any more mistakes!
As the name implies, separable verbs are verbs with separable prefixes at the beginning that change the definition of the stem verb. When you add auf to hören (to hear), for example, it becomes aufhören, which means “to stop.”
To form the past participle of a separable verb, you need to add the ge- between the prefix and the verb. This might sound more complicated than it is, so here’s an example to help you visualize the rule:
aufhören (to stop) — aufgehört
anrufen (to call) → angerufen (strong verb)
See: it’s not that tricky!
Remember the inseparable verbs
Inseparable verbs are also a little confusing in the present perfect tense, as some do not have a ge- in their past participle form. This is usually the case with verbs starting with be, ver and miss.
Some examples of these irregular verbs include missbrauchen (to misuse), which becomes missbraucht and verkaufen (to sell), which changes to verkauft.
As you can see, these verbs keep the -t in their past participle forms like the weak, regular verbs, so you just need to remember not to add a ge-, and I’m sure you can manage that!
Verbs ending in -ieren
Finally, you need to be careful with verbs that end in -ieren. Like some inseparable verbs, these change the -en to a -t in their past participle forms, but don’t add a ge- at the beginning.
For example, studieren (to study) simply changes to studiert.
And those are all the exceptions for the time being!
Do your best to memorize as many of these as possible, but remember, there’s always a dictionary or an app at your disposal if you get stuck!
4. Pick the “Perfect” Resource to Practice
There’s a whole host of great online German tutorials out there to help you fully grasp the German present perfect tense. It’s just a case of challenging yourself, learning to be disciplined and forcing yourself to practice!
If you want to familiarize yourself with how the present perfect tense is used while listening to native speakers, you can check the FluentU program. In this immersive app and website, you’ll find an entire collection of authentic German videos with accurate subtitles at your disposal.
It’s a helpful tool if you want to see language in context and get valuable practice with this tricky tense.
Another way to practice is to make flashcards for all of the strong and weak verbs. Regular use of these cards will help this sticky, irregular tense get stuck in your brain in no time.
Also, remember to keep speaking! The more you use irregular verbs, the faster you’ll pick them up, so keep up those conversations if you want to be the master of das Perfekt.
Now you know all there is to know about the German present perfect tense!
This tense catches a lot of German learners off guard, but don’t worry. Consulting this guide will help you become a present perfect ninja in no time.
Before you know it, you’ll be impressing everyone with your Perfekt knowledge!
Leah Martin is a German and History student at the University of Leeds. She has been studying German for nine years, but when she’s not trying to memorize the confusing grammar and the never-ending nouns, she enjoys baking, cooking and hiking!