Learning German Tenses: A Strangely Familiar World for English Speakers
For an English speaker, learning German tenses can feel like entering a parallel universe.
But don’t fret! Remember, English is a Germanic language. Despite their differences, these two languages are related on a deep and fundamental level.
Luckily for you, that means you can use your knowledge of English grammar to learn German grammar.
- The Present Tense
- The Simple Past Tense
- The Compound Past Tense
- The Past Perfect Tense
- The Future Tense
- The Future Perfect Tense
The Present Tense
The simple present tense in German is much like the present tense in English. It’s constructed with a very simple modification of the verb stem, and it refers to actions happening at the moment of speech.
But you can’t just pretend it’s the English present.
The biggest difference between the English simple present and the German simple present the German version covers the present progressive aspect as well. This is one of those situations where one German tense does the work of two English tenses.
In English, “I play guitar” and “I am playing guitar” are two different verb forms for different meanings. In German, the equivalent of the first—ich spiele Gitarre—means both of these things.
Of course, if you add a time expression, the context makes it clear which is meant:
Ich laufe jetzt.
I am jogging now. — Present progressive
Ich laufe jeden Montag.
I jog every Monday. — Present simple
Note how these verbs are conjugated exactly the same, but they mean different things.
When Is the “Present” Not the “Present”?
There are two more uses of the German present tense that are important to understand.
First, in some instances the present tense can be used to refer to the future. This happens when you add a time expression such as a day of the week, but without the word jeden (every). It’s not unlike English in that way:
Ich treffe ihn Dienstag.
I’m meeting him on Tuesday/next Tuesday.
Second, you can use the German present tense with the word seit (since), to talk about something that started in the past and is still going on. In this way, the German present tense can function like the English present perfect.
Ich mag Schokolade seit ich fünf bin.
I’ve liked chocolate since I was five.
Notice how here, Ich mag (I like) is in the present tense, but it corresponds to the English “I’ve liked,” which is the present perfect. We don’t have anything exactly like this in English, so this is one of those moments where you’ll have to immerse yourself in German until you get used to it.
So, the German present tense covers many different English tenses. What happens when that gets reversed—when just one English tense corresponds to several in German?
Enter the past.
The Simple Past Tense
German has a simple past tense, and English has a simple past tense.
They both have similar usages: talking about events that started and ended in the past.
Even their conjugations look similar. For example, regular English past tense verbs tend to be the infinitive form of the verb plus a “-d” or “-ed” ending. It’s similar in German, but the ending is usually -t or -te. For example:
Er malt (he paints) → Er malte (he painted).
There are also similarities when it comes to irregular verbs. English has a lot of verbs that change their vowels in the past tense. For example “run” becomes “ran.”
Usually, when that happens in English, the cognate verb in German undergoes the same shift. “Run” fits that pattern:
Er rennt (he runs) → Er rannte (he ran).
Starting to see the similarities?
(Not) Using the German Simple Past Tense
We’ve gone over the similarities with English. But remember, this is a parallel universe of tenses, so get ready for the differences.
The big twist is that the German simple past is mostly only used for written German. It’s fallen out of favor in spoken German, even in formal situations. It’d sound very weird to speak using the simple past all the time.
There are a few exceptions to this, including some very common verbs that are used in simple past in spoken German. For example, denken (to think), haben (to have), sein (to be) and wollen (to want) are frequently used in the simple past.
Ich wollte das nicht!
I didn’t want that!
Ich war im Bad.
I was in the bathroom.
The Compound Past Tense
Now, let’s turn to the past tense used most often in spoken German: the compound past.
In terms of construction, this is the equivalent of the English present perfect. It’s built by conjugating haben (to have) in the present tense as an auxiliary verb, and then adding the past participle of the actual verb. So, it’s similar to English constructions like “I have done” or “We have eaten.”
But take careful note—it doesn’t have the same meaning. The structure is the same as English, but the meaning is identical to the simple past.
Die Freunde haben zusammen gelacht.
The friends laughed together.
As you can see, the verb is made up of the auxiliary verb haben (they have) and the past participle gelacht (laughed). But its meaning is closer to “they laughed,” rather than “they have laughed.”
One last note of complexity: when we’re dealing with the simple past, sometimes the auxiliary verb isn’t haben but sein. Verbs relating to motion use sein. For example:
Ich bin von meinem Haus gelaufen.
I ran from my house.
As you can see, we conjugated sein to ich bin and then stuck the participle on the end of the sentence.
Dealing with German Past Participles
When it comes to the compound past, half the battle is learning the correct past participles. Whenever you see a word with ge—en or ge—t at the end of a sentence, you know it’s a past participle.
Past participles are sometimes irregular. That’s why most German dictionaries and textbooks give a verb’s infinitive, its simple past form and its compound past form whenever introducing a new word.
For example, the infinitive verb schreiben (to write) is conjugated as schrieb (I wrote) in the simple past, and hat geschrieben (I wrote) in the compound past. Note the vowel change in the middle of the word!
Since this tense is a bit different from English, it can be tricky for English speakers to learn. If you need some reinforcement, you can check out these self-tests—or, for slightly more intense training, this timed quiz from Sporcle.
The Past Perfect Tense
Congratulations, you’re over the hill.
The tenses discussed previously in this article were the most complex and the most divergent from English. From here on out, it’s easy street, as the tenses line up very well.
Let’s consider the past perfect, first in English. Here are a few English examples:
“I had finished my homework before she called.”
“They had already eaten when we arrived.”
We say “had finished” or “had eaten” to show that the first action happened before the second action.
“Had” for us is in the past tense, and so we’ll do the same thing in German. Appropriately conjugate haben in the past tense and add the past participle.
It’s very easy to pick up! Here’s an example:
Sie hatte gut gespielt, bis sie verletzt wurde.
She had played well until she was injured.
In that example, hatte…gespielt is in the past perfect, and wurde is in the simple past.
When to Use the German Past Perfect
This tense isn’t used very much, but it does crop up fairly frequently in interviews. If you want to study it, go ahead and read some German newspapers or magazines where they interview famous people about their lives. You’ll see this tense left and right!
If you still aren’t sure about this tense, you can watch how native speakers use it in various video examples with the FluentU program. You can also search this program for videos using specific words or terms. Use this to further familiarize yourself with how native speakers use these tenses.
By the way, if you’re still confused about the past tense versus the past perfect in English, you might benefit from brushing up on your English grammar—it’ll pay dividends for your German learning! You can check out a textbook like “English Grammar for Students of German,” which will teach you both at the same time.
The Future Tense
We’ve left the future tense for last because it’s just that easy.
Again, first think in English. How do we make the future tense?
“I will see you tomorrow.”
“I am going to see you tomorrow.”
Either way, we have a helping verb plus the infinitive. No new verb forms!
In German, that verb is actually werden (to become). So our previous sentence is:
Ich werde dich morgen sehen.
I will see you tomorrow.
As you’ve noticed, in German the helping verb stays in the regular place, while the next part gets kicked to the end of the sentence.
Be very careful here, because there’s a word spelled w-i-l-l in German that may trip you up. It means “I want,” and it’s pronounced differently than its English equivalent. We can’t ever use will in the space for that helping verb! It’s always, always going to be some conjugation of werden.
The Future Perfect Tense
Last, we have the future perfect tense. Luckily for us English speakers, the future perfect is basically a one-to-one equivalent between English and German; you use it in the same situations in either language.
And consider yourself doubly lucky, because the future perfect tense is simply a combination of verb forms we’ve seen before.
To construct it, you’ll use the helping verb werden (to become) just like in the future simple. Then, tack on a conjugation of the compound past using either haben or sein. Put it all together and you’ll get an example like this:
Ich werde das gemacht haben.
I will have done that.
As you can see, this sentence includes the compound past tense haben gemacht (have done) and the helping verb werden to mark the future.
The only tricky thing here is that you have to switch the order of the compound past verb. In this case, haben gemacht becomes gemacht haben. And there you have it: the future perfect!
When something seems to line up so well with English, it may be confusing to know how to study it.
And remember, if you speak English, you’re already well on you’re way to mastering German tenses. All it takes is a little practice.