German Classroom: Present Perfect Tense

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The Perfect Tense

The Perfect tense is a very important tense in German grammar. We use it almost always, when speaking about the past. On this page, I shall explain to you how to construct the Perfect tense and when to use it. I shall show you the whole thing first using the example sentence „Ich lerne Deutsch“ (I learn German).

The rule for creating the Perfect tense is as follows:

German grammar perfect -tense
Auxiliary verb (conjugated) + Past Participle (at the end of the sentence) „Auxiliary verb“ („Hilfsverb“) here means that at position 2 in the main clause (where the conjugated verb is ALWAYS found) there is a verb that helps us to construct the perfect tense in German grammar. The auxiliary verb does not have any meaning by itself, it has only a grammatical function. Because of this, there are fundamentally only two possible verbs that one can use as the auxiliary verb for constructing the Perfect Tense, namely the verb „haben“ and the verb „sein“. Let me explain to you when to use „haben“ and when to use „sein“.  

Firstly, an example:

Present tense: I learn German/ I am learning German. When we want to put this easy sentence into the Perfect tense, the following happens:
learn German grammar - perfect tense haben

What happens?

The verb „lernen“ becomes the past participle and moves from position 2 to the END of the sentence. To Position 2 now comes the auxiliary verb „haben“ in conjugated form, so „Ich habE“, with an „e“. This structure always remains the same: auxiliary verb in Position 2, past participle at the end of the sentence, as with much longer sentences:
learn German grammar perfect tense haben
For you, it is important to note that the actual meaning of the sentence is not shown by the conjugated verb in Position 2 anymore but by the past participle at the end of the sentence. Only the auxiliary verb is ever found in Position 2; mostly we use the auxiliary verb „haben“, and with regular / weak verbs we only EVER use the auxiliary verb „haben“.

When do we use the auxiliary verb „sein“?

The answer to this question is, at first glance, quite simple:  


Verbs about Movement and Change of state use the verb „sein“. And how can we best remember this? Very simple! Be creative and write the verb „sein“ in such a way that you could associate with movement! I am sure, that there are many creative people out there who can do that pretty well. I myself have always thought of this picture here:
learn German grammar perfect tense sein

And what does this mean exactly?

Here are some examples of Verbs of Movement: to go „gehen“, to travel „fahren“, to run „rennen“, to fly „fliegen“ and so on. If we construct the Perfect tense with these verbs, thus we have to use the auxiliary verb „sein“ in conjugated form in Position 2 and, again, the corresponding Past Participle at the END of the sentence:
learn German grammar perfect tense sein

What are Verbs of Change of State?

Verbs of Change of State express when a subject’s state changes from ‚State A‘ to ‚State B‘! Here are a few examples (all sentences in the table are in the present tense):
learn German grammar perfect tense sein
The verbs „sterben“, „einschlafen“, „verwelken“ and obviously many more are thus so-called Verbs of Change of State and form the Perfect Tense with the auxiliary verb „sein“.

And here once more an overview in the form of a table

So far so good. In my experience, however, German students now find it difficult to tell whether they are dealing with verbs of Movement or of Change of State. Furthermore, there are some verbs that you really can’t say whether they are Verbs of Movement or not, for example with the verb „spielen“. Most people associate that verb with movement, and inspite of this, when constructing the Perfect tense with this verb you use „haben“. In addition, there are often regional differences. In Austria, some verbs take a different Auxiliary Verb when constructing the Perfect Tense to Germany. So there is always lots for German Students to be confused by!  

When do you use the Perfect Tense?

Firstly you must remember, that the Perfect tense conveys the meaning of the past in exactly the same way as the Imperfect tense (Präteritum). There is no difference! It does not matter; both of the following sentences mean exactly the same thing: 65 million years ago, the Dinosaurs died out… Vor 65 Millionen Jahren sind die Dino Saurier ausgestorben. (Perfekt) Vor 65 Millionen Jahren starben die Dino Saurier aus. (Präteritum) The statements made with both grammatical times/tenses mean exactly the same. The difference is only in the communicative context of the sentence. We have to distinguish between a formal, public, literary context and a more easy informal context. Generally the rule is that you use the Imperfect tense in a formal context, for example in literature written in a serious tone such as Newspapers, scientific work or in a serious public speech. If it is meant to be received in a more casual manner, we use the Perfect tense. When we email our friends, for example, or in normal everyday speech and so on. Now you also understand why the Perfect tense is so important in German grammar. If we are talking „ganz normal“ in everyday life and we speak about the past, we use the Perfect tense. So it is very important that you can use it properly.


For the verbs „sein“, „haben“ and the Modal verbs (wollen, müssen, können usw.), as a general rule, the Germans do not use the Perfect Tense. You can speculate about why this is – I guess it simply sounds a little awkward or old-fashioned. Because of this, more often we use the Imperfect tense (das Präteritum); with these verbs it is simply easier. Here are a few examples to clarify the difference:


Silvester 2001 bin ich in Rom gewesen. (perfect tense) Silvester 2001 war ich in Rom. (past tense)


Vor einigen Jahren bin ich Deutschlehrer geworden. (perfect tense) Vor einigen Jahren wurde ich Deutschlehrer. (past tense)


Gestern bin ich noch ein bisschen länger auf der Party geblieben. (perfect tense) Gerstern blieb ich noch ein bisschen länger auf der Party. (past tense)


Noch vor einem Jahr hat Paul einen guten Job gehabt. (perfect tense) Noch vor einem Jahr hatte Paul einen guten Job. (past tense)

Modal verbs

Als Kind habe ich Pilot werden wollen. (perfect tense) Als Kind wollte ich Pilot werden. (past tense
With the present perfect, we show that an action in the past has been completed. We mostly use the present perfect when we want to focus on the result of the action. In colloquial language, we often use the present perfect instead of the simple past.
Gestern hat Michael sein Büro aufgeräumt. Er hat sich vorgenommen, jetzt immer so ordentlich zu sein. Aber bis nächste Woche hat er das bestimmt wieder vergessen.


  • completed action in the past (usually focusing on the result of the action)
    Gestern hat Michael sein Büro aufgeräumt.
    (Result: the office is clean now)
    Er hat sich vorgenommen, jetzt immer so ordentlich zu sein.
    (Result: he doesn’t want to be so disorganised anymore)
  • action that will be completed by a certain point in the future (The point in the future must be specifically designated, otherwise we use the future perfect.)
    Bis nächste Woche hat er das bestimmt wieder vergessen.


We need the present tense form of sein/haben  and the past participle (Partizip II).
Person sein haben
1st person singular (ich) ich bin gegangen ich habe gelesen
2nd person singular (du) du bist du hast
3rd person singular (er/sie/es/man) er ist er hat
1st person plural (wir) wir sind wir haben
2nd person plural (ihr) ihr seid ihr habt
3rd person plural/polite form (sie/Sie) sie sind sie haben

Past Participle

weak/mixed verbs strong verbs
ge…t ge…en
gelernt gesehen

Exceptions in the Construction

  • Many strong and mixed verbs change their stem in the past participle.
    gehen – gegangen, bringen – gebracht
  • If the word stem ends in d/t, we add an et to weak/mixed verbs.
    warten – gewartet
  • Verbs that end in ieren form their past participle without ge.
    studieren – studiert
  • Inseparable verbs form their past participle without ge.
    verstehen – verstanden
  • For separable verbs, the ge comes after the prefix.
    ankommen – angekommen
Using the Present Perfect Tense  In German, as in English, the present perfect differs from the simple past, in that it describes past events that have present implications. German speakers are not always careful in making this distinction, however. Indeed, they sometimes even mix the two tenses indiscriminately. Even more important: in colloquial conversation, Germans use the present perfect almost exclusively. Indeed, many dialects do not even have a simple past, which is thus mostly reserved for written narrations. Colloquial accounts are in the present perfect: “Ich bin nach Hause gegangen und habe meinem Mann gesagt….” There are a few exceptions, such as the verb “sein” and the modal auxiliaries. It is quite common to use the less complex “ich war da” instead or “ich bin da gewesen” or “sie konnte ihn sehen” rather than “sie hat ihn sehen können.” Even in ordinary speech it is more usual to say “ich musste einen Arzt rufen lassen” than “ich habe einen Arzt rufen lassen müssen.” “Er hatte einen Hund” is also possible in place of “Er hat einen Hunde gehabt.” Forming the Present Perfect Tense in German: Weak verbs typically form the past participle by adding the prefix “ge-“ and a suffix of “-t” or “-et” to the stem:
Ich habe das gesagt. I said that.
Sie hat gut gespielt. She played well.
Wir haben schwer gearbeitet. We worked hard.
Ich habe nichts gehört. I didn’t hear anything.
If the verb has a separable prefix, the “ge” becomes an infix; it is placed between the prefix and the stem:
Wir haben die Tür zugemacht. We closed the door.
Ich habe eingekauft. I went shopping.
If the verb ends in -ieren, there is no ge- added:
Das hat gut funktioniert. That worked well.
Sie hat Physik studiert. She studied physics.
Hast du auch die Küche renoviert? Did you renovate the kitchen, too?
If the verb has an inseparable prefix, that replaces the “ge”:
Was hast du ihnen erzählt? What did you tell them?
Habt ihr viel Geld dafür bezahlt? Did y’all pay a lot of money for that?
Der Wagen hat mir gehört. The car belonged to me.
Strong verbs: The “irregular strong verbs,” including the modal auxiliaries when they are not associated with another verb in the infinitive, add the suffix “-t” or “-et” to a (usually) changed stem:
Ich habe das nicht gewollt. I didn’t want that.
Als Kind habe ich gut Chinesisch gekonnt. As a child I could speak Chinese well.
Sie hat das nicht gewusst. She didn’t know that.
Was hast du mir gebracht? What did you bring me?
The remaining strong verbs add “-en” to a stem that may or may not be changed.
Ich habe meinen Hut gefunden. I found my hat.
Du hast zu schnell gesprochen. You spoke too fast.
Haben Sie gut geschlafen? Did you sleep well?
Sie hat mein Buch nicht gelesen. She didn’t read my book.
These strong verbs fall into distinct categories. Here is a list of the most common strong verbs, arranged in those groups. The rules about the prefix “ge-“ remain the same:
Was hast du mitgebracht? What did you bring along?
Das Konzert hat schon begonnen. The concert has already begun.
Sie hat schon alles aufgegessen. She has already eaten up everything.
Die Kinder haben den ganzen Tag ferngesehen. The children watched TV all day.
Wir haben etwas anderes vorgehabt. We planned to do something else.
The Auxiliary Verb: Most verbs, as in the examples above, take “haben,” but some require “sein”:
Wann bist du nach Hause gekommen? When did you come home?
Wir sind ins Kino gegangen. We went to the movies.
Seid ihr geflogen oder gefahren? Did y’all fly or drive?
Er ist alt geworden. He’s gotten old.
Sie sind in der Stadt geblieben. They stayed in the city.
Die Musik ist sehr laut gewesen. The music was very loud.
The verbs that take “sein” are mostly predictable on the basis of their meaning. They must satisfy two conditions: 1) they must be intransitive; 2) they must indicate a change of position or of condition. In the example “Wir sind nach Hause gegangen,” the verb “gehen” 1) takes no direct object and 2) describes motion from one place to another. The same is true with:
Sie ist spät aufgestanden. She got up late.
Er ist gestern angekommen. He arrived yesterday.
Ich bin langsam gelaufen. I ran (or walked) slowly.
Examples of a change of condition:
Ihr Ring ist schon grün geworden. Her ring has already turned green.
Er ist gestern gestorben. He died yesterday.
Die Pflanze ist schnell gewachsen. The plant grew fast.
Ich bin sofort eingeschlafen. I fell asleep immediately.
Some Other Wrinkles:
1) There are two obvious exceptions to these rules: “bleiben” and “sein”. While they are intransitive (or, from another point of view, take the nominative case), they clearly do not show a change of position or condition. In fact, they specifically mean not to make such a change. Nevertheless, they take “sein.” “Folgen” might also be a surprise, unless we consider its use of the dative.
Er ist zu Hause geblieben. He stayed home.
Er ist ein Junge geblieben. He remained a boy.
Es ist immer so gewesen. It was always that way.
Der Mann ist mir nach Hause gefolgt. The man followed me home.
2) With some verbs, the context determines whether or not they take “sein.” “Fahren,” for example has two meanings: a) to drive in the sense of riding in a vehicle (“Wir sind nach Berlin gefahren”) and b) to operate a vehicle (“Ich habe deinen Wagen gefahren”). In the second case, “haben” is called for because “fahren” is transitive. Other examples:
Wir sind nach Madrid geflogen. We flew to Madrid.
Der Pilot hat das Flugzeug allein geflogen. The pilot flew the plane alone.
Wir sind um zwei gelandet. We landed at two.
Der Pilot hat das Flugzeug um zwei gelandet. The pilot landed the plane at two.
3) With a verb like “fahren,” those two meanings are sufficiently distinct. In some other instances, a certain amount of good will is called for. “Gehen,” for example, can actually, though rarely, take an object, but one still says, “Er ist seinen eigenen Weg gegangen” (“He went his own way”). And one normally says, “Ich bin einen Marathon gelaufen” – although some Germans would differ and insist on “haben.”
4) The movement implied in “tanzen” is not sufficient for “sein.” Hence: “Ich habe nur mit ihm getanzt.” – Although: “Ich bin mit ihm ins nächste Zimmer getanzt” (“I danced with him into the next room” [think tango]). “Schwimmen,” in contrast, most often takes “sein,” even if it’s just doing laps: “Ich bin heute nur kurz geschwommen” (“I swam today just for a short time”).
5) “Stehen” and “sitzen” obviously do not meet the criterion of motion, but Southern Germans, to the horror of Northerners, typically say “Ich bin gestanden” or “Ich bin gesessen.” Foreigners who use this construction get their knuckles rapped.
Double Infinitives:
The modal auxiliaries behave differently when paired with an infinitive. The present perfect form of “Ich kann Deutsch” is “Ich habe Deutsch gekonnt.” But “Ich kann Deutsch sprechen” becomes “Ich habe Deutsch sprechen können.” Other examples:
Ich habe das nicht wissen können. I couldn’t know that.
Sie hat das nicht machen müssen. She didn’t have to do that.
Wir haben ihm nicht schreiben dürfen. We weren’t allowed to write to him.
The same is true of verbs of perception that take an infinitive without “zu.” “Sie hört ihn singen” becomes “Sie hat ihn singen hören.” Other examples:
Ich habe sie schwimmen sehen. I saw her swimming.
also possible: Ich habe sie schwimmen gesehen.
Hast du ihn kommen hören? Did you hear him coming?
also possible: Hast du ihn kommen gehört?
Two other verbs, lassen and helfen, also form double infinitives
Wir haben ein Haus bauen lassen. We had a house built.
Ich habe ihr kochen helfen. I helped her cook
also possible: Ich habe ihr kochen geholfen.
In these cases, the double infinitive remains in the final position in dependent clauses, and the “haben” slips into the second-the-last place:
Bist du sicher, dass sie das Buch hat lesen können?
Are you sure that she was able to read the book?
Wir sind nach Hause gegangen, weil wir keine Karten haben kaufen können.
We went home because we couldn’t buy any tickets.
Es ist schade, dass du ihn nie hast singen hören.
It’s too bad that you’ve never heard him sing.
In the above examples, the modal was put into a perfect tense. As in English, the modal can have a different meaning when combined with another verb that is in the past. Note the following distinctions .
Sie hat das sagen dürfen. She was allowed to say that.
Sie darf das gesagt haben. She may have said that.
Er hat mir einen Brief schreiben können. He was able to write me a letter.
Er kann mir einen Brief geschrieben haben. He may have written me a letter.
Sie haben mich nach Hause tragen müssen. They had to carry me home.
Sie müssen mich nach Hause getragen haben. They must have carried me home.
Ihr habt mir helfen sollen. You were supposed to help me.
Ihr sollt mir geholfen haben. You are supposed to have helped me.
Er hat es finden wollen. He wanted to find it.
Er will es gefunden haben. He claims to have found it.

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