Deutsch 101 Handout: The Perfekt Tense

We’re finally going to learn to talk about past events in German! You’re about to learn what’s called the ‘present perfect’ tense in English, or Das Perfekt in German. (Don’t be confused by the word ‘present’ -- this is a past tense that talks about past events -- it’s the English terminology that’s confusing.) Although there are two different past tenses in German (as in English), the Perfekt that you are learning is used most often in conversational (spoken) German. You will learn the other past tense (the narrative or simple past tense) in second-semester German.

The first thing we need to talk about when learning to form the Perfekt is the difference between strong and weak verbs in German. We have the same difference in English, too. Consider the following examples:

play - playedspielen - gespielt speak - spokensprechen - gesprochen
learn - learnedlernen - gelernt give - givengeben - gegeben

Like English, German has a group of ‘regular’ (termed ‘weak’) verbs that always add a -t ending for the past participle, but another very different group of ‘irregular’ (termed ‘strong’) verbs that add an -en. We will be learning both kinds today, but for just now, we’re going to focus on the (easier) weak verbs.

To form the past participle of the German Perfekt tense for weak verbs, you need to take the stem of the verb (the infinitive minus the -en ending) and add a ge- prefix and a -t suffix.

spielen - gespieltmachen - gemachtfragen - gefragt
wohnen - gewohntarbeiten - gearbeitetreden - geredet

There are two exceptions to this nice regularity. The first ist that verbs that end in -ieren, like fotografieren, diskutieren, studieren, etc., do NOT get a ge- prefix. (These verbs can be easily recognized as English-French cognates, and they all end in -ieren, so it’s a pretty easy group to remember.)

studieren - studiertmanipulieren - manipuliertreparieren - repariert

The other exception is for inseparable prefixes, like ver-, be- and miss-. When a verb has an inseparable prefix, it does NOT get a ge- prefix for the participle form.

besuchen - besuchterleben - erlebtverkaufen - verkauft

What happens with separable-prefix verbs? As you might expect, the prefix gets ‘stuck’ back on to the participle at the end, but the ge- prefix ends up in the middle of the word:

Wir haben die Tür zugemacht.We closed the door.
Hast du dein Zimmer aufgeräumt?Did you clean up your room?

Now that you can form the participle form of the verb, we need to learn the complete syntax for a past tense sentence. To form a complete German past tense sentence, you need to add a helping verb, either ‘haben’ or ‘sein’. Let’s look at the verbs that take ‘haben’:

Ich habe Fußball gespielt.I played football.
Maria hat zwei Semester Deutsch gelernt.Maria learned German for two semesters.
Hast du deine Hausaufgaben gemacht?Did you do your homework?

As you can see, the helping verb (haben in these sentences) is conjugated to match the subject, while the participle (ge-stem-t) remains constant. Also note that the participle occurs at the very end of the sentence, while the conjugated helping verb is in the normal verb position (second element for statements, first for questions).

Let’s try a few simple sentences for practice. These are all weak (‘regular’) verbs. make = _____________________participle: _____________________
 Did you make the bed? ____________________________________________________________________ clean up = _____________________participle: _____________________
 I cleaned up my room yesterday. ____________________________________________________________ have = _____________________participle: _____________________
 Tom had a party on Monday. _______________________________________________________________ cost= _____________________participle: _____________________
 How much did your bike cost? ______________________________________________________________ wait = _____________________participle: _____________________
 I waited for 20 minutes! ___________________________________________________________________

Now we need to learn about the other type of verb, the strong verb. These verbs are harder, because they often change their stem vowel in unpredictable ways, so they need to be memorized. Still, they do build their participle form in a regular fashion: a ge- prefix is added, and an -en (NOT -t) suffix. The stem vowel will often change, but not always. See the separate chart (Verb Classes) for details on stem vowel changes.

sing - sungfly - flowngive - given
singen - gesungenfliegen - geflogengeben - gegeben

There are a handful of strong verbs that don’t just change their vowel, but the whole stem. These irregular verbs just need to be memorized, but fortunately they’re the most common verbs (go, come, be, do), so you’ll see them a lot and get familiar with them very quickly.

gehen - gegangenstehen - gestandensein - gewesen

The same rules for inseparable prefixes (no ge- added to participle) and separable prefixes (added back on before the ge-) hold true for all verbs, strong, mixed and weak.

weggehen - weggegangenmitbringen - mitgebrachtverstehen - verstanden

In addition to the strong verbs, there is a very small handful (about six) of verbs that are called ‘mixed’ verbs, because they act like a mix between strong and weak verbs. They take a ge-+-t form like weak verbs, but their stem vowels change. Again, these verbs just need to be memorized.

denken - gedachtbringen - gebrachtkennen - gekannt

Let’s try a few sentences again. These are all strong or mixed verbs, so you’ll need to look at your chart/list. write = _____________________participle: _____________________
 Yesterday I wrote a letter. _________________________________________________________________ speak = _____________________participle: _____________________
 My grandfather spoke German. _____________________________________________________________ drink = _____________________participle: _____________________
 Did you guys drink a lot of beer last night? ___________________________________________________ see = _____________________participle: _____________________
 Whom (accusative) did you see? _____________________________________________________________ know a fact = _____________________participle: _____________________
 I didn’t know the answer. _________________________________________________________________

Almost done! The last thing to learn about the Perfekt tense is that sometimes ‘haben’ is not the right helping verb to use. Rather, you need to use the helping verb ‘sein’ (er ist, etc) for verbs that meet both of these criteria:

a) the verb indicates a change of position or condition, or a crossing of a ‘boundary’
     e.g. gehen, kommen, wandern, sterben (=to die), einschlafen (=to fall asleep)
b) the verb is intransitive (= does NOT have a direct object)
     e.g. fahren (ich bin nach Milwaukee gefahren, BUT ich habe mein Auto gefahren)

In addition, the three verbs sein (to be) and bleiben (to stay) and passieren (to happen) both take ‘sein’ as a helping verb, although they don’t match the criteria above. Consider these examples:

Anna ist nach Deutschland geflogen.Anna flew to Germany.
Ich bin um 7 Uhr nach Hause gekommen.I came home at 7 o’clock.
Bist du schon eingeschlafen?Have you fallen asleep already?
Paul ist ein fleißiger Student gewesen.Paul was a hard-working student.

Once again, practice by making complete sentences. All of these verbs take ‘sein’ as a helping verb, but some are strong verbs (ge-stem-en) while others are weak (ge-stem-t). come = _____________________participle: _____________________
 Sandra didn’t come to class yesterday. ______________________________________________________ travel = _____________________participle: _____________________
 We travelled to Europe last year. ___________________________________________________________ fly = _____________________participle: _____________________
 Have you ever (=jemals) flown to Australia? ___________________________________________________ be = _____________________participle: _____________________
 I have never (=niemals) been in China. ______________________________________________________ go = _____________________participle: _____________________
 They went to the movies on Saturday. _______________________________________________________

Now we need to mix things up. Below are blanked out sentences: some verbs take ‘sein’ as a helping verb, others take ‘haben’. Try to determine which helping verb to use.

1.Wir _______________ nach Hause gegangen.
2.Paul _______________ uns gesehen.
3.Wir _______________ Pizza gegessen.
4._______________ ihr um zehn Uhr eingeschlafen?
5._______________ du gestern Fußball gespielt?
6.Tante Uschi _______________ Pharmazie studiert.
7._______________ Sie zur Uni gelaufen?
8.Meine Großmutter _______________ im Jahre 1978 gestorben.
9.Ich _______________ nach Madison gefahren.
10.Sie _______________ ihr Fahrrad gefahren.

Finally, let’s mix everything together. Below are sentences with missing verbs. Fill in the helping verbs (either ‘haben’ or ‘sein’) and also the participles (either strong or weak). Take it slow! It’s hard at first, but it will get much better with a little bit of practice.

1.arbeiten / lernen: Wir _______________ den ganzen Tag _______________________, aber wir _______________ nichts _______________________.
2.aufstehen / essen: Ich _______________ heute um 6 Uhr _______________________, und dann _______________ ich Frühstück _______________________.
3.fragen / sagen: Du _______________ mich _______________________, und ich _______________ “nein” _______________________.
4.mitkommen / bleiben: _______________ Georg zur Party _______________________? -- Nein, er _______________ zu Hause _______________________.
5.passieren / fahren: Was _______________ hier _______________________? -- Mein Auto _______________ gegen einen Baum _______________________.
6.schneien / regnen: _______________ es gestern _______________________? -- Nein, aber es _______________ _______________________.
7.tanzen / lachen / trinken: Auf der Party _______________ wir viel _______________________, _______________________ und auch sehr viel _______________________.
8.sprechen / verstehen: Er _______________ mit mir _______________________, aber ich _______________ ihn nicht verstanden.