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German tenses

Once you have mastered the first basic conversation in German, you’ll want to talk about something that happened a while ago. Maybe about something that happened to you yesterday. Or when you were a kid.

Maybe you’ll want to talk about something that will happen tomorrow. Or in a few months, like a holiday you want to take.


That’s when you realize: you need different tenses.


Fortunately, the German tense system is much easier than the English one. While we love to conjugate, use accusative, and push the parts of the sentences creatively around, we are quite generous with using the tenses.

So, you will get there easily!



In this blog post, I’ll give you a quick overview of all German tenses, how to form them, and how to use them correctly.



So, let’s take a closer look:


Content

Present tense (Präsens)



Six tenses in German


There are 6 basic tenses in German.

  • present (Präsens)

  • present perfect (Perfekt)

  • simple past (Präteritum)

  • past perfect (Plusquamperfekt)

  • future (Futur I)

  • future perfect (Futur II)


Two of them are simple tenses: present and simple past. They use just one conjugated verb.


Four tenses are compound tenses: present perfect, past perfect, future, and future perfect. They use two verbs: a conjugated ‘helping’ verb and an infinitive or past participle.



There are no continuous or progressive tenses in German (like: I am walking/ he was sitting).



Present Tense (Präsens)


The present tense (Präsens) is the one we use most.


How to form the present tense

The present tense is formed by simply removing the infinitive-ending -en, which leaves us with the stem, and adding the appropriate ending onto it:


Example:

machen (to make)

ich mache

du machst

er/ es/ sie macht

wir machen

ihr macht

sie/ Sie machen


If the verb is ‘strong’ (unregelmäßig), there may also be a stem-vowel change for the 2nd and 3rd persons, singular:


sehen (to see)

ich sehe

du siehst

er/ es / sie sieht

wir sehen

ihr seht

sie/ Sie sehen



How to use the present tense

The present tense is used to talk about what‘s happening now (of course) but also to talk about future actions that have already been determined.


Beispiel:

An Weihnachten fahre ich (dieses Jahr) zu meinen Eltern. - Im going to visit my parents for Christmas this year.


This tense can be used to express concepts in three equivalent English tenses: the present, the present continuous, and the future.


When we tell precisely what a situation was like in the past, we also often use the present tense: this makes the report more lively:


Beispiel:

"Also, gestern auf dem Heimweg ist mir etwas komisches passiert. Ich stehe gerade mit dem Auto an der roten Ampel. Da kommt ein Mann, klopft an die Scheibe und ruft ...."

"Well, yesterday on the way home, something strange happened to me. I'm just standing in my car at the red light. A man comes, knocks on the window, and calls...."






Simple Past Tense (Präteritum)


How to form the Simple Past Tense

The Simple past tense is formed in a similar way:


If you have a ‘weak’ (regular) verb, you simply insert a ‘t(e)‘ in between the stem and the conjugations and add an 'e' at the 3rd person, singular (er /es /sie):


ich machte

du machtest

er/ es/ sie machte

wir machten

ihr machtet

sie/ Sie machten


If the verb is strong (unregelmäßig), you take the past-form of the infinite’s stem and add the appropriate conjugation onto it:


ich sah

du sahst

er/ es / sie sah

wir sahen

ihr saht

sie/ Sie sahen


Notice: the 3rd person, singular (er/, es/ sie) does not end in -t!

Instead, it has the same conjugation as ‘ich’


How to use the Simple Past Tense:

We use the Simple Past tense for facts and actions that took place in the past.

It is mainly used for stories and reports, especially when writing.


In spoken German, it is mostly interchangeable with the Present Perfect tense.



Present Perfect Tense (Perfekt)


How to form the Present Perfect Tense

This tense looks almost the same as the to have + past participle construction in English. (I have seen, you have taken, he has gone).


The Present Perfect tense is formed by combining a helping verb (either haben or sein) with a past participle.

The helping verb must be conjugated.

The past participle is formed differently based on what type of verb the infinitive is (e.g. strong, weak, mixed).


haben (to have)+ past participle

ich habe gesehen

du hast gesehen

er/ es/ sie hat gesehen

wir haben gesehen

ihr habt gesehen

sie/ Sie haben gesehen


sein (to be) + past participle

ich bin gelaufen

du bist gelaufen

er/ es/ sie ist gelaufen

wir sind gelaufen

ihr seid gelaufen

sie/ Sie sind gelaufen


How to use the Present Perfect Tense

The present perfect (Perfekt) shows that an action took place in the past, but the focus is on the result of the action, not on the action itself.


Even though this tense looks so similar to the English construction of to have + past participle, we use it in a different way!

In German, this is the most commonly used tense for everything we want to talk about in the past.


However, in written texts, the Simple Past Tense is considered to give your text a “better” and more formal style.


Past Pefect Tense (Plusquamperfekt)


How to form the Past Perfect Tense

If you know how to form the Present Perfect Tense, forming the past perfect is really easy:

Simply take the same past participle, but change the tense of the helping verbinto its simple past form:


  • haben => hatten

  • sein => waren

hatten + past participle

ich hatte gesehen

du hattest gesehen

er/ es/ sie hatte gesehen

wir hatten gesehen

ihr hattet gesehen

sie/ Sie hatten gesehen


waren + past participle

ich war gelaufen

du warst gelaufen

er/ es/ war ist gelaufen

wir waren gelaufen

ihr wart gelaufen

sie/ Sie waren gelaufen


How to use the Past Perfect Tense

We use the past perfect tense to talk about actions in the past that occurred before a specific point in the past.

Der Zug war abgefahren, bevor ich zum Bahnhof kam.

The train had left before I got to the station.


The use is very similar to the same tense in English.



Future (Futur I)


How to Form the Future Tense

Just like in English, the future tense is another compound tense.

And, just like in English, it is really easy to form: You use the present tense form of werden and combine it with the infinitive form of the verb.


werden + Infinitv

ich werde machen

du wirst machen

er/ es/ sie wird machen

wir werden machen

ihr werdet machen

sie/ Sie werden machen


How to use the Future Tense


The future tense is used in a different way than in English.

If you want to talk about the future, this tense is used to express a prediction, a plan, or an idea.

The weather forecast: Morgen wird es regnen - tomorrow it will rain. = There is a high probability.


If something is certain or we have made up our minds about something, we use the present tense instead.


Morgen fahre ich nach München. = I’ve got the ticket, nothing can stop me.




Future Perfect Tense (Futur II)


How to form the Future Perfect Tense

The future perfect tense combines aspects of the future tense and the perfect tense.

The conjugated verb werden is now combined with the two additional verbs: a past participle and then either haben or sein.


werden + Partizip II + haben

ich werde gemacht haben

du wirst gemacht haben

er/ es/ sie wird gemacht haben

wir werden gemacht haben

ihr werdet gemacht haben

sie/ Sie werden gemacht haben


werden + Partizip II + sein

ich werde gefahren sein

du wirst gefahren sein

er/ es/ sie wird gefahren sein

wir werden gefahren sein

ihr werdet gefahren sein

sie/ Sie werden gefahren sein


Morgen Abend werde ich es gehört haben.

By tomorrow evening I will have heard it.


How to use the Future Perfect Tense

The future perfect tense is used to talk about both the past and the future. It’s used to express the assumption, that something happened or will happen.


Ich verstehe nicht, warum Anna das getan hat, aber sie wird sich etwas dabei gedacht haben.

I don't understand why Anna did that, but she must have had something in mind.


Peter war im Supermarkt - ich denke, er wird den Käse gekauft haben.

Peter was in the supermarket - I think he must have bought the cheese.


Peter ist jetzt im Supermarkt. Wenn wir nach Hause kommen (in einer Stunde) wird er eingekauft haben.

Peter is now in the supermarket. When we get home (in an hour) he will have done the shopping.


Indicative, Subjunctive, or Imperative Mood


All the tenses above are in the indicative mood.


The indicative mood is used to talk about real things happening.


The subjunctive mood can be divided into Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II in German:

Konjunktiv I is used for indirect speech.

Konjunktiv II expresses wishes or possibilities (things that aren’t happening in real life).


The imperative is used to deliver commands.





Summary


As you’ve seen, learning how to use verb tenses in German can be a bit tricky.


I hope that this article helped you to understand how to use them properly to talk or write about the past, present, and future.


To learn more German, follow me on Instagram: @deutsch.charlingua


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